Alice Stevens was 24 years old and living in Thunderbolt, Georgia with her partner Forrest Ison when, in the early hours of November 4th 2013, they were both shot dead outside of their home. It was a senseless act which had a lasting ripple effect on everyone who knew Alice, detailed in the documentary Alice Is Still Dead.
At a time when there are many true-life documentaries centering on a murder, what differentiates this one from all the others is that it is made Alice’s adoptive older brother, Edwin. Able to give a more intimate and personal look at her life and death, there is a much heavier emotional weight to the film, which sees it become a searing portrait of the impact of a death in the family.
As the film opens Edwin opens up about how years later, still processing the events, Alice’s death has cast a shadow over his day-to-day life, effecting his health, faith and psyche. He lives conflicted over how to honour her, trying to strike the right balance between keeping alive too many memories of her and too few. He even bought the same car she had, but sold it to raise funds to make the documentary, feeling it would be a much better tribute to his sister.
He’s not alone in this grief, either. In order to paint as complete a picture of Alice’s life as possible, Edwin meets her childhood friends, college room mate and co-workers and conducts interviews with other members of the Stevens family. They all have fond recollections of Alice, have been impacted to varying degrees by her death and are still trying to make sense of how it could have happened.
It’s all the more sad to hear her life story because, while at first it seems like she was happy and carefree, the reality was far more complicated. At a young age she was adopted by the Stevens family where she was loved, but could not shake the feeling of not belonging. There were regular clashes with her adoptive mother Dorothy, feeling unable to meet the expectations she had for her.
She was smart but struggled academically and had relationships with unsavory people. This included Ison, who did not treat her well, straining her ties to family and friends which ultimately led to her cutting them all off. Her friends regret not being able to share those final minutes with her and its hard not to feel empathy for them or the family, who hoped their would be a chance to reconnect with Alice, one that never came.
Stevens himself, a professional cinematographer by trade who here steps behind the camera for the first time, has crafted a quality product, one that effectively evokes and provokes emotion. As a director he is uncompromising, not sparing the details when recounting Alice and Ison’s murders, going as far to show the autopsy photos uncensored. That her death was so gruesome when the killers had intended only to rob their home, not to cause them any harm, has caused far more grief, anger and confusion. He wants the audience to see what was done to his sister, the sights that pain him, what he wants retribution for.
The first-hand account Stevens gives of how his sister’s death effected him is compelling. He’s honest, straightforward and not afraid to show emotion, notably in response to supposedly reassuring things people said to him. “She’s in a better place“, Then what’s wrong with this one? “Everything happens for a reason“, What possible reason could this have happened for? He questions if he could have done anything to save her and, ultimately, wants justice.
The final third of the film is centered around the trial of Alice’s two killers. While it appears to be an open-and-shut case, in court events start to become more dicey. Witnesses are proving unreliable and there is a growing feeling a murder charge will be changed to a lesser one of manslaughter. All the Stevens can do is sit by, helpless and hoping that the raw facts will overpower the inconsistencies. There is real tension as they watch on as the one who pulled the trigger gives his testimony, doing everything he can to exonerate himself.
At times, Alice is Still Dead can be so raw and searing that it’s hard to watch, but that is a testament to how much it can get under your skin. Stevens wanted to pay tribute to his sister, not necessarily make a deeply effecting film with the power to speak to so many in very different ways. On both fronts though, he has succeeded.