Summer Doc Series: Sex Crimes Unit

By  · Published on June 21st, 2011

For the first half hour, it’s difficult to tell whether Sex Crimes Unit will have the momentum to make it through to the credits, and an impatient director might have shoved some glossy speed and bass-heavy beats into the proceedings. Fortunately, Lisa F. Jackson was wise enough to let her subject matter do the talking. The result is a documentary that is as without frills as its title. It is, in many ways, an anti-Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. The television show may be injected with drama, but this documentary is far more impactful.

With effortless timing, it weaves together four separate stories – retelling the history of a 16-year-old sex crime that was solved because of DNA, following 2 cases in real time, and giving a little history of a division of the New York District Attorney’s office that was the first of its kind (yet is only 40 years old).

The pace and downplayed style of the story mirrors the demeanor of the women and men that it follows. What’s perhaps most shocking about it is the disconnect that has to happen in order for these attorneys to do their jobs. They all clearly take the work with severity and ardor, but they hold everything at arm’s length so as not to be sucked down into the emotional quicksand that the audience thankfully has the freedom to get lost in. They share difficult details without a grimace and often joke with one another or gossip in a clear, poignant attempt to juggle the sympathy of the job. It’s a juggling act that can’t be easy.

As such, the ultimate message is that sex crimes are a reality, they demand to be fought back against, but romanticizing them isn’t the right way to go about it.

For context, former Manhattan District Attorney Robert M. Morganthau and Linda Fairstein, the unit’s first chief, give talking head-style information about what the beginning was like in the 1970s. With 20/20 vision, the laws of the past seem criminally absurd and meant to protect the wrongdoers instead of the victims. Morganthau and Fairstein both share the hurdles they faced and the solutions they put into place which clearly led to where the department is today.

Those consequences are clearly laid out as we watch Lisa Friel, the current chief and an authoritative main figure, interact with senior assistant DAs, discuss job pitfalls over Caesar salads (that don’t come with Caesar dressing), and share in the triumphs and losses that both emerge from jobs well done.

Those jobs include a disturbing case of a man who pulls a young woman out of a club who is so drunk she can barely be carried, and a cab driver who uses his backseat to trap his victims, but the main focal point is the preparation and trial on behalf of a prostitute who was raped and forced to fellate two men who took turns with her at gun point.

We get a rare chance to see as these cases play out with varying results. Some are conversations over file folders, and the prostitute rape case goes all the way to a trial that stands as the climactic heart of the story. None of it is done with kid gloves (because that would be patronizing), but it’s also not done with anything more than a steady voice and an unnamed hope that justice will ultimately be served. There’s barely any sentiment to the proceedings (beyond a strong sense of tenacity) until the cases come to their conclusions.

Of course, the most compelling element is the story of Natasha Alexenko, who was viciously raped in her apartment building nearly two decades before DNA was able to give the police an opportunity to find the man responsible and try to bring him to justice. She tells the story herself in retrospect as a testament to the tangible difference between the problems of the past and the capabilities of the present.

In fact, the most impressive skill at work here is in using each story to contextualize the others. Historical factoids come into play during Alexenko’s story just as her viewpoint informs what the attorneys are going through just as their work builds on a foundation of the past. It’s deftly, calmly done throughout, and it pays dividends on what seems at first to be a too-slow pace.

If there’s anything that drags the documentary down, it’s production value. The images and scenarios are placed onto the screen without ceremony and with limited filter. It’s not at all visually interesting, and there are a few times where the attorneys speak to each other as if aware that they’ll be providing exposition for an audience instead of simply going about their day and speaking as they normally would.

Throughout the documentary, the variations on the word “brave” and “courageous” are used repeatedly – always from the attorneys, always about the victims speaking up against their attackers and against a world that still suffers from certain stigmas. However, it’s clear from this well-made doc that the attorneys and their colleagues working in the unit are the brave ones – facing a never-ending workload of stirring incidents with grace, fire, and fortitude.

Sex Crimes Unit premieres tonight on HBO at 9pm EST/PST and is available On Demand.

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