In Netflix’s New Crime Doc, Accusers Become The Accused [Sundance]
Feb 11, 2023
After growing up on a steady diet of “Law & Order: SVU,” Dianey Bermeo wanted to be like Olivia Benson, helping victims of sex crimes by bringing their assailants to justice. She gave up on that dream after police investigators in her college town failed to find the man who she said impersonated an officer and sexually assaulted her. She wasn’t disillusioned because the police’s investigation hit a dead end — in fact, the case was closed. Cases can be closed when an arrest is made and the offender is charged and turned over to the prosecution. The same investigators Dianey had trusted with her story convinced her to recant it, then arrested her for filing a false report.
This story isn’t pulled from some dystopian novel or conspiracy theory. This is one of the cases detailed in “Victim/Suspect,” a disturbing new documentary that follows investigative reporter Rachel de Leon. As de Leon looks into cases where women reported sex crimes to the police only to be charged with crimes themselves, she seems to uncover a horrifying pattern of disbelief, dismissal, and detainment. While it occasionally feels overproduced, this latest film from director Nancy Schwartzman offers an uncompromising look at an astounding, little-known issue.
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If you’re familiar with Schwartzman’s first film, the stomach-churning Steubenville rape case doc “Roll Red Roll,” it won’t surprise you to see her follow another female journalist through the muck of mishandled brutalities. While de Leon also tracks trends in arrested victim cases more generally, the film primarily focuses on three cases. There’s Bermeo’s, then the case of Emma Mannion, a University of Alabama student who never thought that reporting her rape would lead her to pleading guilty to falsifying a report. Mannion pled guilty out of fear of what had happened to Megan Rondini, another University of Alabama student who’d gone through nearly the same thing just the year before. After stating on a therapy intake form that she’d been “raped, bullied by police” and had to transfer colleges, Rondini killed herself.
De Leon digs deeper into Bermeo and Mannion’s cases, both of whom were convinced to recant their accounts to police because officers told them they’d found contradictory video evidence. This leads de Leon to explore police interview techniques, which can legally include lying. De Leon interviews detective Walberto Cotto, the only working officer she could get ahold of, about this. Cotto interviewed Nikki Yovino, a young woman who reported that she had been raped by two football players. The line between “interview” and “interrogation,” in all the cases “Victim/Suspect” details, is practically nonexistent. Yovino eventually gave in to Cotto’s repeated assertions that she was lying. She was sentenced to three years in prison.
Schwartzman smartly contrasts police interrogation techniques with journalistic practice. As a junior reporter working on her first big story, de Leon seems incredibly mindful of her approach. She maintains professional remove, even when Bermeo and Mannion choke up during trips to the sites of their alleged assaults.
“It can be harmful to the subject if the journalist takes on an advocate role,” de Leon says.
For his part, Cotto says he approaches each interview as a “fact-finding mission,” where his goal is “to be unbiased.” He then describes what he does as “breaking down a psychological barrier,” then admits he never interviewed either of the men Yovino accused of rape.
Though she does hard investigative work, de Leon’s reporting is a testament to these departments’ dismissiveness. By tracking down missing pieces like the video footage that supposedly damned Bormeo and Mannion, she does the legwork these officers so audaciously brushed aside. Carl Hershman, a retired sex crimes detective from the San Diego Police Department, who now works as an advocate for women like Bormeo and Mannion, says this is because some officers would rather make a quick arrest than deal with a thorough investigation. Indeed, in a study of 52 cases, de Leon and her team found that 15 accusers were arrested within 24 hours of reporting to the police.
Still, “Victim/Suspect” is not without its flaws. At some of its most emotional moments, like victim retellings, interviews cut to highly produced reenactments that look like they belong more in a true crime TV show than a grounded documentary. One can’t help but feel like the filmmakers have missed an opportunity here — how much harder might these stories hit if we stayed with their narrators instead?
Then there is the matter of Detective Hershman, who makes for a compelling expert and a deeply sympathetic interviewee. A quick search for him reveals a troubling harassment suit leveled against him by a former colleague. This isn’t evidence of any wrongdoing on the filmmakers’ parts (nor even Hershman’s, since only he and his colleagues can know that full story), but it is a notable loose end. He’s a risky choice of expert, to say the least. It would be gratifying to know why the filmmakers — and the victims for whom he’s testified — took a chance on him.
Schwartzman has an admirable protagonist in de Leon, and the journey they go on is as riveting as it is demoralizing. You may need to take a month-long depression nap after you finish watching it, but this documentary will stick with you. And it should — hopefully, that’s the first step in eradicating these awful cases. [A-]
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