Festival Daily

By Kate Lawrie

I’ve never had to fight back tears while moderating a Q&A; after a film. Not until this past Sunday, September 7, that is – at the world premiere of directors Don Hardy and Dana Nachman’s documentary Witch Hunt. I had seen the film in an advance screening, and admittedly was astonished by the almost surreal failing of the American legal system that it details. But even that couldn’t prepare me for the emotional outpouring that came about at the post-premiere discussion.

In the late 1980s, a cataclysm of undertrained investigators, bad questioning methods, problematic prosecution cases and contagious paranoia sent dozens of people to prison on false charges of child molestation in the community of Bakersfield, California. Many were accused of abusing their children and had to suffer the ordeal of being testified against by their own kin, who were being coached by prosecutors, police and social workers. Their kids were taken away. Their friends shut them out. They were wrongly abandoned in the penal system, bearing the most dangerous stamp possible: child molester. Some of them received sentences literally in the hundreds of years.

Witch Hunt details how the lives of several individuals and families were shattered, and also documents the incredible efforts that were taken to get 34 convicted individuals freed. In the case of John Stoll, accused of molesting his own son and several other boys, freedom was 20 long years in the making. What is even more painful for Stoll, however, is that his son Jed spent his childhood being told he was molested, and has never been able to believe otherwise, despite Stoll’s case being overturned.

So the film itself is something powerful. But what made the screening even more so was that the filmmakers were joined onstage by lawyers from the Northern California Innocence Project (whose work finally helped to free Stoll) and by no fewer than nine of the parents and (now grown) children whose stories were shared in the film. An emotional audience listened as Hardy, Nachman and their guests answered questions about what it felt like to see this material onscreen (evidence of tears on many of their faces was a good indication), what had gone wrong in the courts, and where all the very well-deserved anger was now.

Narrator and executive producer Sean Penn watched calmly from his seat, standing to acknowledge the applause when the stage party thanked him for investing his talents in a film and a cause that benefited greatly from his high-profile status.  

Estimates suggest that if even one per cent – a figure that is highly conservative – of the incarcerated population in the United States have been wrongly convicted, upwards of 20,000 individuals could be condemned in error.

I sat down with Hardy and Nachman for their first (of what is sure to be many) interview about the film.

Q: How did you get involved in telling this story?

Don Hardy: It all starts with John Stoll and the Northern California Innocence Project.

Dana Nachman: We had worked with them before in our “real jobs” as journalists [laughs], and we wanted a case that was going break open. They told us about John Stoll’s case before it went into the courts. So we travelled on that journey with them as he went through his hearings. And then he got out and moved right near us, and we became friends. And that’s how we learned that this not only happened to him, but happened to so many other people. We just started contacting them and they kept saying, “Yeah, we’ll do something with you.” Then it turned into a documentary.

Q: These convictions almost seem like a natural disaster, to have hit a community and reached as many people as they did. Have the subsequent revelations about the miscarriage of justice had another major impact on the Bakersfield community? Do they still talk about it?

DH: I don’t think they even really acknowledged it back then. It was a town with one newspaper, and the TV stations took their cue from that paper. There wasn’t a lot of digging for truth. They almost stopped caring; they stopped covering it, so the public wouldn’t even know about it.

DN: But as for now, maybe talk to us in a month or two.

Q: The film mirrors the accused’s own sense of how this just came out of the blue – I mean, you never really say, “Here’s the thing or event that started all this.” Do you have any theories or information about what did?

DH: What started it is really tough. It’s different in each one of these cases. It’s kind of guilt by association.

DN: There were so many more cases, there are probably dozens more. I think what actually started this whole thing was this tough-on-crime agenda, this guy [district attorney Ed Jagels] coming in who said, “We’re going to rid the streets of child molesters,” just because it’s a good thing to run on.

DH: It was kind of a hot topic; cases were popping up all over the States.

Q: What’s your hope for the film beyond tonight?

DN: We just hope the most people that can see it will see it – and that John’s son [who still will not contact his father] sees it and comes back to him. And that this doesn’t happen to more people.

Q: When the state attorney general finally stepped in to start reviewing the cases, he did so because he felt law and order had seriously broken down. Is this kind of meltdown an aberration, or is there a larger problem?

DH: We certainly found out through making the film that this kind of stuff does happen everywhere. And maybe people could be a little more aware and try to do their part more – serving on juries, reading the paper, not rushing to judgment.

Sept. 12, 3:00pm, AMC 2

Incredible article.
Comment By isaac At 11/09/2021 3:31 PM
I was fortunate to be a guest at the TIFF premiere of Witch Hunt, a great film by Dana Nachman and Don Hardy. The film itself was a powerful document of the abuse of power within the legal system of the small town of Bakersfield, California. The Q & A after the premiere was the start of a spectacular victory by innocent victims, some of whom were on stage. It was a truly moving experience.
Comment By Grant Lyons At 15/09/2021 12:18 AM
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