HBO Documentary Films Summer Series: SEX CRIMES UNIT
Director: Lisa F. Jackson
Studio: HBO Documentary Films
Documentaries are a strange beast. They can be seen as educational, informative and, at times, entertaining. But to a much higher extent, a documentary must be, at all times, engaging. Most of the time they are, but when they are not, they fall flat. The latest documentary in HBO’s Summer Series, SEX CRIMES UNIT is all of these things wrapped with a procedural sensibility. To some viewers, this could be problematic, taking its cues from episodes of C.S.I. and Law and Order: SVU, but the film does such a great job with editing, that its procedural nature turns into something more narrative, while giving into that element of documentary filmmaking - being engaging.
The film chronicles the case of a young woman named Nastasha Alexenko, a transplant from Canada, living in New York City, who was violently raped at gunpoint in her apartment building in 1993. The film is told in a series of other tragic rape cases in the city, as it builds towards a resolution with Alexenko, by showing the advances of the city’s Sex Crimes Unit division in the District Attorney’s Office. It’s sad to think that this office is relatively new in the city, being established in 1974, and was the first of its kind in the country. Technology in DNA testing and gathering has come a long way and is the key to bringing most of these cases to justice.
At the same time, the film tells the story of district attorneys, gathering evidence and building a case against Kevin Rios, a man accused of violently assaulting and raping a prostitute. Putting Rios at the crimes scene and proving he committed them is not the hard part, it’s finding and convincing a jury that he is guilty because the victim is a prostitute. How do you convince a jury that the sex was forced and not consensual? The film does a wonderful job in showing how these lawyers work endlessly to seek justice for their clients.
The film does an effective job telling and presenting two separate sex crime cases, while at the same time giving history and background of the Sex Crimes Unit office from its beginnings to today. It is hard not to watch this documentary without feeling horrified and disgusted by these men’s actions towards women, but the film presents the facts and the real life human emotions in such a well-constructed manner. The narrative flows with such ease, giving its viewers valuable information, a sobering view of sex crimes, and well-documented insight on lawyers in the criminal justice system.
The real eeriness comes at the very end, when a viewer knows they are invested in the story and the film, when Nastasha Alexenko comes back to the scene of the crime, almost 20 years later. Walking through the apartment building, recalling the events as they happen, and taking the viewers to the location of the actual sex crime. This moment is simply chilling, but at the same time relieving, we see in Nastasha's eyes and demeanor that she has finally gained some prospective, that she is now empowered because justice has been served. This gesture to gain some of herself back is why a city’s Sex Crime Unit is extremely important to the welfare of these victims. It’s hard to watch this documentary and not feel profoundly moved.
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