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Monday, April 6, 2015

CIFF Review: Out in the Night

In 2006 in Greenwich Village, seven black lesbians beat and stabbed a man on the sidewalk, allegedly because he was straight. The newspapers, predictably, had a field day, eye-catching headlines like 'Attack of the Killer Lesbians' and 'Lesbian Gang-Stab Shocker' appearing regularly in New York tabloids and beyond. Three of the women pled guilty in exchange for essentially no sentences and were quickly released; four decided to fight it, and wound up being found guilty and sentenced to years (in one case more than a decade) in prison. The media has its field day, but they never delved into what really happened that night - or what happened to those four women in the months and years to follow.

Director blair dorosh-walther finally shines a spotlight on the the 'New Jersey Four' and lets them speak. And it turns out they have some really goddamn important things to say.

Out in the Night follows in the grand documentary tradition of Errol Morris' seminal The Thin Blue Line, a doc that advocated in favor of the innocence of convicted Texas cop-killer Randall Dale Adams. The film makes absolutely no bones about its belief in the innocence of these four women, and, like Morris before her, dorosh-walther has constructed a compelling argument built around a fascinating case. Unfortunately, that's all she has constructed. The facts are there; the art is occasionally lacking.

Nevertheless, it still works. In part it is because of the four women (Patreese Johnson, Renata Hill, Terrain Dandridge, Venice Brown) at the heart of the story. When they're on camera, the film comes alive - they're vital, witty, and engaging. Roughly half the film focuses on these four women, where they came from and how their lives were changed after that night. It's poignant, affecting filmmaking, helped along by four charismatic women. And in part, it works because dorosh-walther examines the larger prejudices at play in the case and in the media. The women were tried as a gang largely on a technicality by an all-white jury who had received erroneous instructions from a judge who repeatedly displayed bias against them - he gives one of them a particularly harsh sentence for giving false testimony, but when it is pointed out that she never actually gave any testimony, he doesn't take back the punishment.

But dorosh-walther switches gears a bit too often. While the information she gets on the case is interesting, the fact that the prosecutor, the judge, and the victim all declined to be interview, which forces her to rely heavily on quick summations of events before moving on. The discussion of activism fighting for the girls' release doesn't really touch much on why it took so long for their case to get attention, or why it never got the national fight it deserved. The movie briefly discusses why the girls didn't just call the police, the prejudice of their sentencing, a dozen fascinating ideas that would have fleshed the film out considerably... but dorosh-walther doesn't go into depth on any of them.

After the film, I was fortunate enough to hear director blair dorosh-walther speak. While I had mostly enjoyed the film as it was, a few amateurish technical errors notwithstanding, I had felt fairly hollow upon its conclusion. It is a powerful story, but there's too little to it. As I listened to dorosh-walther take questions from the audience, I realized what the movie was missing: Her passion. She clearly cared about this case and these women, and she (very rightly) didn't want to lose focus from what had been done to them. But that decision robs the film of vital power, turns it from a film, from something that can harness the vast emotional power of the medium to make a statement, into a work of fairly biased journalism. As a piece of journalism, it is unquestionably effective - though clearly biased, it's incredibly convincing, infuriating even, and on this level, it's smart and powerful. But as a film? Out in the Night could have used the smart, angry insight dorosh-walther displayed talking about the wider context of the narrative. It's still a promising debut well worth seeing, but don't expect it to have the beautiful gut-punch effect - or life-changing aftermath - of something like The Thin Blue Line.

Out in the Night was recently aired at the 39th annual Cleveland International Film Festival, and will air on PBS' documentary program 'POV' later in 2015. Directed by blair dorosh-walther.

Other GeekRex Film Fest reviews:
AFF Review: The Heyday of Insensitive Bastards
AFF Review: Sunshine Superman
AFF Review: Female Pervert
CIFF Review: The Look of Silence
AFF Review: The Editor
CIFF Review: Slow West
CIFF Review: If You Don't, I Will
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