New Documentary ‘Untouchable’ Is Tribeca Film Fest Standout

Why would a law mandate that ex-convicts be homeless and virtually unemployable? And what sort of government imposes such rules?

That’s the question of David Feige’s startling new documentary “Untouchable,” a Tribeca Film Festival award winner.

I must note here that I am not completely objective about this film. I have known Feige for many years and was briefly a collaborator with him on a TV pilot project. At the same time I watched the movie with certain prejudices and experiences which made me instinctively hostile and resistant to its message.

Feige’s subject is America’s present set of policies with respect to convicted sex offenders. But, while the film is broadly arguing for a wholesale reassessment of these mechanisms of control, the director has great sympathy for the families of those victimized by sex offenders and for their desire for retribution.

In fact, that’s where his story starts: with powerful Florida lobbyist Ron Book and his daughter Lauren and their account of how she was molested and tortured by an immigrant housekeeper. Then Feige travels around Tampa with Judy Cornett, a working class mother whose son was kidnapped and raped by a local pedophile.

Cornett has organized a patrol that seeks to protect neighborhood kids. Feige is an avuncular personality, and he wins his subjects’ trust and his remarkable interviews offer us a deeply affecting view of their heartbreak.

Yet through the course of this many-layered and beautifully photographed film we see the impracticality and unreasonableness of many of the policies that have been adopted around the country in response to the problem.

In Florida, this has produced legislation — shepherded through the Miami City Council and the state legislature by Book — which requires registered sex offenders to live more than 2500 feet from places where children congregate. Since released offenders must return to their prior place of residence and many locales have few residential areas at such a remove from schools and playgrounds, this has forced released offenders to sell their homes and to move to homeless encampments.

Some wind up sleeping under bridges. When these are closed off to them, they end up spending their nights in cars or in tents in designated sections of parking lots. Even worse, their placement on offender registries, which are public, makes finding work nearly impossible for them.

Feige’s film further points out that the term “sex offender” is a catch-all, encompassing a wide range of people who have committed very different offenses with very different propensities for recidivism. Thus, the third story that Feige examines in his film is that of Shawna Baldwin. Thrown out of her home in adolescence by a puritanical mother, Baldwin had a one-night stand with a teen-age boy. While that might sound relatively innocuous, because Baldwin was of the age of consent at the time and her lover was not, she wound up being charged with statutory rape and is now on a lifetime federal registry as a sex offender. This has led to her being fired from jobs. It has cost her tens of thousands in fees. It makes it difficult for her to move. It prevents her from ever taking her young children to local parks and zoos.

We also gain a window into the problem of familial sex offenders through a man who touched his step-daughter’s private parts. Heinous though this may be, we see how he has been treated like Jean Valjean by Inspector Javert. Because he showed up eight minutes late to meet his parole officer one day (after first calling ahead to say that his bus was half an hour late), he was sent back to prison for an additional four years. He has been prevented from seeing his biological children, and he now lives in a tent in a Miami parking lot. He has lost a home he owned and must travel for hours each day to work at a low-paying job. We eventually learn as well that he was a victim of molestation and that he is genuinely contrite about his crime.

If there is any weakness to this remarkable and very important film that left the audience I saw it with moved and somewhat stunned, it is its reference to studies showing extremely low rates of recidivism for sex offenses. Quoting research from several states, the film indicates that the typical rate of re-offense for sex offenders is below 3%. This data is based on a three year period from release and upon rates of re-apprehension. It also includes the whole category of “sex offender,” rather than the more narrow and stereotypical category of male offenders who rape women or children they do not know.

It is to Feige’s immense credit that he includes a lengthy interview with one male pedophile with such obvious inclinations. While he is much more sad than scary, we get some sense of how deeply-rooted these impulses can be.

My suspicion of the statistics the film quotes is awakened by personal experience and some independent research. Many years ago a former roommate of mine was attacked by a convicted rapist who had only been released from prison months before. I also worked as a teacher with an active pedophile who had to be removed from the classroom, one who had been previously thrown out of another school because of his interest in young girls. Those experiences prompted me to look critically into the data “Untouchable” makes use of, research which appears to somewhat overstate its argument. Other survey research focusing on longer time periods and upon men who abduct and assault adult women show far higher rates of re-offense. Further, these men tend to be prone to violent crime and to re-arrest per se.

Nonetheless, it is clear that many of those now categorized as sex offenders are extremely unlikely to re-offend. This includes nearly all women who have been convicted of sex offenses and those charged with statutory rape who are near in age to their lovers. Further, there is little evidence that residency requirements imposed upon released offenders effectively deter offenses or that making sex offender registries public justifies the harassment and suffering that results from them.

Feige’s film seeks to provoke honest discussion and new and better thinking. It deals with the ruined lives of hundreds of thousands of people, and it does so with great power. Rightly, it has won him the Festival’s Albert Maysles Best New Documentary Director award. We can only hope that more Americans will get a chance to watch this exceptional and important film, one of the most impressive documentaries I have ever seen.

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Published on: Apr 25, 2006 at 19:11

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