‘Victim/Suspect’ Review: Exploitative Doc Celebrates Journalists Instead of Talking About Justice

Sundance 2023: That these stories are worth being told is inarguable, but is this the proper lens to go about it?

Victim Suspect
Sundance Institute

For the past several years there have been countless reportings of injustice on the part of American police forces, which for too long and too often have acted with impunity. Documentation — through filmmaking and journalism — have exposed years of this abuse of power, be it racial, sexual, or otherwise.

Nancy Schwartzman’s searing new documentary “Victim/Suspect” exposes yet another new cruelty: instances in which police forces have forced an alleged sexual assault victim to confess to fabricating their attack and pressing charges against them.

Schwartzman’s documentary focuses on reporter Rachel “Rae” de Leon’s investigation into these police-coerced confessions through her work at the Center for Investigative Reporting. In the process of uncovering the real stories behind these false confessions, she speaks with several young women, focusing on Emma Mannion, a former student at the University of Alabama, as well as Nikki Yovino, who faced jail time for her false confession, and Dyanie Bermeo, a criminal justice major who was assaulted by a stranger.

The patterns across all three cases are harrowing and horrible; the police held all three women in interrogation for lengthy periods of time, and through ruses and light intimidation cajoled each into admitting they lied about their assault in lieu of formally investigating the crimes.

De Leon is an intrepid and sympathetic journalist, eager to build a case and make a name for herself in a crowded field. Though her work is not initially greenlit — whatever this means in the context of the Center for Investigative Reporting, it’s unclear — de Leon’s editor, Amanda Pike, encourages her to keep digging into these stories. Much of the documentary is dedicated less to the admittedly upsetting details of these sexual assault cases and more the process of reporting these out, the necessary and labor-intensive work required in order to go up against a bureaucratic force.

Most of that footage, however, is done through recreation — staged, relatively hammy scenes in which de Leon meets with Pike to discuss details. Only when de Leon is on the scene, going around town with these survivors, does the film’s vision of journalism feel realistic.

The rampant pattern in recent “issues documentaries” put out by streaming services, ranging from political, to social, to celebrity retrospective, is that these films serve as compelling talking points if not artless products. That’s what they often are, too — products.

“Victim/Suspect” exposes a grave, painful injustice, one still in the process of being reported on, but struggles to find its footing in the structure of a film. That the note it ends on is meant to be somewhat optimistic — these girls, having been put through so much, now volunteer to educate cops — undoes the harrowing nature of what precedes it.

That these stories are worth being told is inarguable, but is this the proper lens to go about it? Too much of Schwartzman’s film is dedicated to the noble passion of de Leon, who while plenty likable outside of her reporting duties — she plays Nintendo Gamecube! She bikes to work! — is perhaps far too aware of the necessity of the work she’s doing. Possibly because she’s been made the star of a film about it?

De Leon goes so far as to articulate the role journalists play in uncovering injustices like this, reiterating that it’s important for a reporter to be an observer and not an advocate. Still, when the film focuses on de Leon’s relationship with the women she’s reporting on, she’s often seen walking with her hand around their shoulders or back. She is obviously sympathetic in her approach, which is not a sin in journalism, but the movie ought not pretend as though de Leon is some kind of impartial observer.

That this particular story — the story of de Leon’s reporting — overshadows the stories of these women makes for perhaps a more cohesive narrative, if not a lesser film. Though why should these women volunteer their stories for art? What is there to gain? Perhaps “Victim/Suspect” would benefit from access to the investigators and police officers who took testimony and stood by their peers? The lack of willingness for most of these departments to go on the record is understandable, if not highly disappointing.

What emerges, in turn, is a repetitive, painful, and often exploitative documentary that, while highlighting a brutal issue, spins it into a hero’s narrative for the filmmakers and journalist alike. The aforementioned conclusion of the film, in which Mannion and Bermeo lead workshops with investigators (downcast, disappointed police whose silence speaks volumes) does not spark liberation or catharsis from these events. That these women are cursed to repeat their stories, again and again, to the career benefit of others is no catharsis; they are merely voices calling out in the dark, asking someone to listen.

“Victim/Suspect” will premiere on Netflix later in 2023.