The Jaundiced Eye
Vanguard // Unrated // $29.95 // December 24, 2002
Review by Gil Jawetz | posted September 28, 2003
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Allegations of sexual abuse involving children are extremely sensitive and, in the case of Stephen Mathews and his father Melvin, the allegations very nearly destroyed a family. Nonny De La Pena's film The Jaundiced Eye is a thoughtful, in-depth look at a controversial child abuse case that took a decade to reach a conclusion. During that time four generations of a family were ripped apart.

The specifics of the case are both bizarre and revolting: A young boy, apparently at the urging of his mother and step-father, accuses his father and grand-father of raping him dozens of times in the family home as well as sticking a machete in his rear. These charges are beyond shocking; they're simply horrifying. Tapes are played of the child testifying about these acts and his mother and then-stepfather spew hatred at the accused. The thing is, the charges appeared to have been totally false. The Jaundiced Eye breaks down all the reasons it was inconceivable that Stephen and Melvin carried out any of these crimes and the ways they were railroaded by incompetent lawyers and angry prosecutors.

Frankly, in this world of infinite possibilities the charges made here are believable, if beyond twisted. But the mountain of evidence on display seems to at least cancel out the prosecution's case even as they send the father and son to prison. Part of the problem, the film suggests, is simply that the charges are so bad that the Matthews' home town of Monroe (half-way between Detroit and Toledo) basically put the burden of proof on the defendants. The issue of Stephen's sexuality also seems key. Having had a son before he even had a chance to realize that he was gay, Stephen comes across as someone not entirely sure of who he is. His ex and her husband, on the other hand, seem pretty sure of how they feel, slipping homophobic comments into their interviews several times. As the film points out, Stephen's identity left him guilty in the eyes of his community without any solid physical evidence needed.

The Jaundiced Eye manages to tell the story of a failed justice system at the same time that it explores the psychological and legal aspects of child abuse cases and details the lives of most of the people involved. De La Pena really works hard to get as many different viewpoints into their film as possible. Of course the defendants are interviewed, but so are the mother (in silhouette) and her husband (whose voice appears to have been recorded over the phone. Child psychologists appear to give both sides of the case and audio testimony of the alleged victim (first as a young boy, later as a teenager) really drives home what's at stake.

Certain elements are explored and then later re-evaluated. For example, an interview the boy gave where he discussed the abuse charges is harrowing for its explicit details, but later a child psychologist explains how standard interview techniques that work fine for adults become powerful ways to lead a child to a desired response. With that in mind, the same interview now sounds canned and manipulative.

There's no doubt that the filmmakers are sympathetic to the plight of the accused but they don't attempt to turn them into ideal human beings. Stephen takes the incredibly stupid step of leaving Michigan while out on bail and the pair are shown, even after years of going through the trauma of prosecution together, to not have a particularly strong bond. This is real, messy human behavior and the filmmakers show it all, to their credit. But the issues at stake here are bigger than any individuals and this thoughtful, provocative film takes the time to explore many different sides of the story. It sometimes goes in unexpected directions (like Stephen's incredibly explicit description of what happened to him in prison) and even the ending refuses to revel in simple Hollywood emotion. One scene that says it all finds Stephen near the end of his ten year legal journey listening to a tape of his now-fifteen year old son talking about how much he hates his father. The look of sorrow and regret on the man's face is enough to fill volumes. The film cannot explain why any of this ever started but it does an extraordinary job of wading through the aftermath.

The non-anamorphic transfer is fine video. Nothing spectacular but clear and lacking any serious problems.

The Dolby Digital stereo audio is fine. Some of the outdoors footage is a bit tough to understand but most of the material is clear. Again, nothing that jumps out as being particularly special but good solid work.

The main extra is a short update on the characters that contains some incredible surprises. It's a shame that the film couldn't continue to include the next part of Stephen's story since it sounds just as fascinating as what's here.

The other main extra is a commentary track from director Nonny De La Pena along with some of her collaborators. The track is somewhat interesting but really most of the insight is in the film. There is also a sequence of deleted scenes, although they're a bit puzzling since some of them actually do appear in the film and they appear heavily compressed.

The Jaundiced Eye is a challenging and disturbing piece. Similar in some ways to the Paradise Lost films, which also detailed community outrage and scapegoating, it explores a dark side of small-town life. Someone like Stephen Matthews who is different is vulnerable. The pain that he and his family endured for a decade is extremely upsetting and the filmmakers expertly portray that.

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