At the premiere of “I Am Evidence” at Tribeca Film Festival, Mariska Hargitay admitted to shaking a little bit in disbelief that this day had arrived. It was a heartrending moment for the actress/activist who has become known as the steely Detective Olivia Benson on “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” over the past 18 years, spending the past 13 off-screen bringing attention to real cases of sexual assault through her foundation Joyful Heart and the last four developing a documentary with Trish Adlesic, a longtime location manager for the show who had since turned her attention to using her production prowess to raise awareness of fracking in “Gasland” and its sequel.
The collaboration, which would grow to include the Emmy-winning filmmaker Geeta Gandbhir, proves to be as compelling as it is noble, shining a light on an inconceivable injustice within the legal system as thousands of rape kits across the country have gone untested after they’ve been collected by police, leaving survivors of attacks without any sense of closure and serial perpetrators under the impression that they can act with impunity. While the costs associated with testing the kits — $400 per kit — are one reason they have piled up in evidence storage rooms, co-directors Adlesic and Gandbhir find something far more insidious as they travel between Detroit, Los Angeles and Cleveland where law enforcement officials are at different stages of dealing with their massive backlogs, discovering that dismissive attitudes towards the very criminality of rape are as responsible for the neglect of the kits as any financial or procedural holdups.
“I Am Evidence” is undeniable in its rigorous overview of systemic failure, interviewing everyone from arresting officers to attorney generals, but by putting a human face on the issue, it becomes infuriating. Adlesic and Gandbhir come to meet a collection of remarkably resilient women, namely four survivors — Ericka, Helena, Amberley and Danielle — who are able to offer testimony of their experience to the camera, if not in a courtroom since their kits have long languished in obscurity. And while these women are presented alone (with the exception of Amberly) recounting one of the darkest moments of their lives, the film goes to great lengths to show that they are not alone, depicting the fierce determination of some within the system such as Wayne County prosecutor Kym Worthy in Detroit and Cuyahoga Canyon Special Investigator Nicole DiSanto in Cleveland, who have brought the issue of untested rape kits to light and will seemingly stop at nothing to see these cases through.
A rare advocacy film that educates, engages and inspires in equal measure, “I Am Evidence” earned the standing ovation it received following its premiere and as its filmmakers hit the road once more to play festivals across the country, next at AFI Docs in Washington DC, in advance of an eventual premiere on HBO, they spoke about how they developed such a fascinating and comprehensive film, handling the subject with great sensitivity and what they learned from following the entire process of a rape kit being collected.
How did this come about?
Trish Adlesic: I worked on “Law and Order SVU” for a number of years, and Mariska Hargitay, the actress and star of the show, became aware of victim experiences through a fan mail she received [where] victims disclosed to her their stories of abuse. When she found out about the rape kit backlog, she made it the priority of her foundations to end the backlog, and to help discover further backlogs, so we could fix the problem. I had become affected by a [social] issue myself [when] hydrofracking was potentially coming to New York State, and I fell in love with this medium through my work with Josh Fox on “Gasland,” and dedicated my life to producing and working on documentaries. Mariska became aware of my documentary work and asked me to do this film with her, and we felt, obviously, that there was a great need for it. I had worked with Geeta on the sequel to “Gasland,” and I wanted her for a long time to come in as editor.
Geeta Gandbhir: And I’ve segued into directing, so when this film came around, Trish and I were talking for a while, and we were trying to work out schedules and figure everything out. My first social justice issue film was “When the Levees Broke,” with Spike Lee, and I’d been in narrative before, but the power of documentary film really affected me. I [realized], “Oh, this is where I can make a difference in a way that I didn’t realize.” This subject matter, obviously, was shocking and I felt like the world needed to know, just as Trish did.
Trish Adlesic: When we had gotten the film to a certain place, I decided that she would make a fantastic co-director, so she came aboard and worked with us to finish it. I was elated and it’s been a really incredible collaboration.
How did this coalesce around the people and places that you wound up focusing on?
Trish Adlesic: When we decided to make this film, I was looking at the national picture. Mariska’s Joyful Heart Foundation has been working on the issue, and they have a website called EndTheBacklog.org where you can really see jurisdictions across America reporting their findings and the legislation that might be put forward. So I wanted to look at varying degrees of the work on the issue – jurisdictions that tested [the rape kits], jurisdictions that struggling to test and a jurisdiction that’s fully up and running that’s fully up and running and producing real results.
For example, Cleveland had been fully funded and they had a massive task force. The Attorney General and the prosecutor were aligned very well — one was a Democrat and one was a Republican but it was a non-partisan issue and they were fully committed to putting all their resources forward and real progress was being made. Contrast that to Detroit where Kim, the prosecutor there had discovered 11,000 [rape] kits in an abandoned warehouse and her accounting executive would not give her funding [to follow through on them] and she had to go on a campaign outside of her job to raise funds to test these rape kits. Then there was L.A., where the kits had been tested, but [remained] a big question because we couldn’t see where the findings were, [so we didn’t know] what had actually happened or how many convictions were there? And that all wove into, “Let’s find the women from these cities that can speak to it, be our voices of their journeys and tie in what’s happening on the ground on where they’re from.”
Geeta Gandbhir: It was also really important for us to make a survivor-centric film from the beginning. These are women who deserve to have their voices heard and have been waiting so long for justice that the purpose [of the film] was to show that they’re evidence of perseverance, of bravery, of the human being behind the kit, so they were the focus, but each city gave us a different topic to focus on within this. this one issue of the [rape kit] backlog encapsulates so many other issues such as sexism, systemic, institutional racism, violence against women, and all these other isms in our society that we need to address, so we wanted to make sure we delved into all of them.
Trish Adlesic: The bottom line was who’s affected the most by this are the victims and the victims should tell the story.
What’s it like having someone Mariska involved in this, who brings the clout of being a celebrity, but who I’d imagine wouldn’t want to overshadow the story or the women you profile in the film?
Trish Adlesic: She didn’t want to be in the film because she wanted the light to be on the survivors completely. She is a celebrity and a phenomenal actress, but she’s an activist and an advocate and so it warranted her participation actually because of her voice, and it was natural to find her a place for her in the film. We wanted her to have a place because she really speaks to this issue so beautifully.
Geeta Gandbhir: She also was deeply involved with Kym Worthy and she was with her in Detroit, so ultimately what we filmed was organic and it was true to her role and we felt that it was fitting.
Was it easy to structure this as a story?
Trish Adlesic: We were fortunate that we were able to follow stories that had an arc for each one of them.
Geeta Gandbhir: There were 14 women actually interviewed and not that many make it into the film…
Trish Adlesic: But all of their stories helped us find the voice for the film.
Geeta Gandbhir: Each had an arc that we were able to interweave throughout the film and through the editing, [we] figured out, how do we lay this out for an audience and connect it so [an audience] can understand it. What we came upon is each character’s story had to build and then topic of the city had to also build, so there were multiple iterations and of course, we screened, we got feedback, HBO became involved and was helpful. With everybody’s input, we were able to put together this final thing that you’ve seen.
What was the interview process like for this, dealing such a sensitive subject matter?
Trish Adlesic: I’d like to refer to it as a conversation between two people in a way that it feels like friends are talking, because this kind of content is very difficult for the subject. It’s very hard to tell their story over and over again and the approach was so important to make them very comfortable and the way in which we went about seeking information. It was a tremendous learning experience about the choice of words. A lot of survivors find reporters, in general, not very mindful of the types of questions and the way in which the questions are asked and it was actually Helena, a survivor who helped me to find those words [during our interviews]. She helped formulate the questions early on in the process and for that, I was deeply grateful because I wanted to help empower the people that were answering the questions.
Geeta Gandbhir: Also I just want to credit [Trish], there was also a tremendous amount of research that went into how you handled this — consultation with advocates, making sure everyone was very careful that we wouldn’t re-traumatize the women who wanted to have their voices heard.
There’s a quick cutaway during one scene in the film that suggested you may have filmed the entire life of a rape kit, even the collection procedure right after an assault has happened. How far did you want to go?
Trish Adlesic: [We asked ourselves] first, what is a rape kit and what does a rape kit exam involve? We wanted to reveal what it’s like to have one, so that particular portion of the footage you saw is an excerpt from the overall full exam that we filmed. When [one of the subjects] Helena describes her kit being conducted, we cut to it in the film, so you can actually see what it’s like. After being assaulted, you’re basically getting a gynecological exam, so you can imagine how intense that would be for someone to have to go back through all the parts of your body that could have potentially have DNA from your perpetrator.
Geeta Gandbhir: As Helena says at one point, “I felt like my body was a crime scene.” And after going through that the painful, arduous process where you feel re-violated, as some of the women say, you expect them to do something with all this evidence they have and for nothing to happen, most of the women say that they have felt that that was almost worse, ultimately than the assault, down the road.
It was interesting to hear Ericka speak at the post-screening Q & A about how it was actually helpful to be talking to you for this film as the trial of her attacker was going on, though you don’t actually spend much time following the case in the film. How conscious were you of the interaction between those two things for her?
Trish Adlesic: We were very conscious of it. When I was seeking subjects for the film, I wanted to find someone who hadn’t yet had their kit tested because I wanted to try to empower and help them if I could. We searched a lot in Detroit. I knew that there were over 11,000 kits and they had tested a significant amount, but there were still kits left to be tested. Through an organization called The SASHA Center, which caters to African-American women’s cultural needs, [we met] Ericka and I knew when she walked into the room and I saw her pink hair and her t-shirt that said, “I am evidence,” I was about to have a profound experience. Independent of each other, we both contacted the prosecutor, Kym Worthy, who met [Erica] at a fundraiser for the rape kit backlog in Detroit. I had asked about [Ericka’s] case through the work on the film and her kit was located through the process for participation in the film and it was just a convergence [where] she was able to have her kit tested. We didn’t cover the trial because we didn’t want our work on the film to influence, in any way, the outcome of that, so we remained neutral. We didn’t want the defense to use [her participation in the film] against her [because] that’s what they would have done. They would have said, “You’re in this documentary, you’re pursuing this.” They’ll stop at nothing to discredit the victims.
Geeta Gandbhir: And [Ericka] talked about that. When you bring a case to trial, the survivor is also on trial and we felt [there’s this] beautiful cell phone video of herself at the end [of the film] that was really, I think, the message that we wanted to leave people with — the fact that she [says] she felt strong and empowered and encouraging other women to come forward, even though it had been difficult and painful.
What was the premiere like for you? It seemed like a pretty emotional moment for everybody in the room.
Trish Adlesic: It was. What was most important for me was to have all 14 women who were interviewed for the film be there if they could be, and 11 were actually able to attend. [It was also special] to have other subjects from the film, the two women police officers — Michelle Britten from Fairfield, Ohio and Nicole DiSanto from Cleveland — stand up and be honored and recognized for their courage and commitment to this issue. In addition to having them feel that energy and support in the room, there’s nothing like experiencing the film with 500 people when it’s been this intimate small team, and [to see] their reactions was a relief because they laughed, they cried, they were in shock at [certain] moments and they felt it. That was what was most exciting for me to see.
Geeta Gandbhir: Yeah, I would agree. Documentaries are often labors of love. We have been fortunate to have tremendous support, but we’ve been living with this for so long by ourselves, so to share it and to have the survivors there, it was very validating to see the reactions of people that it did what it was supposed to do. It’s a weird analogy, but it’s almost like having a child. You’ve worked on it for so long and then you send it out into the world and we want this to have a tremendous impact because this is an issue that needs to be addressed urgently. It’s a public safety issue beyond everything else. Everyone should know about it and everyone should be concerned.
Trish Adlesic: And in two days of press around the film during the festival, $60,000 dollars was raised to help pay for these kits to be tested in Detroit.
Geeta Gandbhir: It’s already having an impact.
Trish Adlesic: In two days!
“I Am Evidence” will continue to play at festivals before airing on HBO. A full list of screenings is here.