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Film Synopsis

THE RECALL: REFRAMED examines the 2018 recall of California Judge Aaron Persky, who lost his judgeship after handing down a sentence deemed too lenient by many in the infamous sexual assault case involving Stanford swimmer Brock Turner. The recall came at the height of the #MeToo movement, and some hailed it as a victory against rape culture, white privilege, and a system stacked against survivors of sexual violence. But there’s more to the story. The film offers competing perspectives and asks the difficult question: Who actually bears the burden when we demand harsher punishment for a privileged white defendant?

Director’s Statement

My desire to make a film about the recall of California Judge Aaron Persky was driven by outrage—my own and others’.

In The People v Turner, a jury convicted Stanford swimming star Brock Turner of the sexual assault and attempted rape of an unconscious woman, Chanel Miller, on the university campus. Judge Persky sentenced Turner to six months in jail, three years probation, and a lifetime on the sex offender registry. This was the sentence recommended by the probation officer, but vocal advocates for sexual violence prevention and gender justice alleged that Persky’s race, gender, and class biases unfairly influenced his sentencing in favor of Turner (prosecutors had asked for six years of incarceration). The California Commission on Judicial Performance’s investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing nor any pattern of biased sentencing by Judge Persky. Yet public outcry over the sentence mushroomed into a call for Judge Persky’s removal, and voters overwhelmingly stripped him of his judgeship.

Outrage–that potent alchemy of fear, anger, resentment, and disgust–is an appropriate public and personal response to the persistence of sexual harms and our country’s woefully inept response to them. We are outraged that after generations of activism, people still debate how the survivors of sexual violence could have prevented their own victimization, and many remain eager to excuse or normalize sexual harms. We are outraged that our country still relies primarily on the criminal system to address sexual harms even though that system traditionally has failed to solve cases or support survivors, and in fact often retraumatizes them. We are outraged that white, high-profile perpetrators of sexual violence have historically acted with impunity, especially if their victims are from a marginalized community.

My outrage at the persistence and prevalence of sexual violence in this country–on college campuses, in private homes, in workplaces and on the street–is matched by another kind of outrage: my anger at the criminal legal system and its uniquely punitive approach. A system that relies on severe punishment through excessive incarceration and sex offender registries that do not actually prevent sexual harm, but which do prevent people from building stable lives. A system that disproportionately impacts and imprisons Black and brown people, low income people, immigrants, and undocumented people. A system that imposes mandatory minimum sentencing requirements and pursues vengeance and punishment over meaningful accountability and restoration. So I am dismayed by our failure of imagination when we, with the best of intentions, seek to support the very real–and often very harmed–survivors of sexual and gender violence by relying too heavily on that system.

I made THE RECALL: REFRAMED because I wanted to give voice to both kinds of outrage, which often stand in tension with one another but need not. I made it because we need to listen to the chorus of feminists, legal scholars, judges, and movement builders who see the Brock Turner case not as an open-and-shut case of underpunishment, but rather as a complex, nuanced, and deeply meaningful encapsulation of what’s wrong in the American criminal legal system. These voices ask us for more than mere outrage: they challenge us to match our righteous condemnation of sexual violence with an equally dedicated condemnation of punitive, biased mass incarceration policies.

I believe that the pain and anguish suffered by sexual assault survivors, like Chanel Miller, is real and lasting. Too often, cases like hers are poorly investigated, riddled with errors, and deeply retraumatizing. There is no question that our criminal legal system does not serve and protect survivors of sexual violence. There is no question that people responsible for sexual violence like Turner must be held accountable for the harm they cause.

But–and!–the question remains: How can we imagine a form of justice for survivors of sexual violence that does not also perpetuate the harms of mass incarceration? How can we investigate, understand, and respond to perpetrators of sexual and gender violence in a way that restores and rebalances their debt to society, without also stocking our jails and prisons in this, the most incarcerated nation in the world?

James Baldwin wrote that it is the “habits of thought [that] reinforce and sustain the habits of power.” This is the clearest articulation I have found of what I hope our film can accomplish for viewers. How might we shift our habits of thought–our outrage–so that they correct not just the wrongs of sexual violence, but the wrongs of mass incarceration? THE RECALL: REFRAMED cannot answer that question in full, but it seeks to change our frame. It is my hope that it invites all of us to hold in our minds both the critical importance of seeking justice for gender violence, and the equally critical understanding that demanding harsher sentences will only make justice more elusive.

—Rebecca Richman Cohen
Fall 2022

Filmmaker Bios

Rebecca Richman Cohen

Director & Producer

Rebecca Richman Cohen is an Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker who teaches courses on media theory and advocacy at Harvard Law School. Through her work, she has examined a range of topics, including the prosecution of war crimes in Sierra Leone, responses to sexual violence in the US, cannabis legalization, and biodynamic winemaking. Her most recent film, The Recall: Reframed (broadcast on MSNBC) is the first in a trilogy of short films about mass incarceration, sexual violence, and racial justice. Her SXSW and Tribeca-award winning documentaries have been hosted on platforms including HBO, Amazon, Netflix, New York Times, LA Times, Al Jazeera, public television, and more. She has taught at RISD, American University’s Human Rights Institute, and Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights, and has held fellowships with Open Society Foundations, Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, Harvard’s Film Study Center, and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her very good dog and some nice humans too.

Yoruba Richen

Producer

Yoruba Richen is an award-winning documentary filmmaker whose work has been featured on multiple outlets including Netflix, MSNBC, FX,  HULU, New York Times Op Doc, Frontline, The Atlantic and Field of Vision. Her recent films are the The Rebellious Life Of Rosa Parks; Emmy nominated How It Feels to Be Free which premiered on PBS’s American Masters and the Peabody and Emmy nominated The Sit In: Harry Belafonte Hosts the Tonight Show which is streaming on Peacock. Her film The New York Times Presents: The Killing of Breonna Taylor won an NAACP Image Award and is streaming on HULU.  Yoruba’s film, The Green Book: Guide to Freedom was broadcast on the Smithsonian Channel and was also nominated for an Emmy. Her previous films, The New Black and Promised Land won multiple festival awards before airing on PBS’s Independent Lens and P.O.V.  Yoruba is a recipient of the Chicken & Egg Breakthrough Filmmaker Award, a Guggenheim and a Fulbright fellowship .  She is the founding director of the Documentary Program at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.

Nathaniel Hansen

Producer / Director of Photography / Additional Editing

Nathaniel is an Emmy-nominated and Peabody award-winning producer, and an active director, cinematographer, editor, and educator. The Boston Globe has called his feature documentary work “outstanding” and, since 2009, his work has screened at hundreds of film festivals world-wide including Tribeca, SXSW, Hot Docs, Camden, RiverRun, and Independent Film Festival Boston, in addition to being featured online by sites such as the New York Times, the LA Times, The Atlantic, Vimeo Staff Picks, National Geographic Shorts, Quartz, and PBS. He leads the Visual Storytelling Lab for young media professionals in the Balkans, and is a frequent lecturer and workshop-lead for the US Embassy in Tirana, Albania. He received his MFA in Visual & Media Art at Emerson College, where he is an adjunct faculty member, teaching graduate and undergraduate courses on the business of art and media practice.

Jevhon Rivers

Impact Director

Jevhon Rivers is an advocate and lawyer who has focused her career on changing public narratives and public policy to end mass incarceration. She previously worked as Director of Research at The Appeal and Senior Legal Counsel at The Justice Collaborative, where she led legal, policy, and communications strategies in partnership with community-based groups to exert pressure on elected officials to adopt policies that reduce incarceration and embrace new paradigms of public safety. Jevhon is a graduate of Amherst College and Harvard Law School and previously worked with the Illinois Prison Project and The Mass Liberation Campaign at People’s Action.

Luci Harrell

Outreach Coordinator, 2022

Luci is a writer, music-maker, juris doctor candidate at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School, Media Consultant at Inquest, and a 2021-2022 Pipeline to Practice Foundation Fellow. As a creative-type and jailhouse lawyer, she believes the work of reducing community harm and abolishing criminal systems hinges upon rich storytelling and the involvement of those most affected. To that end, she is a co-founder and Program Development Fellow at Mourning Our Losses, a board member at Igniting Hope Georgia and the Georgia Coalition for Higher Education in Prison. For the past three years, Luci has been studying post incarceration syndrome in order to build community capacity for peer-based reentry support. She holds a B.A. in journalism from Georgia State University, an M.A. in communications from South Dakota State University, and a post-grad certificate in Community Advocacy from SUNY Empire State College.

Francisco Bello

Editor

Francisco Bello is an Oscar® Nominee and Emmy® Winner. After entry level work on films by Francis Ford Coppola, Kevin Smith and Michael Moore, Francisco shot and produced SALIM BABA, a 2008 Best Short Documentary Oscar and 2009 Emmy Nominee. He then produced and edited WAR DON DON, winner of the 2010 SXSW Special Jury Prize and two Emmy nominations. For these early efforts, he was awarded the National Association of Latino Independent Producers’ Estela Award. Additional highlights include editing the Emmy winning THE FIRST WAVE, SXSW Narrative Grand Jury winning MOST BEAUTIFUL ISLAND, the Peabody winning BEST KEPT SECRET, Emmy winner THE BLUE WALL, the Emmy nominated THE INTERPRETERS, and Barbara Kopple’s Emmy Nominated DESERT ONE. He co-directed DREAMING AGAINST THE WORLD, seen at the Telluride Film Festival, the closing night of DocNYC and Asia Society. He is currently directing his first feature, based on an award winning graphic novel. He is a member of the Documentary Branch of A.M.P.A.S., and A.C.E.

Sophie Cull

Executive Producer

Sophie Cull is a criminal justice reform advocate whose work focuses on excessive sentencing and harsh punishments. She has led public education campaigns on racial discrimination in the criminal legal system and published a number of articles and reports on topics related to the death penalty, life sentences, and prosecutorial misconduct. She currently works for the Vital Projects Fund, a family foundation based in New York City. She previously worked for the Capital Appeals Project in New Orleans, Louisiana, where she co-founded the Louisiana Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

David Menschel

Executive Producer

David Menschel is a criminal defense attorney who has represented people on death row and children serving life without the possiblity of parole sentences. Currently, he is President of Vital Projects Fund, a charitable foundation that seeks to end mass incarceration, with a focus on curtailing excessive sentences, holding police and prosecutors accountable, ameliorating barbaric prison conditions, and reaffirming the humanity of incarcerated people. In addition, David has executive produced documentary films about issues related to mass incarceration and civil liberties that have won Oscar and Emmy Awards as well as awards at the Sundance Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival, and SXSW, among others: citizenfour, The Oath, Solitary, Do Not Resist, and Untouchable.

Caitlin Boyle

Consulting Producer

Caitlin Boyle is a specialist in distribution and social impact for documentary film. Beginning in 2008, she spent a decade as Founder & Executive Director of Film Sprout, a boutique distribution firm whose mission was to broaden the audience for documentary film through large-scale international screening tours. Since selling Film Sprout, Caitlin has served as the leading strategic advisor for independent film teams and distributors seeking to use film as a tool for civic engagement and social impact while maximizing reach and visibility. Caitlin also serves as the Director of Filmmaker Development at DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary film festival, and as the project manager for the FaithDoc Impact Lab at the Hartley Media Impact Initiative. Previously on the production staff at PBS affiliate WNET, Caitlin is a graduate of Columbia University and the Indiana University Graduate School of Journalism. She has also served as director of the Peace of the City Summer Film Series, in collaboration with the Northwest Film Center; on the boards of UnionDocs and Northwest Documentary; and on the advisory board of NYU’s Cinema Research Institute and the documentary advisory committee of the Paley Center for Media in New York City.

Marlena Williams

Consulting Producer

Marlena Williams is currently a student at Tulane Law School. Prior to law school, she worked as a bookseller, a copywriter, a grants associate at a small legal foundation, and as an outreach coordinator for the film Untouchable. She is from Portland, Oregon.

Max Avery Lichtenstein

Music

Max Avery Lichtenstein is a film composer whose melodic sensibilities, understated arrangements, and creative recording techniques infuse a special character into the movies his music accompanies. Max has written scores and songs for critically acclaimed narrative features such as James Marsh’s The King, Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven, and the film adaptation of Denis Johnson’s novella Jesus’ Son. His scores can be heard in renowned documentaries including the Academy Award-nominated Mondays at Racine, the Emmy-winning Very Semi-Serious: A Partially Thorough Portrait of New Yorker Cartoonists, and Jonathan Caouette’s groundbreaking autobiography Tarnation. His most recent project is the HBO documentary The Janes, a timely and sharp-witted portrait of a clandestine group in 1970s Chicago who risked it all to support women with unwanted pregnancies in a time before Roe v. Wade.