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Letter to the Editor: Who's Victimizing Whom?

By Jonathan Stack

Dear Editor,

I just read Melissa Hook's article ("The Real CSI: Are Crime Victims Being Re-Victimized by Filmmakers?") in the February-March 2004 International Documentary. I was interviewed for this piece and was glad to participate, given the importance of the topic. Unfortunately, while I cannot speak for the entire article, the section where she quotes me is both erroneous and shortsighted.

Her first mistake is a misreading of my and Liz Garbus' film, The Farm. Contrary to Hook's stated assumption, the unjust conviction of a rapist is not a theme in the film. The main themes are about how the prison system operates, what it is like to live life behind bars, and the ways inmates manifest hope and purpose in an otherwise forlorn existence. As such, it is not that the victims' stories do not matter—of course they matter—but, since the experience of victims and their surviving family members did not take them into the prison, they did not appear in our film.

More important, Hook commits a mistake that is common among journalists and filmmakers. Instead of an exploration motivated by curiosity, she only chooses the bits and pieces that prove her already heartfelt convictions and beliefs. 

For example, Hook fails to mention that before The Farm aired on national television, I did reach out to the victims and even met with one, for the very reasons she states in her article. I sent copies of the film to family members I was able to contact, and I did so because I felt they should see it before it aired. Finally, in the weeks leading up to the premiere, we organized several town meetings across the state in which victims and district attorneys appeared along with ex-convicts and public defenders to discuss more effective ways to fight crime.

Hook's worse mistake, though, is to do to the "victims" exactly what it is she accuses filmmakers of doing: She "re-victimizes" them by reducing them to the "victimized other"—useful for her article, but not one bit more dimensional then the films and filmmakers she questions. 

When I did the interview with Hook, I suggested she contact the twins who appeared in the film at the infamous "parole board" scene, but it seems she never bothered to do so. It is ironic, to say the least, that in an article that talks about the victimization of victims, an advocate for victims failed to reach out to get the perspective of these particular victims. Indeed, I doubt Hook even saw The Farm's sequel, Shadows of Doubt (not many people did), but if she had done either, she might have had much more to share with her readers.

The fact is, to gain the confidence and trust of the twins, I spent over two years and hundreds of hours on the phone and in person with them. I also encouraged them to develop a close relationship with a rape counselor and victims advocate, who, by the way, accompanied them the day they went to meet Vincent Simmons in prison.

I agree that the twins would not have gone to the prison if I had not been making the film, and in the very last instance, the warden met with them and their counselor alone to make sure it was what they wanted, not what I wanted. The final decision was theirs. 

Indeed, I, too, had misgivings on the day of the meeting. And while the twins did not achieve their goal of forgiving Simmons, over time the very fact that they took the trip helped them to do so.  

Another bit of information Hook overlooked was the positive effects that can come from being in a film. Today, if you ask the twins about the overall experience, they'll tell you, that while very difficult, the result has been liberating. They confronted their worst nightmare and came out stronger for it. One of them has voiced interest in a prison ministry, and the other has written a book on her experiences, Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt.

Being in the position to tell someone else's story—anyone's story, not just that of victims—puts us in a complex position. On one hand, we feel compelled to honor and respect those who have entrusted us; on the other hand, we are obliged to pursue our best understanding of the truth. What is clear is that when done effectively and fairly, being a subject in a film can be an extremely empowering experience. I salute Hook's commitment to this very important topic, but I wish she had been a bit more thorough and less dogmatic.


Jonathan Stack



Response from Melissa Hook:

The purpose of this article was to sensitize people to how the process of making documentaries on violent crime, criminals and victimization can lead to victim trauma and re-victimization. Filmmakers were interviewed about their process, but actual films were not reviewed unless the artist expressly presented a copy to elucidate a point.

I sympathize with Jonathan Stack's frustration over the criticisms I made of his process regarding victims in the filming of The Farm and later in Shadows of Doubt. He expressed sincere interest in his interview about the plight of victims when they are exploited in film and television. Moreover, I appreciated Stack's candor in describing not only his approach, but where he made "mistakes." Some of those mistakes, described in the article, are high on the list of  "what not to do" to victims in any criminal justice or victim services environment.

Certainly the fact that Stack feels that the twins found the experience "liberating" could be considered a positive result for them, but the filmmaking process with regard to victim sensitivity, as he described it to me, was uninformed and had potential to do considerable harm.

In his interview, Stack referred to himself as the only victim advocate involved in the victim-offender dialogue preparation, although I see in his letter that he makes reference to a rape counselor and a victim advocate who accompanied the twins to the prison. That is a welcome addition to the story but does not mitigate the fact the victims were not ready (his words) and that both parties were not prepared for the dialogue in a substantive manner by a trained mediator.

The pursuit of "our best understanding of the truth" is a noble intention, but it should be tempered with a compassionate awareness of the potential for harmful outcomes and the responsibility that entails.

Melissa Hook
Deputy Executive Director
Victim Assistance Legal Organization