Ricocheting from the halls of power to the cardboard homes of a marginalized pariah people, Untouchable is an enlightening documentary that defies expectations and challenges assumptions to argue for a new understanding of how we think about and legislate sexual abuse.
Untouchable Film Synopsis:
When Ron Book, the most influential lobbyist in Florida discovers that the nanny has sexually abused his daughter, he harnesses his extraordinary political power to pass the toughest sex offender laws in the nation. Untouchable chronicles his crusade, and its impact on the lives of several of the 800,000 people forced to live under the kinds of laws he has championed.
Attorney-turned-filmmaker David Feige delves fearlessly into a confounding and taboo issue, weaving together stories of sexual abuse victims with those of sex offenders as well as the advocates and academics who argue the many sides of the situation. The result is a strange sort of documentary-thriller that reveals a surprisingly twisted, interconnected public health crisis where the victims and perpetrators are inextricably linked by a legal system gone awry.
Helen Highly Alarmed by the Shocking Revelations in Untouchable, Interviews the Documentary Director and Editor
HH: A film about sex offenders. Not exactly an appealing outing to the movies. Why did you choose this unlikable topic, how did you get funding, and do you really expect people to go and see it?
Feige: Why this issue? Because I didn’t think anybody else was going to pick it up. I worked 15 years as a public defender, and even as the Trial Chief of the office, I tended to take on the most difficult cases. That’s what I do. Look, there are lots of people who are willing to take on certain issues – innocence, the death penalty, the drug war. All of these things already have a built in constituency and already have a lot of people who are willing to write and talk and make movies about them. In a way, they are the low-hanging fruit of the criminal justice reform discussion. This is not.
This is about as difficult a subject as you can find. It is complicated terrain and few people are willing to venture out into it. For that reason, the film was nearly impossible to fund. Basically, no one would fund it. But I made the film for exactly the reason that nobody would fund it – because I was interested in the most complex and most difficult questions. I was interested in the hardest questions in the criminal justice system, not the easy ones. The film is still in debt but… at least it got made.
Will people see it? Well, when people do see the film they react positively and strongly and they recognize the value of what we’ve done here. It’s an extremely thought-provoking film that makes you see the entire subject in a new way, and I believe that despite the subject matter, it’s really engaging and emotionally satisfying, which makes it absolutely worth seeing.
HH: And what is the status of the movie now? You won the Best New Documentary Director award at Tribeca. Has the film been picked up for distribution or broadcast yet?
Feige: Nope. We are still looking. We are talking to distributors, and we are also interested in finding a broadcast partner. It’s my hope that the film will have a wide release and a vibrant life and reach a huge and diverse audience. That’s my hope.
HH: Jay, talk to me about the structure of the film. When watching it, it was almost like a thriller in that you saved the most powerful punches for the end. I mean, I was so profoundly shocked by all the “twists” that come late in the film that I almost wanted to go watch it again because I felt I had been watching it wrong, or with the wrong assumptions. Why did you opt to keep the audience in the dark for so long?
Sterrenberg: It’s interesting that you saw it that way. That was not specifically our strategy. But it’s a very complicated issue, and people tend to come into it with preconceived notions and very strong feelings. So, we thought it was best to meet people where they are. We wanted to leave room for the audience to have a lot of different opinions and perspectives and then bring them along slowly, through the complexity, point by point.
We bring you in through Ron and Laura’s personal story. They have had this nightmare experience where she is repeatedly sexually abused by her nanny, and as her father, he has a desire to punish the offender as harshly as possible and forever. And it’s a sensible and legitimate desire. And any audience can totally relate to that — the horror and outrage. So, we wanted to start there. And then we slowly take the audience on this journey down the rabbit hole of part of the criminal justice system that no one wants to engage with.
Feige: You gotta remember, we’re making a movie, which has to have a narrative and an emotional flow to it and so you can’t just… I could make a movie like Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and just do a PowerPoint with a bunch of numbers, but that’s not going to be effective with this subject. So, we do present a lot of data, but this film is fundamentally character driven. It’s about delving into the life experience of people. It’s not a science lesson. It’s not a polemic. It’s a very complex and emotional look into the lives of people on several sides of this issue, who have all suffered tremendously.
Sterrenberg: It needed to be a carefully paced process, introducing these people who are considered monsters by society and looking at them as if they are human. It’s not that we are showing these sex offenders as sympathetic as much as human. That’s why we have three characters (real people) who are parents of children who have been abused as well as three characters (also real people) who are sex offenders. And it’s a dramatic evolution, the way these characters themselves transform in their own stories and their own attitudes. And different people watching will have different reactions, but we do take them through a range of perspectives.
HH: You talk about transformations, and one of the most jolting is Patty Wettlerling, who is the mother of a boy who was kidnapped at gunpoint by a masked man, never to be seen again.
Sterrenberg: Right. That case resulted in the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children Act — the first national sex offender registry.
HH: But after we go through her heartbreaking story and see how she had dedicated her life to advocating for the memory of her son, we finally learn that she has changed sides in the legal battle; she no longer supports the law that was named for her own son. That felt like a bomb exploding in my brain.
Sterrenberg: Yes, she says that she feels that the law named for her son has been “hijacked” and that now it has become counter-productive. The Wetterling Act was about police notification. It was later that Megan’s Law and other public notification laws were enacted, and those have become extremely controversial.
Feige: I want to be clear that I’m not advocating any particular position on this. It’s important to me that when I’m talking about this I’m talking about either what the science shows or what the experts in the film argue rather than my own point of view. I want to raise the questions, flag the social science, and then I want people to agree or disagree as they see fit. That said, the social science is quite clear.
HH: Yes, but the misunderstanding has been enormous. So, the data the film presents is truly amazing. Astounding, actually.
Feige: Right. And so many people want to discount these numbers by saying they were done by some, you know, some pro-sex-offender social scientist or something, but what’s so amazing about these numbers is that they are almost all done by departments of corrections, and probation departments and such.
HH: And the irony is that the opposite of that suspicion is true. The facts as we all think we know them – have repeatedly been told are facts – are actually completely erroneous and unsubstantiated. The movie explains that the phrase “frightening and high recidivism rate” for sex offenders came from an old “Psychology Today” article in 1986, which was simply invalid and dead wrong.
Feige: Exactly. 80% was the number that was in the “Psychology Today” article. And that recidivism rate, and that exact phrase, is still used today to justify, over and over and over, these very, very stringent laws – hundreds of laws across the country, which have enormous impact on people’s lives. And that article had no backup data at all and was not even written by a social scientist. The guy was a “rehabilitation counselor.” But he doesn’t have a PhD, and he’s not a social scientist. And there was no study.
That is why, in every place in the film that we quote a statistic, I felt it was extremely important to make clear where we were getting it, so we actually show the cover page for each report that we quote in the film.
HH: And the actual recidivism rate, according to recent, legitimate studies is not even close to 80%. It’s not even double digits.
Feige: 3.5% is the most reliable number. We took the biggest study – that’s the 1994 DOJ study that followed literally everybody released in 15 states, and that had a number of close to 10,000, so that is really the best three-year recidivism number around, from the study with the biggest sample size. It’s the study done by the United States Department of Justice.
HH: And you’ve explained to me that this 3.5% recidivism rate is the lowest recidivism rate for any crime other than murder. Lower than any other violent crime.
HH: And this is information that wasn’t even included in the movie. The movie is full of dramatic statistics, and still there is more.
Feige: There are a lot of other subjects – related subjects that we cut out of the film, which deserve their own treatment. We didn’t dig into all the data because … as I’ve said, it’s an extremely complicated story.
Sterrenberg: And it was most important to follow the characters and understand their diverse experiences. That’s what makes the numbers make sense.
HH: Okay, so the film does address the issue that we have a completely different category of restrictions and continued punishment for sex offenders after they have been released from prison than we do for any other type of criminal, even other violent offenders, all based on false beliefs.
Feige: Today, a large part of the misunderstanding comes from the way people count. If you count re-incarceration due to “technical violations,” you get a much larger number. Technical violations might be drinking alcohol, associating with another sex offender, not having compliant housing, staying at an unapproved address, or if you’re still getting polygraphs, there is one called “masturbating to an unapproved script,” where if they don’t like what you thought about when you masturbated, you are in violation – you go back to prison. In the movie, we show one man who was eight minutes late arriving home (he was wearing a GPS ankle bracelet), and he was sent back to prison for four years.
HH: I remember that. He was late because he was on a bus that was running late, and he was returning from his low-paying job that was two and half hours away, due to the legal restrictions that prevented him from living anywhere near civilized life. And he actually phoned his parole officer at the time, while on the bus, to explain that he would be a few minutes late. And still he was sent back to prison. For a ten minute delay. It seems unbelievable.
Feige: It was actually only eight minutes, to be exact. And that’s not an isolated incident. His story is fairly typical.
If you’re counting actual sex-crime convictions for previous sex-crime offenders… For every 100 sex-offender prison releases, 70 are sent back and only one of those is for a sex crime. That’s according to California Department of Corrections data.
HH: You turn on TV any night of the week and there is an episode of Law & Order or such, and they are always telling us this misinformation – that the recidivism rate for sex offenders is dangerously high; they will always re-offend. We hear that over and over, so we believe it. It’s mind-blowing to realize that these people are essentially being forced into a lifestyle that is unlivable, where it’s nearly impossible not to have some sort of technical violation.
Sterrenberg: There are multiple areas of misunderstanding. Let’s say you’re a 17 year old teenager dating a 15 or 16 year old teenager. When you turn 18, and your girlfriend or boyfriend is now 16 or 17, suddenly you are a sex offender. And you are treated by the law the same as a violent rapist, and you will live under these same sex-offender restrictions for the rest of your life. These laws are forever. And they paint all offenders with a very broad brush.
In the film, we meet Shawn Baldwin, who is an example of this type of situation, and we see her many years later, now trying to raise her own children but unable to even accompany them to the playground because of her sex offender status.
HH: I think the general public has no idea that this type of confusion is going on. And what I learned in the film is that there is a significant shame factor that prevents people like Shawna from speaking up and arguing for her own justice.
Feige: And these miscalculations and misunderstandings have severe consequences, because they are used to validate these draconian laws. Residency restriction laws in particular – for example, sex offenders cannot live within 2500 feet of a school or park, which often leaves little to no viable real estate where these people can live. This is what pushed a lot of folks under bridges and into makeshift homeless encampments. These laws have a devastating and destabilizing effect on the population because they are so effective in preventing people from forming relationships, getting homes, keeping jobs, etc. They actually decrease the ability of released convicts to be successful. And so that perversely suggests that they are increasing the likelihood of recidivism.
In addition, it appears that Megan’s Law and public notification have essentially no effect on suppression of sexually related violence, and what that in turn means is that we are subjecting three quarters of a million people to some very serious penalties for no real gain.
That begs the question: Then why are we doing it? And it may be that it’s because it feels good. And it also may be that that’s not a sufficient answer to justify what we’re doing.
HH: The details we’ve discussed here are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the insights and revelations in your film. (Truly: I want readers of this interview to understand that there are so many pieces to the story this film tells, more than even an educated person can imagine, and each is more startling than the next.) You have really succeeded at shattering this mass of misinformation and misconception and then intricately examining all the shards.
Your background as a criminal attorney definitely makes its mark on this movie. The film has an indisputable logic to it, and a kind of relentless veracity that threads through the various emotions and personalities that are presented. You are quite the legal mind and also quite an excellent writer.
Feige: I jokingly say that I’m one of the only people in America who made more money as a writer than as a lawyer.
HH: How would you compare your two roles? Do you feel you’ve had more impact as a lawyer or as a writer and filmmaker?
Feige: Being a public defender, I had a profound impact on a relatively small number of lives. Being a writer or filmmaker, I have a much more diffuse and tangential impact but on a far larger number of lives. I think a robust democracy relies on civil discussion and honest debate, and there is real value in promoting that, especially on topics as complex and emotional as this one.
HH: And you have truly made this an honest discussion. It’s not manipulative; it’s not a tear-jerker.
Feige: I didn’t want this to be one of those movies the viewer has to suffer through.
HH: Well, your intention to involve the audience in a legitimate conversation is apparent. And it is indeed compelling. I’m writing about it because I couldn’t get it out of my mind.
Feige: Most people come away saying “It was challenging and interesting and I couldn’t stop talking about it.” Everybody who has written to me says they couldn’t stop talking about it.
Interview by Helen Kaplow, writing as HelenHighly
Watch the Trailer: