Indie film looks at faulty child molest cases
By Bruce Newman
It had taken Dana Nachman and Don Hardy three years and $20,000 — most of which they had charged to their bruised and battered credit cards — to prepare their documentary, "Witch Hunt," for a run at the major film festivals. But by last year, the San Jose filmmakers were beginning to despair that no big festival would have them.
They even made a documentary about their struggle — which mirrors the struggle of so many indie filmmakers. Rather than premiere their film at last year's Cinequest, the annual San Jose festival, they held out for the prestigious Tribeca and Toronto events.
Eventually, "Witch Hunt" was rejected by Tribeca, a moment indelibly preserved in their short film, when the color can be seen draining out of Nachman's face. In despair, she told her husband that no one was paying attention to "Witch Hunt" — a look at wrongful convictions that sent several Bakersfield residents to prison on child molestation charges.
"'These people were in prison for 20 years, and nobody paid attention to them,' " she said he reminded her. Why would she expect a movie about the case to come out quickly just because she wanted it to?
A lot has gone right since that day a year ago, and now the documentary is set to become the toast of the current Cinequest, which opened Wednesday night. Following successful screenings at the American Film Institute festival in Los Angeles, and last September's Toronto International Film Festival — the most prestigious showcase in North America — "Witch Hunt" will have its local premiere at the California Theatre, which seats more than 1,000 people.
"We rarely put documentaries in that theater," says Cinequest director of programming Mike Rabehl. "But I'm telling people if there's one thing you have to see, it's this movie." Several of the people who spent years in jail, and members of the legal team from Santa Clara University's Northern California Innocence Project who worked to get one of them out, are expected to attend the screening at 4:30 p.m. Saturday.
Hardy and Nachman had learned of the molestation cases as news producers at KNTV, the San Jose-based affiliate for NBC, and had won a local Emmy for their stories about work the Innocence Project did on behalf of John Stoll. He was one of more than 30 people arrested during the 1980s in Kern County, most of them working class people charged with molesting their own children.
Between 1983 and 1987, a total of 37 people were convicted. Of those convictions, 34 were reversed. Rick and Marcella Pitts were sentenced to a total of 749 years in prison. Jeff Modahl, accused of molesting his young daughter, was sentenced to 48 years. Brenda and Scott Kniffen were convicted of hanging their children from hooks, beating and then sodomizing them.
The convictions were based on the testimony of children, most of whom later recanted. The children had been asked leading questions by social workers and sheriff's deputies, a report issued by the California Attorney General's Office said. "It's unimaginable what these people went through," says Kathleen (Cookie) Ridolfi, executive director of the Northern California Innocence Project, "unimaginable what the authorities allowed to happen."
Stoll, convicted on 17 counts, served 20 years before the Innocence Project got his conviction overturned, the lawyers putting most of the cost on their credit cards. "We knew this man was innocent,'' says Ridolfi. "How could we not?"
Stoll is the film's eloquent spokesman for the fallibility of the criminal justice system, but he was initially skeptical that either the lawyers or the filmmakers would stick with the project. For years, he says, "Nobody ever talked to us. Nobody had ever given us a chance to say, 'This is nuts. We didn't do this stuff.' "
The personal damage
The documentary is less an investigation of the cases — although there are a few lurid details, such as charges of devil worship that hit the front pages in Bakersfield at the height of the hysteria — than an examination of what those who were falsely accused went through. Most lost not only their freedom, but also their children. Many of the children are in the film, now grown and suffering from emotional and psychological problems related to feelings of guilt about what happened because of their testimony.
"I think the people we interviewed really wanted somebody to validate the pain that they went through," Nachman says, "and the movie did that for them."
Stoll eventually received a $700,000 settlement from the state for his 20 years behind bars. During the lengthy gestation of "Witch Hunt," Nachman gave birth to two children. She was eight months pregnant with one of them when she got a voice-mail message from Pearl Jam's lead singer, Eddie Vedder. For months, she had been sending him notes, asking to use the band's emblematic song, "The Long Road." Nachman recalls jumping up and down so much that her husband finally had to ask her to think of the baby.
The filmmakers also pursued Sean Penn for two years, trying to get him to donate his services as the film's narrator. They received so many e-mails from a mutual friend encouraging them to "keep the faith" that they named their production company KTF Films.
Then one day in 2007, they received a call inviting them to come to Marin County to screen the film for Penn, but got stuck in traffic and arrived just as the screening was ending. Penn emerged from the screening room and, according to Nachman, said, "I'm in." The actor showed up in Toronto to see the film with a festival audience, and hugged Stoll when he saw him.
For all the good feelings the film has generated toward its subjects, it doesn't undo the damage or bring back the lost years. "It's nice to hear people say, 'You deserve this,' " Stoll says. "But to be quite frank, they can believe what they want about me, and I don't particularly care. When people have thought about you what people have thought about me, you learn to say, 'I don't really give a damn what you think.' "
Contact Bruce Newman at email@example.com or (408) 920-5004.
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