“I Am Evidence,” an HBO documentary that aired on Apr. 16, pulls its title from a soundbite given in the first five minutes of the film, in which a survivor of sexual assault says: “I am evidence. Literally. My name is on a box, on a shelf … that (has) never been tested.”
Produced by Mariska Hargitay (“Law and Order: Special Victims Unit”), “I Am Evidence” offers a look into the critical problem of backlogged rape kits around the country, following Hargitay around different cities as she talks to activists, prosecutors, criminal defense lawyers, law enforcement and other city officials. It opens with snippets from a few main interviewee’s accounts of how men, both acquaintances and strangers, assaulted and/or raped them, spliced with security footage — from streets and hallways — that show some of the assaults in action. A statistic is then shown, to lend an immediacy to the following material, as if it weren’t already there: Every two minutes, someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted.
Hargitay recounts that once she started playing Detective Olivia Benson on “SVU,” she started receiving letters from women around the country, who were disclosing their own experiences to her. A few became a few hundred, and then a few thousand. You can hear the astonishment in her voice, even years later, as she recounts how nearly all of the letters she received held some version of an admission, varying in tone, revealing that they’ve never told anyone about it before.
While giving an introduction about Kym Worthy, a prosecutor of Wayne County, Hargitay says, “To me, the rape kit backlog is the clearest and most shocking demonstration of how we regard these crimes.” Though a recognizable gimmick, the overlaying of sound bites in which reporters and news anchors soberly rattle off the number of untested rape kits in different states and districts is nonetheless devastating; the documentary itself focuses mostly on cases in Detroit and New York, among a few others.
One of the most shocking parts of “I Am Evidence” are the screenshots of reports written up by police officers — reports laced with misogynistic, racist and classist attitudes — in which they often indicate a shocking carelessness and propensity to make snap judgements about a woman’s believability. One, when recounting a woman’s story, notes scathingly, “This heffer is tripping.” Another police officer, reporting about a woman who survived a gang rape, observes, “She just laid there, so she must have wanted it.”
It’s also disheartening to hear about how “shocked” people like Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine are when they find out how many hits they could get from running DNA through the system, helping them find repeat offenders.
Nothing in “I Am Evidence” is groundbreaking or surprising to anyone who knows anything about how inadequate our law system is regarding this issue specifically. A few years ago, after news sources started breaking the story of just how widespread the issue of backlogged, untested rape kits that sat gathering dust on forgotten shelves is, some people in specific circles started paying more attention, but it is still often a vastly underfunded area. Hundreds of thousands of cases are now too old under the statute of limitations; the victims will not see their assailants brought to justice. Even the parts of it that feel creepy — listening to a lawyer ask a survivor what kind of shirt she was wearing the day she got assaulted, listening to Hargitay tell gruesome stories about repeat offenders while traveling in a car around idyllic neighborhoods — are more emotionally draining to watch than they are illuminating.
The documentary’s strongest point is that it doesn’t attempt to cover the entirety of the rape problem in the United States. By focusing on the problem of backlogged rape kits, it’s grounded in specifics. While it does showcase the hard, thankless work of the people striving to make a dent in this problem, it doesn’t gloss the problem as something with a clear and reachable solution. It ends with what feels like an admonition, before the credits roll: “Most U.S. police departments are permitted to destroy rape kit evidence before the statute of limitations expires.”