The world premiere screening of “Witch Hunt” at the Toronto International Film Festival had just ended with a standing ovation, and we were all moving to the front of the theater for our Q&A session with the audience. It took a while to get everybody up there because we had a big entourage with us — almost all of the people whose lives are examined in the film were there to be part of this special day.
When the crowd quieted down a bit, a hand went up.
“Will this film ever be shown in Bakersfield?” We all looked at each other for an answer. My co-director, Dana Nachman, took the mic and answered simply, “We hope so.”
This wasn’t the first time that question had come up. “Witch Hunt” is set there. Narrated and exec-produced by Sean Penn, it’s the story of a group of working-class moms and dads in Bakersfield, California, who were wrongly convicted of child molestation in the 1980s.
They spent between six and 20 years in prison. All of them were convicted solely on the testimony of their own and neighborhood children. Years later, the children — now adults — came forward to say they were coerced by sheriff’s deputies and social workers to say they were molested.
It was on the basis of these recantations that the wrongfully convicted were exonerated. Still, the prosecutors and the county workers who were responsible for the bum convictions have never — to this day — acknowledged the mistreatment of these families.
That’s why the families featured in the film needed to screen it in Bakersfield. They wanted to walk back into town together, with their heads held high, vindicated.
It was time for them to show people what they went through — and, hopefully, help prevent something like this from ever happening again.
The second reason for screening the film in Bakersfield is almost impossible to believe. You see, the district attorney responsible for all the wrongful convictions more than two decades ago is still the district attorney there. Despite all the cases being overturned, despite all of the lawsuits filed against the county, he’s still there.
We thought maybe, if we can cause enough of a stir, and get enough people to come see the film, we could help change that.
I should say this though — we were more than a bit apprehensive. Historically, Bakersfield hasn’t been very fond of “outsiders” and here we were — a bunch of northern California liberals (along with right-wing labeled king lefty Sean Penn) — invading their town with a story that makes their community seem kind of scary, backwards and mean.
We had no way of knowing what the reaction would be. Is it safe? Does anybody want to see this? Are we going to get shot?
Ultimately, we knew we had to take the risk, and in April we made it happen. We planned for a rally on the steps of city hall followed by a screening at the historic theater in the center of town. Next, we handed out flyers and saturated the local media with stories for days leading up to the screening. Heck, even Access Hollywood showed up to do a story on us.
Our plan worked. On the day of the event we pulled up to city hall and there were live trucks and cameras everywhere. Hundreds of people carried signs and shouted their support. One by one the people from our film stepped to the mic and told their stories.
Sean Penn spoke last. He thanked the crowd for supporting the film, and he asked people to spread the word about the film and the injustice that took place.
In the theater, when the lights dimmed and the picture started to play, better than 600 people were in their seats. There were gasps in the right places, laughs in the few light spots. It was working. The screening went really well and as we all took the stage for another Q&A every one of those 600 people stood and applauded.
The Q&A session could’ve gone on for hours. There was anger — towards the justice system, not us — tears for the families that had been torn apart, and hope for a future where wrongful convictions become a thing of the past.
The questions seemed endless, but one didn’t get asked this time. That question had been answered.