In June of 2016, Anna Clark wrote an in-depth piece for Elle about an astounding amount of untested, forgotten rape kits piled up in Detroit. The article highlighted the victims—the majority of whom were black women—and the undaunted pursuit of justice undertaken by Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, with brutal statistics supported by interspersed tales of survivors attempting to live their lives after seeing their cases mishandled by uncaring, biased police bureaucracy. Online, the article is even accompanied by a video short exploring the home life and journey of a specific Detroit-dweller affected by the rape kit bungling. Documentary I Am Evidence expands upon this painful epidemic with a similar approach, applying delicacy when it can and enraged bluntness whenever possible.
The film, taking a similarly narrative structure to its written companion, finds its vehicles for activism in its characters. Tracking their searches (or non-searches as the years march on without any shred of contact or hope from police departments) once the push for complete rape kit testing begins, I Am Evidence possesses a power similar to documentaries told entirely through first-person notes, journals and voiceover: There’s a synchronicity of emotion running throughout that specifies and makes tangible the unique grieving process of the sexual assault survivor. That we hear it all from those survivors only amplifies their reiterated call for respect from the justice system.
I Am Evidence’s pseudo-procedural structure can feel exploitative at times, filming long stretches of survivors as they confront the first steps to finding closure in years, but it’s certainly moving—though the film is not just an emotion-fueled plea. The sheer amount of facts and figures thrown at viewers would be overwhelming even eyes weren’t already blurred by tears and minds already stuffed with empathetically-throbbing cotton. Ticking graphics and animated charts help alleviate much of the comparative number-crunching the film’s stats require, and the impact is sure to elicit gasps as frequently as its interviews do sobbing.
Directors Trish Adlesic and Geeta Gandbhir are no strangers to making films with progressive calls to action (fracking and post-earthquake Haiti peacekeeping documentaries under their social storytelling belts), but telling a story about a secret affecting an estimated 400,000 victims in the Unites States alone makes for a daunting task. Whether covering the mistrust of DNA evidence in its early years or the prejudice preventing police from testing rape kits from cases they deemed unworthy—anything involving a black woman or rape between people that knew each other previously (the most common kind of rape)—the film’s rage is honed, targeted towards a justice system that simply doesn’t care about women.
Which is all slowly changing, but the film makes the case that this is partially because testing rape kits is a very efficient and cost-effective way to find criminals. Serial rapists, or rapists with DNA on record from another crime, come up with shocking frequency, which makes court video of prosecutorial harassment of rape victims (“What kind of top were you wearing? Were you selling yourself that night?”) even more nauseating.
Actress Mariska Hargitay’s appearance as an activist and producer of the film sums up I Am Evidence’s fiery anger in someone whose devotion is vested and unrelenting, yet inexperienced. Her anger and frustration when surrounded by police, law and forensic officials echoes our own, as does her gung-ho attitude about improving a completely swaying catalyst. As such, the film is intense, making for one of the sniffliest audiences in which I’ve ever been included, so viewer discretion is certainly advised. But with that kind of emotional power too comes the intellectual and statistical weight we need to enact change.
Director: Trish Adlesic, Geeta Gandbhir
Starring: Kym Worthy, Mariska Hargitay
Release Date: Premiered at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter.