Monday, February 2, 2009

Jason previews Cinequest: Witch Hunt

Witch Hunt is a powerful film that traumatized me a little bit just watching it, I can't imagine the trauma of those who lived it. In the early 80's in Bakersfield, CA, there was rash of child molestation cases. Scratch that--there was a rash of child molestation convictions, but it turned out the DA was responding to (if not inciting) hysteria and arresting innocent men and women based on testimony that was basically coerced out of children. This movie, produced and narrated by Sean Penn, looks at several of these cases (I assume all the cases where the accused were willing to speak about it), and tells the story of men and women who were locked up for as long as 20 years.

I really have no way to review this as a film. The story is so compelling it speaks for itself (one of the biggest shocks is that the DA involved--Edward Jagels--is still serving as Kern County DA and ran unopposed in the last election). The film uses interviews--mostly the accused, but also the kids who accused them (now grown up, and dealing with all kinds of issues as a result). They also got a few experts such as former California Attorney General John Van De Kamp who issued a scathing report on the improper practices--most notably the interrogation of children. Some of the facts unearthed are just amazing, like medical reports showing no signs of abuse that were buried and the existence of such reports was flat-out denied by the prosecutors (stuff like that punches holes in the standard wisdom that these were well-meaning prosecutors who just made mistakes). The film also mixes in news footage from the time, and does a serviceable job of telling the story. But with a story so compelling, there's really very little need to jazz it up. About the only complaint I have is I didn't really like Sean Penn's voice as the narrator. It was just so clear that Sean Penn was talking the whole time that it was distracting. Big thanks to Penn for producing, but I wish he'd hired someone else for the narration.

Also, big thanks to the Northern California Innocence Project for helping not just these victims of injustice but all wrongfully imprisoned people in California.
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