Review: ‘Witch Hunt’

"Witch Hunt," narrated and exec produced by Sean Penn, explores the '80s-era explosion of child-abuse prosecutions in California's Kern County.

Not hysterical but rich in righteous indignation, “Witch Hunt,” narrated and exec produced by Sean Penn, explores the ’80s-era explosion of child-abuse prosecutions in California’s Kern County, the eventual reversal of the convictions and the seeming ease with which innocent people were railroaded in the interests of political expediency and gain. A just-announced North American TV deal with MSNBC is heartening, given how many more people will likely see the docu on TV than in theaters.

The early ’80s were the era of the missing kid on the milk box — a time when pedophilia, random abductions and abuse seemed epidemic. Eventually, so many of the charges were found to be trumped up that law enforcers probably damaged their ostensible mission, which was to protect children. From the McMartin preschool in California to New Jersey’s Wee Care Day Nursery, it was clearly a case of mass hysteria — one that, the makers of “Witch Hunt” make very clear, was exploited by politicians on the make.

Chief among them is Ed Jagels, the Kern County district attorney and the villain of Dana Nachman and Don Hardy’s doc. Jagels has been re-elected seven times, we’re told, despite the reversals of dozens of convictions dating back to the Bakersfield “abuses” he began prosecuting in 1982. Nachman and Hardy don’t give us Jagels (he declined to participate), but they do an excellent job of following up with those who were unjustly accused: One of them, John Stoll, ended up spending 20 years in prison and was permanently estranged from the young son who accused him.

A hallmark of the prosecutions was the fact that all the young alleged victims testified against their parents at trial; almost all of them later recanted in court. What became of some of the children, who were evidently coerced, threatened, lied to and used, makes “Witch Hunt” particularly poignant, as does the radiating web of misery caused by the accusations. It was the parents, of course — all on the lower rungs of Bakersfield’s economy, and thus deprived of the best legal representation — who were rounded up in the middle of the night.

What’s missing from the film is the genesis of these arrests: Did Jagels target the easiest defendants and then simply manufacture the charges? Were neighbors making false accusations against neighbors? The filmmakers interview government officials of the time — some, who, like Jagels, still occupy positions of authority. But how it all began is left to one’s imagination.

Without some inkling about how the police actually came to suspect a couple here, a couple there (presuming there were actual suspicions and not just abuses of authority), what “Witch Hunt” lacks is an investigation. It’s a postmortem, one guaranteed to raise your hackles, but which fails to satisfy either curiosity or intellectual outrage.

Nachman and Hardy employ fairly conventional documaking techniques, mixing talking heads with period footage, news clips and trial scenes. Penn’s narration is passionate and righteous, without ever waxing strident; one can’t say quite the same about Joe Rosato Jr.’s guitar-based score, which is maudlin at best and oppressive at worst. Other tech credits are adequate.

Witch Hunt

Production

An MSNBC Films release of a KTF Films presentation. Produced by Dana Nachman, Don Hardy. Executive producer, Sean Penn. Directed by Dana Nachman, Don Hardy. Written by Nachman.

Crew

Camera (color, DV), Hardy, Brad Williams, Dan Gillett, Alex Bozovic, Josh Keppel, Paul Fifield, Monique Hurley; editor, Hardy; music, Joe Rosato Jr.; sound designer, Sam Gray; re-recording mixer, Dave Howe. Reviewed at AFI Los Angeles Film Festival (competing), Nov. 3, 2008. (Also in Toronto Film Festival -- Real to Reel.) Running time: 91 MIN.

With

John Stoll, Jeffrey Modahl, Scott Kniffen, Brenda Kniffen, Rick Piotts, Marcella Piotts, Jack Cummings, Jackie Cummings. Narrator: Sean Penn.
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