The cultural reckoning of #MeToo has made everyone more aware of the common horror of sexual assault (more than 460,000 annually in America, according to the Department of Justice) and, in turn, the damage of a false accusation. But it has always been about taking each instance on a case-by-case basis, even when the media takes a traumatic story to the tribunal of public opinion.
Nancy Schwartzman’s harrowing documentary “Victim/Suspect” wades into tricky waters to ultimately make a vital point. By focusing on young victims who were then arrested for making false accusations, the film is an urgent reminder of the nuance with which each sexual assault case must be handled, starting with the authorities. As the eye-opening journalism within this movie proves, young women like Emma, Nikki, and Diyanie were intimidated by police during overlong depositions and pushed into recanting their statements. Their hope of finding safety and justice ended with them in handcuffs.
“Victim/Suspect” has a guiding light for truth in the form of rising journalist Rachel de Leon, who works at the Center for Investigative Reporting. In parallel to the harrowing accounts detailed here, this is also the story of de Leon learning more about these shared experiences and doing her own investigation into each case for an article that she works on for years. De Leon pieces together the victim’s story of assault and then contrasts that with how the police handled it before they closed the case with the victim’s arrest. She uncovers glaring information gaps and oversights by those who should be protecting and serving all. By questioning their work, de Leon embodies one of the documentary’s life sources, its vigilant need for accountability.
A pattern emerges in these stories: The cop, if they’re skeptical of a possible sexual assault victim, will use suspect interrogation tactics against them. They’ll ask questions repeatedly; they’ll keep the accuser in the room for hours to force the victim to just want to get out of there. To see how the accuser reacts, the cops will sometimes choose to lie about having video surveillance footage of the location where the incident allegedly happened. It’s all about submission, control, and power. It is not about justice.
Meanwhile, as in instances revealed here, the alleged assailants will barely be interviewed, if at all. The reasons for this can be more intentional, like protecting a local figure, or more about bias that helps lighten the investigative time and paperwork. In the cases of Nikki and Emma, they served time in prison. All of the women interviewed here had their experience with the police culminate in headlines about making false accusations.
The film is a document of superb journalism but is unfortunately told in a sludgy, distracting fashion. Schwartzman loosely frames the doc around de Leon working for years on this article, but it can be confusing when documented scenes occur in the film’s timeline. There are no visual indicators of the time period as the voiceover jumps between the past and present tense concerning the article’s creation. Along with creating a needlessly disorienting viewing experience, it also risks taking away from moments that couldn’t be staged, like watching from across a driveway as de Leon goes to the front door of a police figure who previously hadn’t returned her phone calls.
But however chronologically jumbled, “Victim/Suspect” prevails with its many episodes of de Leon’s incisive reporting and dedication, and the insight we get from legal and policing experts about how this cycle continues. While balancing personal accounts from Nikki, Emma, and Diyanie with de Leon’s work, “Victim/Suspect” contains the humanizing touch that journalism—an unbiased pursuit of the truth—can offer. De Leon speaks about how she does not want to be an advocate for these victims as she digs deeper into their stories, far deeper than the police did or cared to. She just wants to complete each story.
De Leon doesn’t take policing at its word and, in turn, faces law officers who do not want to comment. After three years, she does get a sit-down with Detective Cotto, the lead investigator in Nikki’s case. “My job is a fact-finding mission … I have to be unbiased,” he tells de Leon at the beginning of an interview that soon crumples his posture. The two then revisit Nikki’s case, with de Leon telling him about one of Nikki’s two suspects being accused of sexual assault a month before Nikki’s case. Det. Cotto’s department simply didn’t look into that because they also didn’t interview the two men.
No gotcha satisfaction can be had in this revealing sequence about bad policing, just more disgust and shame. There are those in “Victim/Suspect” who do the job they have signed up for and others who do not. The impact from both sides can be seismic.
Now playing on Netflix.