Nancy Schwartzman on Exposing Cracks in the Code of Conduct in “Victim/Suspect”

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It’s a been of gift of Nancy Schwartzman’s to be able to put the pieces back together after a shattering event. In “Victim/Suspect,” that event may not be an obvious one. As the film follows the work of investigative journalist Rae de Leon regarding cases of sexual assault where those reporting the crime have seen their accusations turned against them by police departments across the U.S., the filmmaker pinpoints the flaws of the Reid Technique, an interrogation method first developed in the 1950s that has seen few alterations since, as opening up an opportunity for bad actors to pull off such painful reversals. A dry instructional video from the 1980s outlines the particulars of the technique, but Schwartzman is bound to get the blood boiling when juxtaposing the example used to train cops to how it’s actually applied in practice, with detectives exhausting those who have come before them needing their help, only to be addressed more as perpetrators than accusers.

“That technique so laid bare everything that we had visual evidence of — first, you move your chair closer to the suspect and make them uncomfortable and then we can just place an A-to-B example of exactly that,” Schwartzman said of one of the most damning sequences in her latest film, connecting the footage of women reporting their assaults that De Leon had to fight tooth and nail to gain access to through public records requests, an interview with a prosecutor who uses the results as evidence for conviction and the original instructions for the method that’s employed more to gain confessions than testimony. “We could just show the clear example of exactly, almost beat by beat, that this is ripped from that handbook.”

After first making the 2009 short “The Line” in which she fearlessly recorded a confrontation with a former co-worker who sexually assaulted her, it has seemed only natural that Schwartzman has aligned with subjects who have had to start their own investigations around rape cases when it seems like the culture at large ignores them. In her first feature “Roll Red Roll,” the director observed true crime blogger Alexandra Goddard counter the horrific assault of a high school student in Steubenville, Ohio, essentially documented in real time on social media by witnesses as well as the perpetrators, by looking where the police wouldn’t, either due to outdated procedures that didn’t consider the virtual space or because of the proud football tradition of the town when the accused played for the local team. At the start of “Victim/Suspect,” it seems like there’s just as little interest from either law enforcement when De Leon begins to notice a pattern of young women who have been arrested for allegedly making false accusations after Nikki Yovino, a 19-year-old Long Islander, had been tried and convicted for reporting an assault when she was attending Sacred Heart University.

Yovino has maintained that the assault occurred since her sentencing, but told police it didn’t after a marathon interrogation following her initial report and in “Victim/Suspect,” De Leon tracks a number of leads around the country where rape survivors are not only pressured to recant their testimony but then on the basis of rescinding their allegations, prosecuted so as to have a silencing effect on future accusers from coming forward. Schwartzman ends up drawing the focus on two young women who have only seen their nightmares deepen in the wake of their attack – Emma Mannion, a college student at Alabama whose statement isn’t accepted by local police in spite of mountains of video evidence, and Dyanie Bermeo, who had hoped to be a cop like the ones she saw on “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” until seeing how her case was handled after being attacked at King University.

If all Mannion and Bermeo have is the truth to hold onto, Schwartzman brings out what power that has, even if they’ve come to question in themselves, and over the course of doing this work for the past decade, even developing a safety app Circle of 6 that can alert one’s immediate circle to an attack, the filmmaker has valiantly brought a subject often cast into the shadows into the light. Following the premiere of “Victim/Suspect” earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, the film recently bowed on Netflix where it will be available far and wide and the director spoke about the responsibility of having that kind of reach when dealing with such sensitive issues, how she connected with De Leon and why she won’t be taking a vacation any time soon.

Because all your works seems to contribute to a larger project around sexual assault, does one film lead to the next?

I had finished “Roll Red Roll” and definitely [thought], “Okay, what’s the next thing? What am I really intrigued about?” And I was really intrigued by women who do investigative work, like what can they uniquely bring to the table, whether they’re working inside the system or as outsiders? Meeting Rae as a journalist who hadn’t really had her big break yet felt really cool because it was like, “It’s this person who has that motivation to dig around and also has access to all of this material,” so I wasn’t necessarily thinking, I want my next project to be about sexual violence and the cops. but meeting Rae, I thought it could merge two things that I’m really passionate about and that felt really exciting.

Like “Roll Red Roll,” it’s interesting to have a journalist as a way into the story – do you have to be careful not to complicate their investigation by bringing in a camera or do you find at certain junctures it can actually help?

Yeah, I hope it doesn’t complicate, but of course, cameras complicate everything. There’s no way that they don’t. But in my dream, it’s like “All The President’s Men,” and Rae just needs a buddy by her side to debrief with, and it’s more easy in a duo, so we did some of that with Amanda [Pike], her editor, but also Rae has shared with me that she felt less alone in her reporting because I’m there and we’re listening, [asking her to] forward me every link and follow up, working with the editor, [talking about] how does this shift the story? And it’s interesting to [think], “Okay, that’s for Rae’s print or radio piece, but this is for the film. [She’s] going to go follow all this other stuff, but we’re not going to shoot that,” so [it was] discerning what is broad reporting or information gathering versus what do we need for this film. [Our film] was about the craft, and a lot of that was determined in the edit as well.

At one point in the film, Rae says she has a hundred leads going. Was it obvious which ones the film would follow?

What is a similar parallel with filming is you can always keep filming, and like all filmmakers, we just want to get everything and we’re up against time and budget and cohesion, so with who we included in the story, it’s a self-selecting group [of] who is willing to really put themselves out there and be on a platform as large as Netflix. Are you ready and willing and able to do this? Do you feel comfortable? We’re so grateful to the women who said yes to that piece of it, and Dyanie came in [relatively] late and it actually [happens] quite chronologically towards the end of our filming [where we’re like] there’s this other story and like so many other times, Rae [said] “Oh, I’m going follow up on this lead,” and actually, Dyanie led us to Detective Hershman because he was working on her case. Then he was able to help us really thread [the film] together and [become] our proxy police narrator in a way, so it all worked out really perfectly. [Once] Dyanie said “yes,” we had an active court case to follow, which was really exciting. And Emma had been in touch with Rae for a long time, so it interesting how with each case that we chose, they brought in this new person we get to talk to. Lisa Avalos, who had known about Emma’s case, was able to then support Dyanie’s case, so it was this small little web, but everything was interrelated.

When you talk about being open to sharing a story with an audience as big as the one on Netflix, it shows a consideration of what’s at stake that I felt ran through the whole production. What’s it like to figure out the most conscientious way of bringing these stories to the screen without retriggering the survivors or potentially those in the audience?

We don’t do a lot of recounting of what happened because actually what we’re telling is the story of what police do and do not do. [The main question is] did they conduct an investigation? So from the start, even with recreations, I was never going to recreate the night [of an alleged attack]. It’s whatever I can’t see and don’t have in that police tape is what we would show. Bringing Emma back to the place where it happened, Rae had done her own investigation. She had looked to see see where cameras were, but she did need that verification from Emma, so that was a very gentle process and at first, I’m like, “No, no, no, we’re not taking her back at night. Let’s just do it during the day,” [but] at night is when it happened and I asked [Emma], “Are you up for it?”

And think for all survivors — and I know this personally — revisiting the place can be scary, but it’s also empowering. It’s a way to confront a demon, and to do it with purpose, so all of it was up to whether Dyanie wanted to drive back, or Emma, and [that was] absolutely their choice. Obviously, there’s a visceral reaction when you go, which I also think is really powerful because if law enforcement is saying that these girls are making it up, why are you having a visceral reaction when you go to the place where you said it happened? And that scene [with Emma] is so visceral, like hearing the crunch of the gravel, because it was a gravel lot — and [I] really worked with a sound designer to make sure you hear that difference from the sidewalk to the gravel, and then just standing in front of that big, empty brick wall. That’s not proof in court, but it’s so real and I felt it was really powerful to show that. We always tried to dial it down, not trying to be sensational at all, but really what it’s about is Emma’s side of the story and how did law enforcement flip it?

It must be interesting after all these years telling stories around the same subject to see how different generations talk about these things. I remember hearing you say there was a disparity when making “The Line” simply from coming from a generation that grew up on MTV and the attitudes towards sex projected there, so what’s it been like to talk to people of this current generation about it?

Oh my gosh, things have changed so much. People understand a slightly bit more what trauma is and how it works and I think people absolutely understand consent far more than when I made my first film in 2010. That was about consent and the experience I hold up for people to look at is so wildly non-consensual. I think a 2023 audience would be like, “Of course that’s not a consensual experience,” but when I was making that film, it was completely up for debate, so I actually think our consciousness has really evolved, especially [with] young people, to understand what is empowered consent — what do I want and what do I not want. Look at how gender fluidity has completely taken over the conversation and the binary in so many places is really being shattered, so that all supports calling out and deconstructing rape culture in a way that was not happening 15 years ago.

But on the flip side, I would not say predatory behavior has diminished. Some of our laws are changing — the Adult Survivors Act just passed in New York, which means if you’re assaulted many years ago, you can still lay a claim, which is why E. Jean Carroll got to [pursue her case against Donald Trump], so the cultural understanding is pretty evolved to some extent, but the backlash seems pretty fierce. Certainly college culture seems very fraught and the solutions are not super clear. There’s this idea that after #MeToo, we should be reporting to the police because we need to believe survivors and then you see this film and you’re like, “Yikes, are the police going to believe me? Do they have my back? Are they concerned with the fact that there are predators out there?” [In] Emma’s case, you see these two young men and there’s video of one of them — there’s video. And you see with Nikki Yovino, there’s a report by another student about this guy [who took her testimony], so we see that there is predatory behavior that law enforcement is just letting them go into the night and I think it’s really now time to radically rethink what our solutions are. A default solution of law enforcement and criminal justice system is just not a solution.

This would seem to kickstart that conversation. When you’re providing a platform to women who may not have felt like they’ve had their voices heard before, what’s it like to be able to share their stories?

It’s so awesome. Someone asked me [recently], “Oh, this is such an intense film. Don’t you want to make a film next about the cuisine of Capri?” [laughs] And I [thought], “That sounds fun and delicious,” but truly the satisfaction of seeing the overwhelming support for Dyanie and Emma and Mike Rondini and their families — that love at Sundance and just total outrage on their behalf, I think there is a way that that can right some of the wrong, just knowing that the public is outraged and a lot of people want to make a change or want to do better. That’s so incredibly rewarding. And I check in with them quite a bit about [how much they want to continue to be involved], like what are you up for? Do you want to be a mouthpiece for this? Emma is raring to go. She wants to go to police stations. She wants to go to college campuses. She wants to be a mouthpiece for this, any way to take the power back. I remember at the beginning [of this process], [Emma and Dyanie] were both very nervous about sharing the film, [wondering] are people gonna be mad? Emma’s mom wasn’t sure if people would be mad enough. And I’m like, “Trust me, they’re going to be really sickened and sad and also angry, and hopefully that anger makes people act.” That was my promise to them that when we share it, it is a way that shows Rae’s due diligence and her research and it’s not biased, but it also protects you. You tell your story and we show the holes in the investigation, that’s it.

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