After 16 years under Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the documentaries are making their way to the big screen at a slow but steady pace. After premiering at the Sedona International Film Festival in February, locally made documentary "The Joe Show" completed a very successful week at the Phoenix Film Festival and is scheduled to screen at several other prestigious festivals in the coming months. The subject of "The Joe Show" is already internationally recognized: A tyrannical Sheriff ruling over Maricopa County, describing himself as “Americas Toughest Sheriff.” It is a very accessible subject for documentary filmmakers, almost made to order, a topic “The Joe Show” director Randy Murray described as a ‘freebie’ for journalists and aspiring filmmakers. This is the first doc I have seen that not only presents the Sheriff and all of the horrible events that have occurred during his reign, but also explores the role the media has played in creating the public persona of Americas toughest Sheriff, or more accurately, the role of Sheriff Joe and his cronies as they play the media. Shot over the course of eight years, Murray had privileged, exclusive access to the Sheriff, spending hours of personal time at the sheriffs home, even accompanying him on everyday errands.
Murray accurately depicts a semi chronological account of Joe Arpaio’s many years as Sheriff of Maricopa County, presenting the neophyte Sheriff in his original incarnation, that of a fierce yet humble representative of the people of Maricopa County with only the purest of law and order ambitions on his agenda. Much of the focus of “The Joe Show” portrays a semi-reluctant Arpaio helplessly falling into the whirling media cesspool created by his sinister and sadistic public relations director Lisa Allen. Murray deliberately casts the negative spotlight on Allen, who prides herself on being able to take mundane events from the Sheriffs daily schedule and turn them into a scrambling, clawing, and often bizarre media circus. It’s the intentional human degradation that Allen seems to enjoy orchestrating the most, describing how she masterminded the shackled march of inmates, stripped down to their pink underwear, parading through the streets of Phoenix to take residence in the new jail down the block. “Anyone can have a jail opening, that’s a no-brainer” boasts Allen. “We wanted to make it weird.”
All of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s foils and foibles are presented clearly and chronologically, as each segment dealing with the Sheriff’s alleged abuses are introduced with titles, followed by candid interviews with the victims of the Sheriffs various pogroms and purges: Journalists that publicly spoke out against the Sheriff and were arrested in the middle of the night, survivors of cruel physical abuse at the hands of the Maricopa County jailers, numerous victims of sexual assault whose cases were not investigated or completely disregarded by the MCSO. Nothing is ever glossed over or ignored in this film, and the statistics and images are quite graphic and disturbing. The Sheriff is allowed to tell his side of the story, consisting mostly of a shrug of the shoulders as he reiterates the results of all of the subsequent and costly investigations that ultimately absolve the Sheriff of any wrongdoing. Director Murray is clearly fascinated by his subject and does fulfill a journalistic responsibility by, for the most part, evenly presenting both sides of this complicated and violent story. It is this treacherous, barbed wire tightrope that “The Joe Show” seems to walk that makes this doc so disturbing and perplexing; one side of the wire flippantly tethered to the Sheriff, the other side firmly and securely anchored to the fourth estate. "The Joe Show" illustrates that our support for the Sheriff, not just in the polls but in the ratings, bears much of the responsibility for creating this tyrant. “The Joe Show” deftly and intriguingly confronts us with what our own true intentions really are; as citizens we want law and order, as humans, we desire entertainment. “The Joe Show” unflinchingly presents the terrifying and costly Grand Guignol of both.
The scenes of Sheriff Joe and Lisa Allen confronting members of the media were certainly the most memorable for me. In “The Joe Show,” the two seem to have a detailed, photographic memory of every journalist, and every word that journalist has printed about the Sheriff. If certain members of the media have not spoken favorably towards the Sheriff, they are banned from the event. As a journalism student covering the crime beat for the Scottsdale Chronicle, I responded to every tweet the Sheriff sent and went to every press conference his office announced. I was somewhat stunned as I observed the amusement other journalists obtained upon seeing reporters like Steve Lemons of the Phoenix New Times being turned away by Allen and Arpaio, their ticket to the Joe Show forever revoked. I kept going, hoping that this would be the one, an actual press conference about a cold case that was solved, or maybe a huge bust that didn’t involve immigrants at a car wash. But we just got punked every time. No real news, just another episode of The Joe Show.
“The Joe Show” is a very well made and accurate doc in its presentation of this sordid chapter of Arizona history. Other recent docs dealing with this subject have focused on one aspect of the Sheriffs reign, mainly his anti-immigration policies and activities. After eight years of personal and exclusive access to the Sheriff, Director Murray presents a condensed cream of his own observations, misgivings and apprehensions, and also the culmination of friendship and experiences observing the Sheriff of Maricopa County. As a filmmaker, Murray honestly reveals his revulsion for the sadness and human suffering that has taken place, and (unfortunately) continues to provide new material for The Joe Show. As a human being, he’ll continue to love that goofy, big lug who sings “My Way” off key, and will do whatever it takes to remain on the short list, ensuring a front row seat for the long overdue, tattered and soiled final curtain.
Final Take – I shot the Sheriff in 16mm and Hi-Def.