‘Victim/Suspect’ Review: A sober documentary about false accusations
Sundance: Nancy Schwartzman’s Netflix documentary calmly guides its audience through the reporting process behind horrifying stories of sexual assault victims who have had the tables turned.
If anything, Nancy Schwartzman’s Victim/Suspect lays its case too calmly over the course of a scant 90-minute runtime. The Roll Red Roll filmmaker revisits the issue of sexual assault in America with her latest film, which follows investigative reporter Rachel de Leon as she suddenly unfolds story after story of alleged sexual assault victims, becoming a horrifying suspect in the process. A great many cops who should be investigating her allegations accuse her of faking it all. Worse, they are then charged with a litany of crimes, breaking the cycle of, yes, victim to suspicious.
It’s the kind of story that should infuriate viewers — about the cops, the system, the world — but Schwartzman dodges emotion to cede her story to de Leon, a dedicated and dogged journalist who neatly guides us through her reporting process. By the end of Victim/Suspect, de Leon has unearthed startling evidence, including numerous instances where cops simply lied directly to these alleged victims, all courtesy of the kind of shoe leather that’s in short supply these days.
Schwartzman eschews flashy add-ons for the most part (though there are a few brief uses of cheesy-looking cards that don’t add much), instead relying on de Leon’s accumulated evidence, including a stunning set of police interrogations, plus de Leon’s interviews with a variety of knowledgeable conversation heads. What got de Leon on to this particular story—one that took her years to investigate and report—was good old-fashioned journalistic passion. Looking for a story to really dig into when she appeared at the Center for Investigative Reporting, de Leon landed on the story of Nikki Yovino, a college student convicted of falsely claiming two students at Sacred Heart University sexually assaulted her after she reported her rape in 2016.
Yovino’s case then led de Leon to Emma Mannion’s strikingly similar case, in which the University of Alabama former student, like Yovino, was arrested and convicted for filing a false police report in 2016. And Mannion? However, it flows directly into Megan Rondini Another alleged rape victim arrested and convicted of filing a false police report just a year before Mannion. And with the same Tuscaloosa Police Department. While this sort of coincidence grinds the hairs on the back of most people’s necks, de Leon approaches each twist and turn with measured curiosity (they could and should teach “victim/suspect” in journalism school; it’s all about the tick-tock of reporting a complicated story to the best of my ability).
And yet, despite the seemingly cinematic occurrences that dot the film’s timeline, parts of it often feel muddled. From Nikki to Emma to Megan is a natural progression, but Schwartzman and de Leon still find time to delve into other elements and stories that should have been burned into the film much earlier. Sure, de Leon’s reporting took them in some weird directions, but the late-breaking addition of new talking heads and some frankly unnecessary recreations do little to clarify the very important story that “Victim/Suspect” is trying to tell.
Eventually, though, the women get down to business: Most of the time, the problem is how cops interrogate victims, treat them like suspects, and use horrific techniques to get what they want (as we learn, many of these techniques boil down to, “they’re lying just about it”), fabricating whole pieces of evidence, pressuring their victims, dealing with suspects, and basically making sure no sane person ever wants to report their rape, if there is any any chance that her story will not be believed. Schwartzman and de Leon’s own inquiry into this problem could feed a film of its own — footage that takes us through what’s known as the Reid Technique and then shows it in action in one of the film’s many interview scenes is truly chilling.
But the rest of the film often lacks that same connecting-the-dots feeling, that lightbulb moment of seeing so much of de Leon’s work come to fruition. It’s all so very sober, so deep soberingthat when genuine emotion emerges (a sequence in which de Leon starts crying during a pitch meeting as she guides her colleagues through the story is an amazing reminder of the true price of it all), that’s it, what irritates. That shouldn’t be – all of this should unsettle us and make us act.
Victim/Suspect premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Netflix will release it later this year.
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https://www.indiewire.com/2023/01/victim-suspect-review-netflix-1234798035/ ‘Victim/Suspect’ Review: A sober documentary about false accusations