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Victim/Suspect movie review: Plainly directed but engrossing, new Netflix documentary explores outrageous injustice

Victim/Suspect movie review: The new Netflix documentary follows journalist Rae de Leon's investigation of a system that, instead of protecting survivors of sexual assault, persecuted and prosecuted them.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
victim suspect movie reviewJournalist Rae de Leon in a still from Victim/Suspect. (Photo: Netflix)
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Victim/Suspect movie review: Plainly directed but engrossing, new Netflix documentary explores outrageous injustice
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An angry piece of cinematic advocacy that doubles as a passionate ode to old-fashioned journalism, the new Netflix documentary Victim/Suspect takes a handful of harrowing real-life stories and slaps them with the streaming ‘filter’. It’s a case of questionable execution undermining the very real, and very noble point that director Nancy Schwartzman is trying to make. This is your trigger warning for sexual violence and suicide, please proceed cautiously.

The film follows Center for Investigative Reporting journalist Rae de Leon’s years-long investigation into a particularly outrageous pattern of systemic lapses in the inspection of sexual assault complaints by police departments in the United States. In each of these cases, survivors were grilled for hours by investigating officers, without realising that they were actually being interrogated as suspects.

One of these women was arrested for filing a false police complaint just 13 hours after reporting her assault, another was jailed for a year after being made to plead guilty in court for lying that she was raped. Another woman took her own life. She cited bullying by the police as one of the reasons in a note that she left behind. A lot of this is difficult to digest, but oddly enough, Victim/Suspect is never difficult to watch.

Was this deliberate? It’s possible. It’s not unusual for filmmakers to want as many people as possible to watch their movies; making them more palatable to wider audiences makes sense. But does this dilute the film’s impact? Absolutely, it does. Because most of the movie is told through the perspective of de Leon, who displays plenty of pluck and idealism as she painstakingly pursues leads and dissects documents, not enough time is given to the survivors to share their side of the story.

The patterns are shockingly similar; they were held in tiny interrogation rooms, where aggressive officers pretty much pressured them into admitting that they lied. The movie doesn’t really bother asking why the cops did this, which is unfortunate. What motivates these men — and they’re all men, by the way — to refuse to believe these women, who are usually, as one person notes in the film, between the ages of 14 and 26. It’s cruel to watch their vulnerability basically be exploited twice over. Could it be that the cops are misogynistic? Or is it something more banal? Like laziness. Maybe they just didn’t want to do the paperwork.

One investigating officer casually reveals more than he would’ve perhaps liked while questioning — or, more like having a pleasant chat with — one of the accused men. After thanking the accused for being cooperative, the officer says, “If it was me on the other side, I’d want to do the same thing for me.” There’s a silent bro code at play here, but neither de Leon nor the movie examines this in any meaningful manner, even though de Leon obviously has sympathy for the survivors.

In that way, Victim/Suspect is very similar to the excellent Netflix miniseries Unbelievable, and last year’s gripping drama She Said — both post #MeToo projects driven by female rage. While Unbelievable emphasised just how vital it is for survivors of sexual assault to be treated kindly by the police, She Said perfectly captured the sheer grunt work that goes into investigative reporting like this. Like the two heroines of that film, who contributed to a major cultural movement by exposing the misdeeds of film producer Harvey Weinstein, de Leon applies many of the same methods in this movie.

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A significant chunk of Victim/Suspect is dedicated to accurately representing the drudgery of journalism — the knocking on the doors, the endless phone calls, the dead ends, false leads, and flaky sources. On more than one occasion, doors are essentially slammed in de Leon’s face after she shows up at the houses of two policemen directly involved with these investigations. But despite her best efforts to maintain a journalistic balance and avoid coming across as a crusader of some kind, she bonds with some of the survivors. This isn’t, however, as big a transgression as she makes it out to be. If anything, it adds more personality to a film that, far too often, discards its identity in favour of the same bland Netflix aesthetic that we’ve observed in so many true crime documentaries.

Director – Nancy Schwartzman
Rating – 3.5/5

First published on: 25-05-2023 at 07:59 IST
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