With Victim/Suspect (now on Netflix), documentary filmmaker Nancy Schwartzman continues exploring the topic of sexual assault and rape culture, which she previously addressed in her 2009 debut short The Line and 2018 feature Roll Red Roll (also currently streaming on Netflix). Her new film finds her piggybacking on a project by Center for Investigative Reporting journalist Rachel de Leon, who probed multiple cases in which young women reported sexual assault to police, but ended up recanting their statements and being charged with falsely reporting crimes. She learned that police investigations were frequently flawed, so she did her own legwork and uncovered a troubling trend that ultimately undermined many people’s trust in the criminal justice system.
VICTIM/SUSPECT: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: De Leon didn’t want to be a fluff journalist. She wanted to do the tough, hard-hitting stuff, so she landed an entry-level job at the Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit whose name spells out its intent right in its name – nobody there will be rewriting police press releases with mugshots for a quick headline and cheap page views. She spent her days assisting other reporters’ work until she came across a story about a false rape report where the details didn’t quite add up. It wasn’t the only one, either. About once a month her Google alert would turn up a new story. After a while, she’d piled up dozens of similar incidents. “I couldn’t let it go,” she says.
One of them was the story of Emma Mannion, currently a 23-year-old dance instructor who, a few years prior while she was in college, went out with friends and met two men, one of whom raped her in a car while the other stood outside and watched. Mannion was interviewed by police immediately after a vaginal exam, while she was still in a hospital gown. They had her come into the station for questioning, and we see video of the nearly two-hour cross-examination, with a cop saying her story is inconsistent and he has video evidence that proves she wasn’t assaulted in the place she said she was. “I don’t believe you. I don’t believe you at all,” the cop says as she covers her face with her hands. Then he cuffs her and leads her out of the room.
De Leon learns that a shockingly similar thing happened to Megan Rondini, by the same police department in what looks like the very same interrogation room. She said she was raped by a young man from a rich, prominent local family in Tuscaloosa. They held her for two hours until she falsely confessed that the assault never happened, then arrested her. We also see video of the suspect being interviewed in that room, and it lasts 19 minutes, and a portion of it was cheery banter about his fishing trip and a lot of back-and-forth about how cooperative he’s being; he was let go. Rondini doesn’t share her story in this documentary. She died by suicide before de Leon began her investigation.
Sitting in a conference room, De Leon’s voice cracks as she recounts Rondini’s story, pitching the project to her editors. It’s the only time she shows much emotion – as she continues meeting survivors and digging into the lazy, shoddy police work that retraumatized them, she says how it’s important for her to not make friends with them, but to stick to the hard facts of each case. Her investigation includes expert commentary from Det. Carl Hershman, a sexual assault investigator from San Diego, and Dr. Lisa Avalos, a law professor who specializes in sexual offenses. The doc repeatedly returns to Mannion’s story, and that of Dyanie Bermeo, who got the same raw deal when she reported how she was pulled over and groped by a man impersonating a police officer. De Leon gets doors slammed in her face by sheriffs and detectives involved in these cases, and files FOIA after FOIA for police records that she and assistants on the project spend an ungodly amount of time sorting through. Bermeo and Mannion cooperate, seeking justice. That’s not de Leon’s goal – she wants the truth. But in these cases, truth and justice are one and the same.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: The documentary Athlete A (Netflix) goes in-depth into the systemic failures that enabled Larry Nassar to sexually assault hundreds of female gymnasts – another instance where young women were victimized by individuals in positions of trust and authority.
Performance Worth Watching: They’re not performances, but Mannion and Bermeo show considerable bravery when they go on camera and relive the worst nights of their lives for a Netflix documentary.
Memorable Dialogue: De Leon, to colleagues: “It’s incredibly important as journalists to never take what police write as fact and truth.”
Sex and Skin: Some discussions of sexual assault.
Our Take: Victim/Suspect is a calm, diligent and sober documentary, made in the spirit of the anti-sensationalist journalism that defines the Center for Investigative Reporting. It’s not quite as detailed or rigorous as the org’s reporting, as Schwartzman fudges timelines and pieces together a narrative frequently muddied by voiceover narration. Sometimes, the film is about de Leon’s first-ever solo investigation, and the journalistic fortitude required to complete it; sometimes, it’s about how rape culture is exacerbated by deep flaws in the criminal justice system. This is a documentary with no frills and some flaws, and some heavy-handed scripted moments, but absolutely has its heart in the right place.
One thing is clear – as long as those flaws exist, journalists need to be exposing them. Such is the film’s unspoken advocacy, beneath the obvious outrage we experience when sexual assault survivors’ lives are rendered even more arduous by bad actors in a broken system, cops who are more interested in taking investigative shortcuts and lightening their case loads than helping the people who need it. It’s admirable to see de Leon maintain her professional composure in the face of traumatized women, and the lone sexual-assault detective who agrees to an on-camera interview (note: it’s satisfying to see her confront him with his sloppy work); that’s her job, truth-seeking underscored by a general sense of empathy. And it’s our job to feel anger and sadness, to feel a desire to reach out to Mannion and Bermeo with a reassuring hand and comfort them. Victim/Suspect eventually shows how one American institution finds corruption in the other, and ultimately emphasizes the voices of survivors. The film gives them a platform, and by watching it, we listen; such is its noble intent.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Victim/Suspect offers a measured approach to a volatile subject, which is precisely what it needs.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.