If you have experienced sexual abuse, call the free, confidential National Sexual Assault hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673), or access the 24-7 help online by visiting online.rainn.org(opens in a new tab).
“Well if you’re sorry that makes me feel better,” says a Tuscaloosa detective to an 18-year-old girl who has just reported, and recanted, an account of her rape to police.
The startling statement is one of the first examples of a plight of alleged moral authority and police failure tackled by Netflix’s latest documentary offering, Victim/Suspect, which highlights the work of Rachel (Rae) de Leon, an investigative reporter and the narrative voice of the film.
The 90-minute documentary is a visual representation of de Leon’s investigation into a widespread pattern, one in which sexual assault victims reporting a crime become the center of their own criminal investigations, later arrested or jailed themselves due to accusations of false reporting, rather than seeing their assailants held accountable. De Leon asks, “If police aren’t believing someone, why not just dismiss the case?”
Within social and criminal justice conversations surrounding pervasive, institutional biases and attitudes toward victim-blaming, many sexual assault survivors (not just women(opens in a new tab)) choose silence over reporting(opens in a new tab). Even when people turn to the authorities, there’s a high likelihood their cases won’t be heard, as police departments nationwide have been found to drop reported rape cases at high rates(opens in a new tab).
But de Leon was interested in another unspoken outcome, beginning her reporting amid the #MeToo reckoning in 2016. She partnered with director Nancy Schwartzman (the directorial hand behind Roll Red Roll(opens in a new tab), a true crime documentary about high school sexual assault) for the forthcoming Netflix feature-length film not long after.
Unraveling examples of widespread failingsIn Victim/Suspect, Schwartzman and de Leon offer up space to those who weren’t forced into the shadows by incredulity, but instead became figureheads of police insistence that false reports are more common than we think, a claim that’s been found to be untrue(opens in a new tab). The documentary extends a microphone to women whose privacy was lost as soon as their mugshots were plastered on local news sites, and then offers an alternative form of advocacy and education that supports the need for cultural reform.
“I want everyone to keep an open mind and to understand that this is not a one-and-done problem,” Emma Mannion, one of the film’s main voices and subject of the aforementioned detective’s comment, told Mashable. Mannion, a then-18-year-old University of Alabama student, reported her assault to Tuscaloosa police in 2016. She was later arrested and pleaded guilty to filing a false report in order to receive a reduced sentence, after the authorities questioned the validity of her story.
In Victim/Suspect, viewers watch the entire investigation unfold in front of them, inside the interrogation room and across headlines, including a third-act evidence reveal that suggests she was yet another victim of police manipulation. Mannion, now a dance school owner and victim advocate, maintains the validity of her initial report but has not yet had her case overturned.
“There are so many other cases that have had similar, if not the exact same, issues,” she said. “From different states, different counties, different countries. It’s not just here. It’s unfortunately everywhere.”
It’s an environment quickly typified as a kind of boys’ club, bartering in a similar sort of uncomfortable locker room talk and deceit that’s woven into instances of aggressive patriarchy and throughout the #MeToo movement. De Leon met Mannion only a few months after she accepted her plea deal, they told Mashable, during an encounter between the two of them and Mannion’s mother that was set up through a network of legal advocates supporting sexual assault survivors, including Mannion’s attorney, Leroy Maxwell — Maxwell appears on screen later, offering a hopeful note of solidarity amid the reporting by connecting himself, a Black man, to those he represents: “We understand what it’s like to be at the bottom of the boot.”
Mannion and another survivor, Dyanie Bermeo, are presented as representative examples, with de Leon ushering viewers in and out of their stories while detailing other instances around the country and her own thoughts as the reporter tasked to help surface the truth. Other experts add context to the conversation, like former San Diego detective Carl Hershman and legal expert Dr. Lisa Avalos. Viewers hear from de Leon’s own editor and other reporters at Reveal(opens in a new tab), part of the Center for Investigative Reporting, and legal advocates. The film even provides a seat inside the room as they scrub through footage and interview case investigators directly.
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Spliced around footage of de Leon as a dedicated beat reporter are clips from inside the interview room — a notably cold place (in both temperature and compassion, suspects are sure to point out) used repeatedly throughout the film as a site of misfeasance. It’s an environment quickly typified as a kind of boys’ club, bartering in a similar sort of uncomfortable locker room talk(opens in a new tab) and deceit that’s woven into instances of aggressive patriarchy(opens in a new tab) and throughout the #MeToo movement.
“I do not believe you. I do not believe you at all. And you’re one of the people that’s taking away from my true victims,” says one of the case investigators to Mannion.
“You are using the threat of rape to get what you want,” another detective says to a survivor.
Documenting an imbalance of powerThe editing choices of Victim/Suspect, which gives ample time to de Leon’s personal life, show an affection toward those telling their stories and de Leon’s investigative team, juxtaposed with a resounding disappointment in the presented lack of due diligence of police investigators and other journalists.
The documentary dives into strategies police departments use to pressure confessions, sowing seeds of inconsistency and doubt among those reporting assault. It hints at a desire to use certain cases as “lessons” for other survivors, as well as a violently-skewed notion of consent seemingly held by the investigators themselves, employed in a way that makes the frequent evocation of the term in interrogation footage feel like a blow.
Across the film, de Leon situates herself next to, but apart from, the investigators and her fellow crime reporters, like an attentive victim advocate working to make up for a lack of balance during these cases. “As a journalist I have to keep an open mind that they could be lying,” she says in a careful voiceover, “but also that they could be telling the truth.”
“Victim/Suspect” prompts viewers to expand on calls for reform within law enforcement and the criminal justice system, to reconsider the power held by those telling the story, and to ask whether doubt is ever a neutral stance. “Rae was the first person that I spoke to that said, ‘There’s no pressure. I’m just looking into this issue, and I’m trying to discover more about it.’ I felt the potential impact. Maybe this could help someone. Maybe it could just be educational,” Mannion said about her willingness to participate in the film, despite the legal uncertainty of her own case. “It’s still daunting… The film industry is not my world. I’m a small-town business owner. I dance. That’s my world. But it was a really big part of me working through healing in the last few years.”
As de Leon told Mashable, and as is depicted by Mannion and other voices in the last 20 minutes of the film, Victim/Suspect isn’t proffering these stories to ask viewers to come up with solutions. The tail end of the film shows Mannion and Bermeo attending a detective training, led by Hershman, in order to share their stories of being led into recanting as an effort to encourage perspective and calling out the need for this type of training at all.
“I went into it hoping for healing for myself, because I wanted to get my voice out and feel heard,” Mannion said. “Throughout the last several years, and especially in the last 18 months, I’ve realized there’s just so much education that needs to happen. I don’t just want to talk about me. I’m not here to talk about my trauma. I’m here to talk about the actual systemic problem that’s going on.”
In a call with Mashable, de Leon said that the Victim/Suspect team envisions the film as a part of a public education tool, elaborating on a larger plan to screen the documentary on college campuses with the help of advocates, like Mannion at the University of Alabama, and to pair the film with a guide or toolkit for survivors of sexual assault, all in a bid to get the story in front of lawmakers. The film has partnered in these efforts with Red Owl(opens in a new tab), a strategy firm that helps filmmakers connect with local, national, and global changemakers.
Amplifying calls for reform through a true crime lensDespite this push for advocacy, one can easily anticipate the urge to silo this movie into the true crime genre, given its somewhat obvious fact-finding narrative, spotlight-framed talking heads, and suspense-building score. And, in some ways, the documentary could be read as a worthwhile addition there, amplifying a response to the true crime pushback of the last few years — a warranted questioning of who gets to tell the stories of assault, trauma, and grief, the ethics of profiting off of a victim’s story, and what the media’s role is in assigning guilt.
The line between the spectacle of true crime and an investigative journalistic feat is definitely blurred here, but maybe that’s intentional, one step away from the genre’s complicated reputation but near enough to drive intrigue.
“I hope that it invites people in and then, whether by accident or not, they end up walking away with a profound experience of actually learning through someone else’s story,” said de Leon.
With de Leon leading the charge, offering personal elements of her own life and the reporting decisions that led her here, viewers are dropped right into the reporter’s mind, on the hunt for her first big story and dumped right into the process of making her first feature film. But as the survivors make their way to the fore, and as you watch Mannion and Bermeo slowly build up their own confidence in speaking out, the film’s creators work to steer it into a valiant cry from the subjects themselves.
In providing survivor-led stories behind so-called false reports, the filmmakers suggest that to view Victim/Suspect as only a true crime thriller would be to play into the same pitfalls that led authority figures to unjustly frame sexual assault reports as ego trips — the same propensity to re-envision women’s diligence in seeking accountability as dramatics, or, worse, malice. As both report and thought exercise, Victim/Suspect prompts viewers to expand on calls for reform within law enforcement and the criminal justice system, to reconsider the power held by those telling the story, and to ask whether doubt is ever a neutral stance.
Victim/Suspect premieres on Netflix May 23.(opens in a new tab)
Chase joined Mashable’s Social Good team in 2020, covering online stories about digital act