(United States, 2023)
Dir. Nancy Schwartzman
Programme: U.S. Documentary Competition (World Premiere)
Victim/Suspect exposes yet another distressing pattern of injustice in American policing. This provocative doc reveals a painful cruelty: rape survivors who have had the tables turned on them. Instead of treating these women as the victims of crimes, the police instead charge them with filing false claims. Director Nancy Schwartzman (Roll Red Roll) is nothing if not thorough in her approach. The film becomes an exhaustive look at the circumstances behind such cases and effectively reveals the wider implications of this hurtful practice.
Schwartzman follows Rachel (Rae) de Leon, a reporter at The Center for Investigative Reporting, and uses her investigative process as the film’s spine. We learn that de Leon uncovered this shocking reality while she was previously researching a particular case. Not only were the women in these situations accused of fabricating their allegations, but many were also charged and subsequently faced prison time.
This investigative doc blends expert interviews with firsthand accounts from several victims and their families. Schwartzman capably weaves in a staggering number of statistics and shows how de Leon re-examined some of the police investigations. The journalist also uncovers some alarming realities concerning police practices and the justice system, such as legality of lying during interrogations about evidence gathered.
Perhaps the most effective part of the doc is when both de Leon and Schwartzman focus on specific victims. We hear the personal accounts of former university students Nikki Yovino and Emma Mannion (both of whom knew their assailants), and Dyanie Bermeo, who was assaulted by a stranger. They recall their experiences in heartbreaking detail. The common denominator here is that they were all young women at the time of these assaults and then their subsequent arrests.
Victim/Suspect is teeming with information. This is an often fast-paced doc with quick montages of both sound and image, an effect that results in a barrage of information. The director keeps widening the scope of her examination even as she zeroes in on the specific details of these individuals’ stories. It’s a breathtaking account.
Victim/Suspect is a great starting point for discussion about survivors’ rights. More importantly, the film serves as a reminder for us all not to complacently accept the whole media circus that has stirred up so much resentment at the notion of women filing false claims.
Although compelling, this investigative doc admittedly suffers from a surfeit of resources. The polished and precise analysis in Victim/Suspect unfortunately leaves little room for the emotions that naturally follow such painful incidents. There’s an unnerving detachment present. The pace of the film moves so quickly that it seems to propel past the individual in the equation and past the humanity behind these stories.
By relying on de Leon’s process, Schwartzman seems to absorb the journalist’s own acknowledged need to maintain a distance and not form a relationship with her subjects. This has an unfortunate effect on the resulting film and its affect on the viewer. Where journalism often benefits from even-handedness, film could offer the added benefit of creating emotional connections with the participants.
When Victim/Suspect does stop for those heart-wrenching seconds, it builds up the feelings of outrage that one would expect from such accounts. But the film cannot sustain these moments. Yes, the film generates a sense of the anger at the system that has perpetrated this injustice but not enough to warrant much further thought or even action.