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By Whitney Borup | March 4, 2009

We like to think that the people we put behind bars deserve to be there. Those of us on the liberal side of things hope that those prisons are rehabilitory and that one day said prisoners will be reintroduced into society and everything will be hunky dory. But what would you do if you were suddenly arrested and taken to prison for crimes so horrific, you didn’t even know they existed? To make matters worse, the proof of your innocence rests on the testimony of a manipulated child.

This is what the men and women in Bakersfield in the 1980s faced as the city was going child-molestation-accusation crazy. If you took Psych. 101, you are probably aware that child testimony has often been proven unreliable. The slightest suggestive questioning, and kids will usually give you what you want in order to please. Basically, kids are rotten, dirty, little liars. But in Bakersfield, people didn’t seem to be aware of this fact. Mothers and fathers whose main concerns in life centered on family were victims of an over-zealous police department and district attorney looking for publicity. After losing their children, going through hundreds of painful court sessions, and spending years in jail, these convicted child molesters are ready to tell their stories: they didn’t do it.

The film “Witch Hunt” explores what happened in these Bakersfield cases and follows the individuals accused in the aftermath of their sentencing. It uses all those documentary techniques we have become very familiar with – talking heads, the Ken Burns effect of scanning photos, stock footage, etc. – to deftly recount the history of the case. The film spends most of its time with the adult victims of the court system, and only touches briefly on how the cases affected the children’s lives. However, it is clear that this is was a very emotional experience for everyone involved.

Because of the conventional nature of the film, it might not stick out as much as other documentaries dealing with this subject. A film like “Capturing the Friedmans,” for example, has much more room to play with the subject, leaving the case ambiguous. “Witch Hunt” is anything but ambiguous. According to the film (and the law), these people were innocent. End of story. It’s a sad, terrible story, but it’s over now. The courts seem to be smarter about child testimony, and any uncertainty is put behind us. There have been Frontline documentaries that have shown us the same kinds of things in the same straightforward style. So while “Witch Hunt” is compelling and extremely well made, it’s somewhat forgettable to those without a vested interest in the subject.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s good. By all means, go see “Witch Hunt” and give the independent documentary directors (and Sean Penn) all your money. It’s just that we’ve seen this kind of story told before in documentaries, and we’ve seen it told better.

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