As the director of Sundance-winning documentary “After Innocence,” filmmaker Jessica Sanders has long been interested in what happens to the unjustly accused. But what happens to those who wrongly accused the innocent person could be equally provocative. That’s the premise behind “Picking Cotton,” a dramatic true story that has been selected for Cabos Discovery, a forum for projects in development.
The movie will tell the story of rape survivor Jennifer Thompson and her accused rapist Ronald Cotton. In April, “Picking Cotton” won the Sloan Filmmaker Fund grant for science-based films from the Tribeca Film Institute, an apt choice since it was one of the first cases to be overturned due to DNA analysis,
Cotton was imprisoned for 11 years before DNA evidence cleared him, but the story didn’t end with the freed man forever hating the woman who put him behind bars. Instead, they became friends and activists for social justice. Their story was told in the 2009 bestseller “Picking Cotton,” written by Cotton and Thompson with Erin Torneo. Though a film was planned after the book appeared, it didn’t get off the ground, and Sanders is now planning it as her first narrative feature.
She seems uniquely qualified to tell the story, since Cotton was featured in “After Innocence.” “I’m close to them and this story,” Sanders explains. “I’ve been with them for years.”
“I’d like to make it very small so I can make the movie I want to make,” she says. With stories like the “Serial” podcast resonating throughout the culture, “I think it’s an incredible time for this,” she says.
But Sanders notes that despite other stories of innocent people gaining attention, “There’s never been a wrongful conviction story that tells the story of both the victim and the person convicted. They’re best friends and totally connected.” Addressing race, class and sexual assault on campus, it film’s themes are extremely topical, Sanders notes.
Sanders, who also made the Oscar-nommed short “Sing!,” will be able to apply her documentary experience and instincts to to the narrative world with this project. “I love storytelling. It’s a different animal but a similar approach.” Interest in the project has been growing since Tribeca, she says, and she’s hoping to further continue those conversations in Cabo.
The Discovery section matches filmmakers with potential financial partners and production collaborators from around the world for discussions during the Los Cabos film festival, which takes place Nov. 11 to Nov. 15 in the Mexican resort town.