Sundance 2023 Review: Victim/Suspect

by Andrew Parker

Nancy Schwartzman’s incendiary, but uneven documentary Victim/Suspect takes a deep dive into the various ways detectives and authorities in positions of power try to clear notoriously difficult to prosecute sexual assault and rape cases by shifting blame away from the accused and onto the victims.

Journalist Rachel De Leon from the Center for Investigative Reporting has been documenting and researching a staggering number of cases where women who have filed sexual assault charges end up being arrested and accused of filing false reports. In many of these cases, particularly a pair of eerily similar incidents in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, evidence is on the side of the accusers, but the influence of the accused and a drive to clear these cases as quickly as possible leads to detectives effectively coercing false confessions out of the traumatized victims. These women are then arrested, dragged in the media via police press releases, and their lives are ruined forever, despite the overwhelming validity of many of the initial claims and evidence to back them up.

Schwartzman is no stranger to documentaries dealing with sexual violence, with Victim/Suspect following her previous work on the deeply personal short The Line and the outstanding Roll Red Roll. The empathy Schwartzman displays for the victims helps the viewer to see the perspective of people who are repeatedly traumatized for trying to seek justice, and the examination of police culture in Victim/Suspect should spark a much needed call for reform, the creation of support systems, and better policing practices.

But the decision to focus Victim/Suspect more on the investigation being carried out by De Leon instead of those more immediately impacted by these cases is a miscalculation. Scenes where De Leon tries to chase down leads and get people to go on the record feels uncomfortably Vice-like in its approach, and moments in the newsroom appear like stagey recreations instead of in-the-moment happenings. De Leon’s reporting is integral to the case, but at certain points in Victim/Suspect it feels like the only thing that’s happening.

Victim/Suspect ends up being a vital and eye opening examination of widespread injustice that still leaves a lot on the table thanks to its strangely narrow focus. The film ends by never fully exploring the role of the media (who will happily ruin someone’s life by never independently verifying police press releases) or the larger institutions that reward lazy police work. For the stories being bravely shared by survivors and their families, Victim/Suspect is worthwhile, but this could’ve been a much stronger movie with a more well rounded approach.

Victim/Suspect screened as part of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. 

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