Emil Chiaberi Talks Murder by Proxy: How America Went Postal

by on November 2nd, 2014
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Many working class people across the world, as broadcast by the protests of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators, are growing increasing upset with the current socio-economic environment and the horrid experiences they face at work. This disdained sentiment, in which workers feel abused by their employers, has led to an increasingly frustrated and hostile work environment. Murder by Proxy: How America Went Postal is the first documentary to look at the spree-killing phenomenon in the workplace, the uncertainty about where society is heading and why frustrated Americans are carrying out the violent acts at their businesses.

Murder by Proxy features interviews with survivors and victims of mass shootings, who openly blame workplace culture for many of these tragedies. However, the documentary also draws sympathy for the killers by those people who knew them best, and understood their motivations.

First-time filmmaker Emil Chiaberi spoke by phone from Los Angeles to help promote Murder by Proxy, which will begin screening theatrically in select cities later this month. He discusses what convinced him to take on the project, and why he felt it was important to make a documentary chronicling the ever-growing phenomenon of workplace violence.

Question (Q): You wrote, directed and produced Murder by Proxy, which explores the possible psychological links between socio-economic imbalances in the workplace and workplace violence. What convinced you to make the project, and explore this phenomenon?

Emil Chiaberi (EC): Oh, it’s just like what convinces other documentarians to pursue projects. Interest in documentaries isn’t about money or fame, or in this particular case, not even about fun. You see something that is important, and you see that people are searching for answers. You think that you have an insight into that, due to your research and special understanding of things, and you want to share the story. That’s what drove me to do this.

Q: What kind of research did you do in the subject while you were writing Murder by Proxy?

EC: What I tried to do was go a little bit deeper than the initial media reports, which is what most people go by. Nobody has the time, resources or desire to go deeper. What you read in the news media is that these guys shot several people and killed themselves, and usually they have personal problems. It stops there, and you go “Wow, another one, what a crazy world we’re living in.”

But if you start digging deeper, in most of these cases, you’re going to find very interesting things. Most of the time, you’re looking at a person who’s been in a particular workplace for 10, 15, 20 years. They never had any kind of problems before, and the question is, what happened? Why did it happen now? You start digging, and most of the time, you find that for the past few years, the person had been experiencing economic problems, and probably been deeply in debt.

Most of the time, it’s a person who’s deeply in debt, and has mortgages and credit cards, and things like that. All of a sudden, their job is hanging by a thread, and it’s his lifeline. In today’s environment, people’s savings are decreasing to a scary level. Most people only have enough to live month-to-month.

Also, the number of people you can borrow from, and rely upon, is decreasing. Statistics show that the average American has no one. When similar research was conducted 30 years ago, a person could rely on up to four people to help them economically. In today’s environment, it’s zero.

You get the set picture of this person who has been pushed into a corner. The pressure at work has been building and building. That’s what you start seeing, and you can’t help but see sadness. Nothing justifies killing people, but this can happen

You feel conflicted. Any time you see something like this, it’s worth exploring, and it’s worth asking questions. Then the next question is, why does it happen so often? I believe when you’re dealing with a phenomenon like this, it can really help us understand what kind of environment we’re living in.

Q: Murder by Proxy is the first documentary to look at the spree-killing phenomenon in the workplace. How did you decide which stories to feature?

EM: That was a process. I contacted a lot of people, and in most cases, people don’t want to talk about it. People don’t want to be on camera and they don’t want to share stories, as they’re traumatized by the experience. Then there’s people who are so bitter, they won’t be a good interviewee.

Finally, I met Charlie Withers, and he just blew me away. We experienced some problems during filming, and I wished I spent more time with Charlie, and film more of the stuff he’s doing. He’s really an amazing human being.

Charlie’s a person with a house-sized sense of responsibility and guilt. Until today, all he can talk about really is that incident. He felt personal responsibility that it happened on his watch. That’s who helped me see that phenomenon even clearer. It was a very eye-opening experience meeting that person.

Q: The film features interviews with survivors and victims of mass shootings and top US experts on mass homicide who discuss why workplace events like this occur, and how it could have been avoided. What was the process like on finding people to agree to appear in the movie?

EM: You know, I actually met this lady who confessed, and I actually took out some of the stuff she was saying, because I didn’t want her to go to jail. I was just blown away by her revelations. She came in and was really nice, and is a mom of five kids, kind and with a big smile. Quiet, and a really, really nice person.

She comes in and starts explaining to me, before we start rolling the cameras, that she never talked about it with anyone. She detested the conditions in the post office that she felt it was her responsibility to come in and talk about it.

Then she confessed that she was planning on killing people in that office. She even went as far as creating a detailed plan. She even told her friend, the only friend she had in that post office, not to come in that day. I actually decided not to include it, but it was a pretty shocking revelation, but I didn’t want to cause any more problems for that woman. My reaction to that was, if this person can do that, it’s even worse than I thought.

Q: What was your initial reaction when she started telling you the story?

EM: Well, she didn’t begin detailing her experience at that workplace. She started with, I was planning on killing people. My first reaction was, you belong in jail, lady. Then she started talking about how it was year after year, she was putting in more and more hours to support her kids. She damaged her hand, and they moved her from department to department.

The more disabled she became, the more abuse she experienced, which she couldn’t stop. She was really trapped in that position. If she didn’t go to work, she would lose her house, and her children would become homeless.

You’re looking at this person, and its slavery. You can say anything you want, like she created her own fate, she could have gone to school, gotten herself a better job. But the bottom line was that she is a decent, hard-working woman.

She didn’t become like that (bitter towards her job) overnight. That was her explanation-I didn’t start having those thoughts immediately; in fact, I was very active in the workplace, I wanted to be loved in the union, I wanted to help other people. I wanted those types of conditions in the workplace for everybody. It’s just year after year, the pressure was building up, like I was abandoned by society, my own co-workers, by management, certainly.

Then it just came to a boiling point for her, she didn’t want to live anymore, and didn’t want other people to live. My reaction was just horror and sadness. You know, how many other people do we have out there like this?

Q: You have said Murder by Proxy isn’t a gratuitous rehashing of the tragedies for shock value; it emphasizes that we are at the point in history where the subject matter in this film is highly relevant. Why do you think it’s important to show the world a movie based on the subject?

EM: For many reasons, I think it’s just hard to understand it. I don’t think there’s anyone who can ask the same question, and then just forget about it. Oh, what happened to this person, what happened to that person? I think it’s important to analyze who we are, and where we live, and where we’re going.

I read a book on a very similar subject by Mark Haines, it makes a parallel to slavery. During slavery, it’s hard to really look at society and judge it objectively, because you live in it. For example, during slavery, most people didn’t think of it as evil. They didn’t think of themselves as complicit in it.

When slave riots happened, which were very rare, they were using any explanation, except for the obvious one, which was slavery and the condition those people were living in. Now we look back, and ask why they wouldn’t happen more often, why people would want to live in slavery. That’s why I think it’s important to at least try and look at our society objectively, and ask what’s happening.

Q ‘Murder by Proxy’ is being released as the Occupy Wall Street protesters, are growing increasing vocal, and even violent at times, when trying to even the playing socio-economic playing field nationally. Do you feel the protesters reflect the message in the film?

EM: Yeah, probably. The things that I think they’re protesting about are the same things that are the contributing factors of this phenomenon. It’s very similar, so I think I would like to do a free screening for demonstrators, and see if they do connect with the film.

Q: What has the reaction to Murder by Proxy been like so far?

EM: Well, I haven’t really done many screenings, just a few theatrical screenings in Michigan. The theater was really packed with postal workers from the area. I was actually overwhelmed-they loved the film. People just lined up after the screenings to talk about their experiences and stories. They felt like they wanted to come up to me and talk to me. A lot of them were thanking me for making it.

I have also done a few screenings here in Hollywood, with people, for example, who have never had a job. They worked in a family business or something, and didn’t have as strong of a connection to the film. But they were intrigued by it. Overall, it’s been pretty positive.

Q: You have also said there’s great uncertainty about where society is heading. Do you think workplace environments can improve in the future?

EM: Well, they better. I’m an employer myself, I employ right now over 100 people (as a CEO of a biomedical firm). I built my company without any loans, just by revenue. At every point, ever since I started the company, I found ways to celebrate people’s birthdays, give them bonuses and healthcare, and never nickel and dime them.

If I can do this, if this struggling company can grow, anyone can. The question is, how do you deal with corporations? I believe that companies are a social structure, they have a responsibility to the community and country in which they operate. When you have this kind of approach, it’s easier to share. So far, I have a pretty experience running my company and growing, without really squeezing my employees. So, it’s possible.

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