Victim/Suspect is an Illuminating, Insufficient Portrait of Sexual Assault Reporting

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Victim/Suspect is an Illuminating, Insufficient Portrait of Sexual Assault Reporting

Towards the conclusion of Nancy Schwartzman’s Victim/Suspect–a crime documentary meant to shed light on how police investigations of sexual assault often turn against the reporting victims—the film and its lead journalist, Rachel “Rae” de Leon, throw up a number of statistics about rape cases in the United States. Of the more than 460,000 rapes that are estimated to occur per year, only 30% are reported, and a devastating 1% actually see the perpetrators convicted. There is astoundingly little incentive for victims to ever come forward, compounded by the fact that, as the film details, detectives are insufficiently trained in dealing with sexual assault investigations. This leads to an appalling number of victims arrested for false reporting, after being intimidated into recanting their statement. We learn that the reasoning for police turning the tables on victims isn’t necessarily intentional malice or misogyny but pure, bureaucratic neglect: It’s easiest for the police to circumvent “he said, she said” and usher an arrest, close the case, and get it off their desk.

This information, however, isn’t necessarily shocking to those who are even moderately aware of the culture of sexual assault in America, nor is the neglect and cruelty faced by the young victims, who see those they turned to for protection turn again them. Victim/Suspect is Schwartzman’s second feature documentary, following 2019’s well-received Roll Red Roll, about the infamous Steubenville rape case. Schwartzman shapes Victim/Suspect’s focus around de Leon. As a young reporter eager for a case to call her own, de Leon stumbled upon a local news story about Nikki Yovino, who was jailed for one year after allegedly falsifying a rape report. After de Leon’s editor gives her the go-ahead, the case leads de Leon to a nationwide pattern: An epidemic of rape victims found guilty of lying about their rapes. 

Using Yovino as a jumping-off point, Victim/Suspect and de Leon focus in particular on two other such victims: Emma Mannion, who was raped by two men that she knew, and Dyanie Bermeo, who was raped by a stranger allegedly posing as a cop. This is in addition to covering the tragic case of Megan Rondini, who had her investigation handled by the same Tuscaloosa, Alabama detective as Mannion and which concluded with her suicide. We watch all three women’s interrogations and witness the moments that their detectives began to switch things up on them, turning their status from “victim” into that of “suspect.”

It’s incredibly easy for detectives to confuse these women—this is repeatedly happening to young, inexperienced women—with a “ruse,” something that de Leon learns police use quite frequently in interrogations to elicit confessions. Claiming to a victim of sexual assault that there is, for example, video evidence that proves they’re lying only further clouds a mind already in a fragile state post-assault. All the ruse does is make the victims further question themselves and their memories, even if they know for a fact that they were raped. Their ensuing confessions of guilt are merely pleas for escape.

Victim/Suspect manages to be at once fascinating, improperly focused and somewhat redundant. It’s hard to say just exactly how illuminating this documentary will be for those who choose to watch it, as much of the information brought to light feels somewhat obvious as someone conscious of rape culture and where the police fall into it. Of course police victim-blame instead of pursuing justice for women; of course it’s not because of some wide-reaching conspiracy, but because they are both improperly trained and can’t be bothered to do their jobs; and of course all but one of the cops sought for questioning actually submit to interviews. Obviously, de Leon and Schwartzman’s aims are noble, especially in platforming both Mannion and Bermeo to share their stories and seek closure (however, Emma’s plea to have her case overturned due to withheld evidence by the police is ultimately denied). 

It’s also interesting to see firsthand accounts of what exactly cops are doing during these interrogations to make innocent survivors of assault go to prison. It’s infuriating and heartbreaking to watch women crumple under the steady hand of a man who doesn’t want to help them. What can be done? Well, the documentary doesn’t really know. There’s a sense early on, as de Leon discovers more cases across the country, that her story is slipping out of her grasp, and that one intrepid woman’s search for the truth is both futile and naïve. 90 minutes seems like a scant runtime for such a complex, comprehensive topic, and Victim/Suspect handles its subject matter with a tact disquietingly similar to that of a true-crime investigation—especially considering that the bulk of the narrative is centered on a reporter rather than the victims.

Victim/Suspect concludes with a sense of narrative finality, with de Leon closing her years-long story, but the question of justice for the victims still remains. There’s nothing satisfying here, if that’s what Schwartzman intended with her film, though one suspects that by choosing to tackle this topic she expected as much disappointment by the end as sexual assault survivors feel with the justice system. Still, “Here’s what’s happening, here’s who it’s happening to, and here’s why it happens,” feel insufficient—answers that leave one jarring question open-ended. It makes much of the footage feel exploitative without leading to any real catharsis, especially not Mannion and Bermeo’s assisted mentorship of a police training program for sexual assault cases. Tearfully, Mannion asserts to the roomful of seemingly empathetic would-be cops that this training should be adopted nationwide, notwithstanding that this is a problem intensified by the very existence of the police. It’s obvious that Mannion’s statement is true, yet Victim/Suspect mostly serves as a reminder that that ideal is, at this current juncture, mostly a utopian fantasy.

Director: Nancy Schwartzman
Release Date: May 23, 2023 (Netflix)

Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.

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