Monday night, HBO will air a behind the scenes look at the NYC Sex Crimes prosecution unit. These are the lawyers who go to court to fight for the women (yes, it is mostly women) who have been raped and assaulted in New York City. They don’t get paid a lot, they work long hours, and lots of time the deck is stacked against them but these men and women never give up to get their victims justice. They are true heroes. I loved watching the male lawyer Artie talk about how he wanted a female second chair on his case because the defendant hates women and that will come across if he teams up with a woman. I love how happy all the lawyers are when they are able to call a victim and tell them that they got a guilty verdict. These people fight the good fight every day and no one knows who they are — until now.
Director Lisa F. Jackson — who directed The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo answered some questions about making this film.
Women and Hollywood: What was the motivation for you to tell this story?
Lisa F. Jackson: These prosecutors are a documentarian’s dream – photogenic, focused, funny, and doing a job that helps rape survivors take a major step along the path to healing. I wanted to show this process in the hope that more victims might come forward, and offer a new candor and perspective regarding a crime that is still so under-reported and misunderstood.
WaH: How difficult was it to get permission to observe the lawyers?
LJ: It took me over 15 years to get the access I was finally granted: when District Attorney Robert Morgenthau announced his retirement (after 35 years!) I approached him (for the 4th time) and suggested that the Unit was a major part of his legacy and it wasn’t being acknowledged and didn’t he think that it was time to remedy that? He finally agreed.
WaH: Just like your previous film The Greatest Silence this film covers violence against women. How does this film build on your previous film?
My last film, “The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo”, took place in a country where the concept of justice for a woman who has been raped is a very simple one: there is no justice. The Congo is ground zero in terms of violence against women and the men who commit these sadistic assaults are rarely punished, their crimes are free of consequence, their victims shamed and shattered.
In March of 2008, “The Greatest Silence” and Sex Crimes Unit converged. For the premiere HBO brought in from the Democratic Republic of the Congo one of the film’s main characters, Major Honorine Munyole, who I refer to as “eastern Congo’s one woman special victim’s unit.” During her stay in New York I took her to visit the SCU. Lisa Friel, who had succeeded Fairstein as chief, introduced us to Al Sandomir, a detective in the NYPD’s SVU. Al gave Major Honorine a rape kit and explained to her the process of evidence collection, how these swabs and scrapings could help catch a rapist. I had never before seen Honorine look stunned. A year later when I visited her small office in Bukavu she had that rape kit sitting in a place of honor, a talisman from another world and a symbol of a standard of justice that she could only dream of bringing to women of her ravaged country.
With “Sex Crimes Unit” I offer a portrait of the way justice should be done.
WaH: What was the most difficult part of making this film?
LJ: Getting the permission to make it!
WaH: What was the most unexpected thing you got out of the process?
In making “Sex Crimes Unit” I had the great privilege of actually being inside the criminal justice system, able to observe first hand how the guilty are brought to account and discover the fierce dedication of the men and women whose goal is to deliver justice.
The whole process was revelatory but what really blew my mind were the women prosecutors I filmed. They were tenacious and compassionate and laser-focused but they showed me their true humanity in surprising ways: obsessing about TV shows (Rock of Love!), fretting a child’s college financing, cajoling cops, having babies, talking baseball and worrying about their weight. It’s odd to say that a film about sexual violence can be full of laughter and joy and the infectious pride of doing good work, but that was the reality I found in those cluttered offices, and for that I will always be grateful.
WaH: Any advice for female filmmakers?
LJ: Be guided by your passion, and love the journey.
WaH: What are you working on next?
I’m currently editing Three Women: The Hidden Face of Colombia’s War. The film is an observational documentary and follows for over 3 years the intertwined lives of Rosa, Sandra and Marcela, three women living through one of this century’s most forgotten conflicts. They are all survivors of this war, displaced and starting over in Bogota, helping each other fight for dignity and empowerment in the face of violence and fear and testing the limits of a system that holds out the promise of justice.
The film premieres Monday, June 20 at 9pm.
Photo: Jacob Pritchard