Title: Sex Crimes Unit
Director: Lisa F. Jackson
A recent premiere at the 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival, as part of its summer showcase, director Lisa F. Jackson’s Sex Crimes Unit is an emotionally pulverizing documentary look inside the special, same-named division of the New York City District Attorney’s office. An incredible snapshot of justice deferred but thankfully not denied, the movie will continue to air on HBO as part of its summer documentary series.
Part of the film details the painstaking overhaul of outdated laws that impinged on victims’ rights in sexual assault cases — the ridiculous “corroboration” requirement, struck down in 1974, and the rape shield law of 1975, which, respectively, did away with the need for a witness in rape cases and prevented a victim’s sexual history from being used against them. Mostly, though, after spotlighting a bit of the process of how cases are generally worked, Sex Crimes Unit tracks two cases all the way from evidence collection through trial.
Deputy chief Coleen Balbert (pictured) works on a difficult case involving the rape of a prostitute, unable to introduce to her jury the defendant’s previous rape conviction. Even more moving and cathartic, however, is the situation of Natasha Alexenko. Raped at gunpoint in 1993, her case was the subject of a unique, first-of-its-kind ”John Doe” indictment almost a decade later — against an unmatched DNA profile, not a person — that helped stop the clock on the statute of limitations, and later bring about a trial when its collected evidence finally produced a hit on a suspect. Blending respectful, fly-on-the-wall reportage with interview footage from field professionals as well as Alexenko and her friends and family, Sex Crimes Unit does what no pat episode of Law & Order or any other criminal procedural can achieve, no matter how well intentioned and solidly sketched — it showcases the full breadth of human emotion, from the despair and heartache that these vicious, reprehensible crimes evoke to the absolutely amazing constitution and bravery of these women, and those who work on their behalf, in putting their attackers away.
Jackson, whose The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo received a special jury prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, unpacks her story in straightforward, no-frills style. Befitting the seriousness of the subject matter, there isn’t a premium placed on fancy set-up, or visual style. None of that matters. The stories here are engrossing, if darkly so. If there’s a knock on the movie, it’s that — despite the understandable pull and allure of the cases, which have definitive stakes and end-points — the personal stories of some of the unit’s crusaders seem to merit further spotlight attention. Ex-unit chief Linda Fairstein ably recounts how 20 years ago, when she was first working, marital rape, acquaintance rape and stalking laws didn’t exist, and DNA testing was just beginning to matter. A roundtable summit with Fairstein and just a couple of her peers and successors — including Robert Morganthau, the dignified former Manhattan District Attorney who established the city’s cold case unit; and whipsmart current unit chief Lisa Friel, who has a placard on her desk reading “I have flying monkeys and I’m not afraid to use them,” and evinces a savvy sense of how to construct a narrative for jurors — would lend the movie even further human weight and emotional dimension. As is, though, Sex Crimes Unit is a powerful, gut-wrenching film. “Entertaining” is of course very much not the right word to use, but it is uplifting to see and feel and know and have ratified and celebrated that, in a world of much darkness, there are those who fight for right.
Written by: Brent Simon