Making this film has been a goal of mine since at least March 1996. That was when I first met the dynamic Linda Fairstein, then chief of the Sex Crimes Unit in the Manhattan District Attorneys Office. For many years I had been following news about the Unit (which was the first of its kind in the country), tracking the prosecution of high profile cases like the Central Park Jogger and the “preppy murder” of Jennifer Levin. Fairstein led those cases, and to be able to follow her with a camera while she built her next case became a mission of mine.
There’s another reason for my interest in this topic. When I was 25 years old I was gang-raped in Washington DC. I had a rape kit done, looked at mug shots, sat with a sketch artist, went to line ups, talked to cops. No leads, no arrests. A year later I fled town. Fifteen years after that I revisited my case to find that the statute of limitations had passed years before and that all of the evidence (including my favorite jean jacket!) had been tossed. I would never have my day in court to confront the three men who had attacked me. They had gotten away with it.
In making “Sex Crimes Unit” I had the great privilege of actually being inside the criminal justice system, able to observe first hand how the guilty are brought to account and discover the fierce dedication of the men and women whose goal is to deliver justice.
The whole process was revelatory but what really blew my mind were the women prosecutors I filmed. They were tenacious and compassionate and laser-focused but they showed me their true humanity in surprising ways: obsessing about TV shows (Rock of Love!), fretting a child’s college financing, cajoling cops, having babies, talking baseball and worrying about their weight. It’s odd to say that a film about sexual violence can be full of laughter and joy and the infectious pride of doing good work, but that was the reality I found in those cluttered offices, and for that I will always be grateful.
My last film, “The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo”, took place in a country where the concept of justice for a woman who has been raped is a very simple one: there is no justice. The Congo is ground zero in terms of violence against women and the men who commit these sadistic assaults are rarely punished, their crimes are free of consequence, their victims shamed and shattered.
In March of 2008, “The Greatest Silence” and Sex Crimes Unit converged. For the premiere HBO brought in from the Democratic Republic of the Congo one of the film’s main characters, Major Honorine Munyole, who I refer to as “eastern Congo’s one woman special victim’s unit.” During her stay in New York I took her to visit the SCU. Lisa Friel, who had succeeded Fairstein as chief, introduced us to Al Sandomir, a detective in the NYPD’s SVU. Al gave Major Honorine a rape kit and explained to her the process of evidence collection, how these swabs and scrapings could help catch a rapist. I had never before seen Honorine look stunned. A year later when I visited her small office in Bukavu she had that rape kit sitting in a place of honor, a talisman from another world and a symbol of a standard of justice that she could only dream of bringing to women of her ravaged country.
With “Sex Crimes Unit” I offer a portrait of the way justice should be done, honor those who do this hard work and, hopefully, bring a new candor and perspective regarding a crime that is still so under-reported and misunderstood.
Lisa F. Jackson
22 April 2011
"Sex Crimes Unit has drama, suspense, terrific personalities and a great deal of heart."
— John Anderson, Variety