True Crime Tuesdays: Murder in the Alps
Helen Archer | On 05, Jul 2022
Almost a decade ago, in September 2012, a family from Surrey decided to go on a last-minute caravan trip to the French Alps. Seven days later, as they were sightseeing on a quiet mountain road, they were gunned down in their car. Father Saad al-Hilli, mother Iqbal, and Iqbal’s mum, Suhaila, were all killed instantly. Seven-year-old Zainab was found outside the car, with head injuries and gunshot wounds, along with a cyclist, Sylvain Mollier, who had been shot dead at point blank range. Some eight hours after the scene was discovered, youngest daughter Zeena was pulled, uninjured, out of the car, where she’d been silently hiding under her mother’s skirt. Both girls survived. The person who killed their family has never been found.
Rumours swirled, aided by the media – and, this documentary suggests, by the French police and prosecutors themselves. Everything from industrial espionage to a state-sponsored hit was posited. Saad’s background was probed, as was Iqbal’s, and their origins in Iraq was deemed highly suspect, despite the fact that Saad had moved to Britain as a child. Some in this documentary call out what they view as inherit racism, which hindered the investigation. None bore the brunt of this more keenly than Saad’s brother Zaid, who was accused of organising the killings due to an inheritance dispute. Sadly, while the documentary should be critiquing these erroneous claims, they instead repeat the more salacious headlines and follow the same blind alleys the investigators did, leaving the viewer to follow in their wake.
The line-up of talking heads includes French prosecutor Eric Maillaud, writers and journalists, old friends of Saad, with much time given to Zaid al-Hilli himself – who has to repeatedly deny having anything to do with his brother’s killing – as well as the American family of Iqbal’s first husband, who died on the same day as the murders. There are reconstructions of the camping trip and the subsequent forensic investigation, while a UK investigator is taken to the site of the killings, where he re-enacts various theories by firing an imaginary gun and saying: “Bang! Bang!” A rather overbearing soundtrack and offputting narration complete the picture.
True crime viewers are an increasingly savvy bunch, thanks in no small part to the sheer amount of documentaries and podcasts now available. When a question that would immediately occur to a casual viewer – such as “how would an assassin know that this family were going to be in that exact spot on that specific day?” – is left unanswered until the last episode, when it’s used to discredit everything that went before, it’s immediately obvious we’re being manipulated. Other pieces of information, which the documentary makers would doubtless like us to take as read from the way they’re presented early on, are later similarly debunked, even after they’ve been used to create cliffhanger endings.
A generous interpretation of this presentation of “facts” is that the series is attempting to highlight the mistakes made in the investigation. It’s fairly clear from the outset – as forensic investigators take eight hours to arrive at the scene, and 4-year-old Zeena remains unnoticed in the car for all that time – that the police work was suboptimal. Later, the documentary tells us that Zaid placed calls to Romania in the lead-up to the killings, only to admit in a subsequent episode that it was in fact Saad who made these communications. Saad is also implied in early episodes to have access to highly sensitive information pertaining to national security; later, it is explained that he, in fact, did not. The family’s missing passports is intriguing, until you find out that they were in Saad’s jacket pocket the entire time, unnoticed by the French investigators. If this misinformation is meant to point us to police incompetence, it fails. Instead, it points towards a cynical production team, attempting to mislead its audience in order to keep us watching.
This is no more obvious than in the final episode, when it is revealed that police are now looking into whether the primary target was not in fact the al-Hilli family, but the cyclist Sylvain Mollier. Despite this knowledge, the programme makers have decided to tell us next to nothing about his background, much as the French police ignored him in favour of digging into the lives of the al-Hillis. Murder in the Alps is more of a facsimile of decade-old tabloid headlines than investigative journalism, letting down its contributors by editing them in such a way as to push its own agenda, in the process doubtless opening old wounds of the surviving al-Hilli family.
Murder in the Alps is available on All 4.