Don Hardy Jr. + Dana Nachman | 2008 | 91 mins | USA
A truly harrowing documentary because it shows just how incredibly easy it can be for an ordinary person's life to go from "normal" to "totally fuuuuuuucked" in no time at all. The story of John Stoll, and countless others from the community of Bakersfield, California, is mind-boggling. The quiet single dad was arrested in 1984 and charged with child molestation, first against his own son, and soon after a slew of other neighbourhood boys.
John Stoll knew he was innocent, but he didn't realise at first that he was just one part of a much larger and more sinister witch hunt. Over the course of a few years, dozens of working class moms and dads were arrested, charged and convicted. The allegations grew more and more implausible, by the end painting local families as satan worshipers who sacrificed children in bloody, secret rituals.
Most of those convicted spent a decade or longer in prison (in John Stoll’s case, twenty full years) before they were exonerated amid a flurry of witness recantations, charges of improper investigative techniques, badly conducted interviews with young alleged victims and concealing evidence that would have provided more than a reasonable doubt as to the accused citizens’ guilt.
The zealous and single minded district attorney behind the convictions remains in office to this day, still unwilling to accept that something truly went wrong in Bakersfield. Interviews with former inmates are emotional, but nothing is more heartbreaking than hearing the allegedly molested children (now adults with families of their own) talk about how they were coerced into lying about what happened, and how the episode has tainted their entire lives and hampered their ability to have normal, loving relationships with their own children.
Executive Producer Sean Penn narrates the hair-raising cautionary tale of how lives can be ruined with the most honourable of intentions. After all, who would argue that it's important to protect innocent children?