Murder on Middle Beach
What does a 2010 cold-case murder in Connecticut have to do with an alumnus of Savannah College of Art and Design? Young filmmaker, Madison Hamburg, found something of a safe harbor in Savannah as he dove into his past to make sense of his future.
Madison Hamburg spent the earlier part of his childhood cheering for the Braves and the Falcons, going back and forth from Turner Field and the old Georgia Dome to his hometown in the Atlanta suburbs. Hamburg and his family—younger sister, Ali, and parents, Barbara and Jeffrey—lived in Alpharetta for about eleven years before they relocated to Madison, Connecticut. After leaving Georgia and moving to the Northeast, Hamburg returned to the Peach State as a freshman at Savannah College of Art and Design. He looks back, “I missed the South—a lot of stuff was going on in my life as I was graduating from high school, and I wanted to get as far away from home as I could.” In many ways, coming to Savannah was coming full circle. In other ways, Savannah was only the beginning of an odyssey that Hamburg never could have anticipated when he left his seaside town in Connecticut.
The same kid who called-in to Atlanta sports radio shows on Monday mornings is now a selected artist of the prestigious SCAD Alumni Atelier program and director, executive producer and subject in his own HBO docu-series, “Murder on Middle Beach.” The project investigates a particularly brutal 2010 cold-case murder and tells the story of a heart-broken, struggling family desperately trying to heal in its wake. However, the series is not your typical true crime documentary in two ways. Hamburg aims to subvert the genre and avoids glorifying the gory details, “I wanted to tell this from the family’s perspective and show the weight of those types of questions to garner some empathy within this genre that unfortunately, sometimes too often, evolves into fetishizing serial killers and hyper-focuses on the brutality of crime.” Hamburg’s informed perspective related to the victim’s family is the other reason why his documentary is atypical: the victim was Hamburg’s mother, Barbara Beach Hamburg.
In March 2010, while attending SCAD, Hamburg received a call from his sister informing him that his mother had been murdered. Hamburg spiraled into drug abuse and has since described that period as “rock bottom.” After returning to SCAD following rehab, Hamburg was hesitant to open up about his hardships, but embarked on what started as a school project but became a transformative journey to celebrate his mother’s life through exploring his family’s past. “Murder on Middle Beach” splices hard-hitting investigative work with camcorder home videos from the ‘90s. Hamburg listens to his grandmother recall her daughter’s life while he questions his sister, aunt and father—all persons of interest at one point in the case.
The press surrounding Hamburg’s series is extensive and tends to miss the mark with whodunit agendas and click-bait rhetoric. Hamburg insists, “I just tried to tell a story as honestly or as candidly as I could. It was never for the sake of drama, only for the sake of resolution.” Hamburg’s own arc is something of a Bildungsroman; the documentary is his vehicle to finding himself—his mother’s son—through challenging the Madison Police Department, breaking genre standards, exposing old family secrets and never taking “no” for an answer. He has stepped off his Savannah springboard into a promising career with an ability to tell compelling, unapologetically human stories.
South Magazine: The documentary mentions that your father was CEO of Southern Electric—did you have any personal connection to Georgia before attending school here?
Madison Hamburg: I lived in Alpharetta until I was eleven, outside of Atlanta. Because my dad was CEO of Southern Electric, he had a lot of connections to the Ted Turners of the world, so we had season tickets to Falcons games—I grew up in immense privilege until my parents got divorced—but I remember going to Turner Field, the Georgia Dome. Actually, my dad was also close with Dan Reeves, who was head coach of the Falcons at the time. When I was a kid [Reeves] had this radio show and I was the first caller every Monday.
I missed the South—a lot of stuff was going on in my life as I was graduating from high school, and I wanted to get as far away from home as I could. Coming back to Georgia, I felt like Savannah was a good fit because of [Savannah College of Art and Design].
SM: In another interview, you mentioned how Savannah had become like a home and SCAD
faculty, friends and the community had become like a surrogate family.
MH: After I lost my mom, I took a year off. When I came back to school, I was sort of orphaned because I didn’t have a relationship with my dad. The thing that nobody told me about grief was that the second year after losing someone can be the hardest, and for me it was. When someone dies, everyone rallies around the family, especially if someone is an integral piece of the community. So there was a lot of support in the first year after my mom died—all of the holidays I always had someone to call or someone’s house to go to. When I came back to Savannah, everyone had gone back to their own lives and I was orphaned to this city. Part of it was just really wanting that parental guidance and Savannah being this really welcoming place where everybody’s on their porch and strangers wave “hello” to you. I worked at Foxy Loxy Cafe, Local 11ten, Leopold’s—my bosses and my coworkers became like family and the faculty at SCAD and the administration were like surrogate parents helping guide me as I was, not floundering, but trying to find my way as a student.
SM: Your battle with addiction has been made incredibly public, as you’ve been brave enough to share that detail of your life with the audience. How were you able to keep your resolve after rehab while then embarking on this investigative and emotionally strenuous film journey?
MH: I have an addictive personality and making this documentary filled that hole, I guess. When my mom died I turned to opiates to avoid facing a world without her. Then, when I got sober—or at least went to rehab and stopped using—I wasn’t going to regret anything I did or punish myself. I wasn’t going to not take every opportunity I could. That sort of gave me a purpose and this documentary became this grand ambition. I didn’t want to do anything to disrupt it.
For me, the hardest part of addiction now is complacency; feeling like I’m better than it, feeling like I could have just one and knowing that any day I could slip and be right back where I was very quickly. I have to remind myself that although things are good, I need to keep them good and keep pushing for a purpose.
I attribute getting through the really hard moments to my support. My producer, Solomon Petchenik—who was my best friend and producer in college—was always there to help remind me why and to finish what we started.
SM: In a lot of ways, “Murder on Middle Beach” breaks the boundaries of a typical “murder documentary.” When trying to describe what your documentary is about to someone else, it is difficult to summarize because it’s about so much more than that. In what ways do you think you successfully subverted some of those conventions?
MH: I think the reason behind that is because when my mom died, there was shame weirdly attached to telling someone that she had been murdered. As a family, it was really hard to see the media zeroing in on the crime, the brutality and who they thought was the killer. My mom and our family were overlooked and there was, instead, fetishization that happens a lot with unsolved true crime. I wanted to tell this from the family’s perspective and show the weight of those types of questions to garner some empathy within this genre that unfortunately, sometimes too often, evolves into fetishizing serial killers and hyper-focuses on the brutality of crime. I really wanted to focus on characters and my family’s struggle throughout these lingering questions and hone in on that, because I think that creates the highest potential for empathy. There’s always going to be a more brutal crime; there’s always going to be a more intricate case or a more notorious killer. There’s never going to be another person like the person behind the ubiquitous victim photo. And so within true crime, that’s how you keep it unique. There’s this competition for how crazy can a story get or how brutal can a crime can, but I think that is superficial and limiting.
SM: The documentary explores family dynamics in a more raw sense than most reality shows out there. You have to navigate an extremely complicated relationship with your father. Furthermore, the audience watches as you struggle with your sister, but then grow into this lovely bond. Have you gotten a lot of feedback about how you portrayed your family?
MH: Yes, I think that there’s something archetypal about my family. My mother was of the baby-boom generation, one of six. And my generation—the way I grew up was very privileged and archetypal and nuclear. I think that when people watch they can see themselves in specific people in my family. The investigation from my perspective was driven by exonerating my family members. One of the biggest things I struggled with was: If I don’t solve this, am I just dredging up a bunch of conflict within my family’s past and leaving that as an open wound? I was really grateful to find my sister’s school records and to be able to call my aunt and tell her about that, because it felt like it brought some resolve to them.
I didn’t go into this ever having a hunch, I tried my best to have patience and hear people out for how they felt and hopefully absolve them. That’s the one thing that police departments don’t often do for families. They’re looking for a killer and the relationship between law enforcement and families—because of the veil of secrecy in an open investigation—can become adversarial. I just wish there was more of a push to just exonerate people to let them know that… because like with [my aunt]…the police could have just exonerated my sister and shown Conway why, saving [Conway] nine years of hatred. I just tried to tell a story as honestly or as candidly as I could. It was never for the sake of drama, only for the sake of resolution.
SM: Your personal struggle is also part of the storyline when the audience sees you asking difficult questions. In what ways was this documentary a coming of age for you?
MH: I really wanted to have moments that reminded the audience that I was on the other side of the camera and create conversations and scenes from the interviews rather than just piecemeal…I didn’t want to reorganize the story to the one I wanted to tell. I wanted to feel the moment of me having to ask these really hard questions.
There is this subconscious thing within American idealism that has been reinforced since the ‘50s, where you don’t talk about what’s wrong. There’s this duality between what’s on the outside and what’s on the inside; sometimes the darker things are on the inside, the sunnier things are on the outside. It’s reinforced through clenched teeth, you don’t talk about what’s wrong. One of the biggest regrets with my family was getting out of touch with my mom over the conflicts, with what went on between her and my dad or just the past. As the younger generation in my family, I wanted to face those conflicts and learn about my mom’s death in that way. And try to address some of the things that were there.
SM: How is your family doing now?
MH: My family is so resilient—they are doing great. I was really prepared to get a lot of hate mail or be trolled. Maybe it’s just a testament to the candidness of the series but I’ve really just seen a lot of support. I think a lot of people who started watching and just wanted to play armchair detective ended up wanting to support the mission and feeling the weight of the crime. Which is huge, because that’s what we set out to do. So my family is doing well…you know, the ones that…I don’t know how to say this. I guess everyone with the exception of my dad.
That’s the silver lining of a lot of tragedies. They remind us how fleeting life is and remind us of our own mortality and through these events and celebrating someone’s life, you just inherently get closer to people you fell out of touch with.
SM: When the documentary concludes, the Madison Police Department releases some previously withheld documents. Has this information led to any new discoveries or helped you build on any previous theories? Or reach any new conclusions?
MH: All of the above. I can’t comment—it’s too early to comment any further about it. Of course, it’s a lot of information that was dumped on us and it’s really illuminating.
SM: Have the police or investigators been able to trace the phone call your mother received [on the day she was murdered] telling her the court time had changed?
MH: I can’t talk about that right now. I don’t think I can. It’s definitely a topic of interest.
SM: What have you been up to lately and what’s next for you? Do you have any plans for projects in the future?
MH: After the documentary came out, I spent a month in L.A. with my girlfriend and just tried to unplug and do press and unwind. I’ve been knee-deep in case files since the new year. Making documentaries is an extremely humbling process and I’d be extremely fortunate to continue doing what I’ve been doing. I’m in conversations about other projects and continuing this one.