One documentary filmmaker Lisa Jackson gets an idea in her head, she doesn’t back down until it’s translated to the screen. Her latest film, Sex Crimes Unit, has been over 15 years in the making. The documentary premieres on HBO June 20, and is the product of countless hours Jackson spent, with and without her camera crew, hanging around the unit of the District Attorney’s office responsible for prosecuting Manhattan’s sex crimes.
Jackson, who lives and works on the Upper West Side, met Linda Fairstein, then the head of the unit, in the mid 1990s and began following her cases.
“It just became an obsession of mine to try to do a film about the unit,” Jackson says. “The fact that it was the first unit in the country; it really is the gold standard. I thought, rape is so chronically underreported that if you showed a portrait of the prosecutors who do take on these crimes that maybe survivors would be more likely to come forward.”
The film highlights the day-to-day work of the prosecutors and follows two cases in particular—a 16-year-old cold case and another recent rape—both brutal crimes. Jackson interviewed the victim of the older case, Natasha Alexenko, and told the story of how her rapist was finally found using DNA evidence.
“I had pretty much closed that chapter in my life,” Alexenko explains in a recent interview. “I had healed and moved on. It was certainly a shock” when they found the perpetrator. She decided to come forward for the film because she wanted to help the prosecutors who had guided her so compassionately through the difficult process of the trial. “I had actually really been inspired by the men and woman that work in the sex crimes unit,” Alexenko says. “I told them I would do anything I could do to help them.”
Jackson spent about a year getting to know Alexenko before she even filmed the interviews with her. She also followed four or five cases simultaneously but could only use footage from trials that had ended by the time the film aired. She shot many scenes from the trial of Kenneth Moreno and Franklin Mata, the NYPD officers recently acquitted of rape, but wasn’t able to include it.
“I don’t know if it would have changed the film” to include that case, Jackson says. “It would have shown how incredibly difficult their job is, often—in a case like that where there was no hard evidence, there were no eyewitnesses.”
The film also illustrates how cases like that would never have made it to trial before New York State reformed its laws in the 1970s. Jackson interviewed former District Attorney Robert Morganthau about his role in changing the way rape was prosecuted. “I went to him and said, everybody’s talking about your legacy— white collar crime, all this stuff—but nobody’s really talking about the jewel in your crown: his incredible mentoring of women and his championing this unit,” Jackson says. “He’s justifiably proud of that unit.”
Jackson also deliberately included snippets of the prosecutors debating the merits of Derek Jeter and swapping stories about their personal lives.
“A film about sexual violence isn’t depressing. It’s full of humor, it’s full of real humanity,” Jackson says. “They may be really driving, obsessed, laser-focused lawyers, but at the same time, they have obsessions with movie stars, they’re huge Yankees fans, they sweat college loans, they worry about their weight.”
They also work extremely hard at a decidedly unglamorous job. Based on popular TV legal dramas, “we have this perception that they’re all sitting in mahogany-lined offices wearing Prada,” Alexenko says. “And that’s very very far from the truth.”
Both Jackson and Alexenko hope that the film will help victims of sexual assault understand what happens when they come forward to report the crimes against them. Alexenko quit her job last year to work fulltime on her foundation, Natasha’s Justice Project, which works closely with the Joyful Heart Foundation, founded by Law & Order: SVU star Mariska Hargitay, to end the national backlog of untested rape kits.
“With my case, the closure I had, I just felt it’s my karmic duty to take the tools, to take my story and help others,” Alexenko says. “There are 180,000 untested rape kits sitting on shelves. We have the means to find these criminals through databases.”
Jackson hopes that viewers will come away with an understanding of how far the legal system has progressed toward helping sexual assault victims, and how hard the sex crimes unit works for justice.
“It’s either happened to one of us, or we know someone it’s happened to,” Jackson says, citing the statistic that one in six women will be the victim of a sexual assault. “I hope that the film brings a new way of looking at the crime itself, and hopefully motivates more women to come forward, more attorneys to dedicate themselves to this kind of law, and really makes the point of the importance of units like this.”
Tags: district attorney, DNA evidence, documentary, HBO, HBO documentary, Law & Order: SVU, Linda Fairstein, Lisa Jackson, Mariska Hargitay, Natasha Alexenko, Natasha's Justice Project, NYPD, rape, rape victims, Robert Morganthau, Sex Crimes Unit, sexual assault, sexual assault survivors, SVU, Upper West Side