Sundance Film Festival U.S. Documentary Competition/Netflix
Reviewed for FilmFactual.com by Abe Friedtanzer
Director: Nancy Schwartzman
Writer: Nancy Schwartzman
Screened at: Ray Theatre, Park City, UT, 1/23/23
Opens: January 23rd (World Premiere)
There is a very problematic culture around sexual assault that often places blame on the victims for allowing themselves to be put into a situation where someone might take advantage of them. That’s a major reason why so many choose not to come forward rather than risk being mocked or worse, not believed. The clearly amoral concepts of rape and sexual assault should be among the top crimes investigated by police, but as the journalism documentary Victim/Suspect uncovers, that isn’t always the case, and very often, victims are quickly made the target of their own interviews.
Rae de Leon, who works at the Center for Investigative Reporting, was surprised and disturbed to learn of multiple cases of women arrested for false reporting after initially coming in to speak with officers about having experienced a sexual assault. As she speaks to several women who have been affected by this, she discovers that police officers employ techniques designed to confuse and push victims into recanting their confessions. The use of a “ruse” involving a reference to fake evidence is one of the most insidious methods, one that convinces those who have just been through a traumatic event that they must not be remembering what happened to them accurately.
It is unsettling to learn just how widespread this practice is, a challenge that De Leon’s editors dealt with since casting a wide net required funds and, in many cases, lawsuits. There are so many video recordings of interrogations that show how victims are manipulated and how differently police speak to the accused offenders, in one case apologizing for even bothering them. Just one member of the police agreed to be interviewed for the film, and his testimony is shockingly honest and incriminating. He explains that two accused men weren’t even interviewed because “they didn’t want to be” and is dumbfounded when he learns that one of them had a relevant previous record.
As this film unveils, this is all part of a pattern in which multiple factors converge to put women or any other victim of sexual assault at a clear and distinct disadvantage. That the arrest of someone who reported a crime can close the case is an illogical and troubling thing, and such arrests are even more harmful since otherwise anonymous people then often have their full names and photos released to the press with a damning account of their alleged offense. It’s a tactic that also deters others from coming forward, and in the case of one victim who was bullied into taking back her story, she eventually took her own life.
Director Nancy Schwartzman skillfully weaves a narrative around De Leon’s dogged reporting, which involves her spending a great deal of time in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, one of the places in which this phenomenon has harmed multiple people. For all that remains unknown, there is an astonishing amount of footage and documentation that shows how frequently police do not even conduct a proper investigation. One audio recording of an interview continues after the victim has left and officers mention a potential suspect by name, whom De Leon later learns was never even contacted or asked for an alibi. The horrific lack of due diligence is made even more destructive by the vitriol deployed at those who are called liars, wasting the time of police who have more important things to do, not to mention their failure to go after true criminals who escape justice when their accuser recants a report.
Victim/Suspect is an important, urgent documentary that should alarm and upset audiences. Its contents represent only cases that have been documented and people who have agreed to participate in the film (a list of desired interviewees who declined or never responded appears before the end credits). It is far from acceptable that this is commonplace and there are too many instances to count, and this film is a first step to show that this is a systemic problem that must be addressed. Its upcoming release on Netflix will help in broadcasting its message, one that desperately needs to be heard, particularly by those who downplay the severity of this very real and disturbing issue.