In her feature documentary debut, TV reporter Nonny De La Pena examines a harrowing case of injustice in which a mother accuses the gay father of her boy and the boy’s straight grandfather of abuse and molestation. Structured as a devastating chronicle of prejudice and homophobia, “The Jaundiced Eye” details a tumultuous decade of trials, imprisonment and emotional traumas incurred by two Michigan men before they were finally released from jail. This powerful docu, which has played a one-week Oscar-qualifying engagement in L.A., should see limited release in other cities before traveling the festival circuit and landing on PBS and cable channels.
Headed by Dan Gifford and Amy Sommer Gifford, Somford Entertainment, which previously produced the 1997 “Waco: The Rules of Engagement,” should be commended for tackling difficult, controversial issues. Its second feature docu is an unflinching investigation of miscarried justice, as well as of the problems inherent in treating matter-of-factly such emotionally charged issues as child abuse.
Through the testimony of the main participants, some of whom are heard but not seen, an intriguing case unfolds onscreen, one that was all but ignored by the media. Stephen Matthews fathered a child by his girlfriend before coming out as a gay man. For a while, they worked out an arrangement that allowed Stephen to visit his son. The dynamics of the trio’s relationships changed when the mother began dating another man, who was clearly biased (to say the least) against homosexuals.
Tensions increased when Stephen detected a black eye on his son and suspected it was inflicted by his surrogate father. In his testimony, which is heard but not shown, the man admits that he’s a believer in a “disciplined family.” Soon after, the mother files charges of sexual abuse, including the torturous use of a machete, against former b.f. Stephen and his father, Melvin. Charges of abuse against the boy’s grandmother are filed but later dropped.
Despite the fact that there was no physical evidence, Stephen and Melvin were sentenced to 35 years in jail. While in prison, the two men chose different survival tactics: Melvin turned to obsessive bodybuilding and religion, whereas Stephen became an amateur lawyer, dedicating himself to finding lapses, inadequacies and biases in the handling of their case.
A series of child-abuse experts (law professors, medical witnesses) are interviewed on camera. The most crucial evidence, which changed the men’s fate, is given by experts of the Centers for Disease Control who claim that a chlamydia test, which swayed the jury, gave false positive results.
Clearly inspired by the structure and tone of Errol Morris’ landmark docu “The Thin Blue Line,” “The Jaundiced Eye” (the title derives from a poem by Alexander Pope) unravels in a suspenseful manner until it reaches a most upsetting, dramatic ending. Kate Hard, head of the National Child Abuse Defense Center, claims that once a child is convinced that he has been molested, it’s impossible to change his mind. This is followed by the boy’s voice (he refused to be filmed) repeating the charges against his biological father and stating his love for his stepfather.
As forceful as the docu is in presenting the facts, some disturbing questions linger: Was the boy, who’s now 15, indoctrinated (brainwashed) by his mother? How did he live with this knowledge and lack of communication with his father’s family for a decade? Probably out of respect for her victimized subjects, helmer De La Pena avoids too much editorializing, refusing to impose her views on the agonizing story.