Sundance 2023: VICTIM/SUSPECT

The chilling documentary explores victims of sexual assault arrested under false charges.

Journalist Rachel De Leon in VICTIM/SUSPECT.

Here’s a troubling scenario: A young woman, sexually assaulted less than a day ago, reports her assault to the cops. Detectives bring her in and question her for hours despite her shock and trauma. They do not provide an advocate to represent her interests. Then she’s told that there’s no evidence of the crime and instead, they’re arresting her for making a false report.

In Sundance premiere documentary Victim/Suspect, Center for Investigative Reporting reporter Rachel de Leon delves into this troubling occurrence, which happens in police departments across the nation. Director Nancy Schwartzman takes us through de Leon’s four-year investigation and its roller coaster of emotions.

While de Leon and the filmmakers stress that this phenomenon happens nationwide — the reporter found 200 cases of victims made suspects in just that four-year period — the film goes deep into a few specific cases in Alabama and Virginia. Some survivors are interviewed and speak frankly about how authorities abused their trust. Their stories are illustrated through reenactments, along with police audio and video. The trust built between de Leon and the survivors comes through in the documentary.

A former detective who serves as an expert witness for survivors and one current detective (who himself has arrested victims) participate in interviews for the film. The police departments involved largely remain silent, refusing to comment to de Leon. It’s not a good look for them.

Victim/Suspect keeps up a steady, driving pace throughout. The storytelling style pulls the viewer in from the start. It’s a deeply compelling work of documentary journalism. The film led me through a gamut of emotions. It’s chilling to know how often this scenario occurs, infuriating to hear the excuses for it, and disgusting to learn about the ruse technique, which allows detectives can lie to victims to get their preferred response.

Any film that can activate such an emotional response is doing its job. Schwartzman’s film and de Leon’s work demonstrate the importance and impact of investigative journalism. Lazy police department practices such as these deserve the illumination and focus that Victim/Suspect provides.

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