JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Nicole Kassel's first directorial effort was co-scripted by....

...her and the play's author, Steven Fechter.

Walter looks out through the open blinds. Bars, internal framing in the image, and other kinds of blockages often obscure the view in his sparse apartment.

Dangerously, he lives across from a school. He said it was the only place where the landlord would take his money as a tenant.

He paces off the 320 feet that is the distance he must live from a place with children, such as a school.

Walter's working class environment, both in his neighborhood and at work, is filmed in dull greyish tones.

Girls enter into his life on a daily basis. He does not have the money for a car and takes the bus to work.

Sgt. Lucas visits Walter unannounced at various points in the film. He speaks harshly and deprecatingly.

Another image of entrapment.

Lucas tells Walter he follows the parolee's every move. Walter tries to protest, "You can't talk to me like that."

Lucas responds that he could kill Walter and no one would care. "You'd just be a dead piece of shit."

The title sequence introduces the protagonist as someone just released from prison but the film only slowly reveals the facts of Walter's offense.

A boss who knew his father gives him a job at a woodmill.

Walter is a craftsman with wood, and wood is used visually in the film for its beauty and metaphoric value.

A rainy day in the parking lot at work expressses Walter's mood as he heads toward the bus stop.

Mary Kay tried to flirt with Walter but was rejected. In general, he lacks awareness of social cues around him and does not understand that he has offended her. She does research on what kind of crime he committed.

She finds him on a sex offenders data base on the Internet.

First a poster appears in just his locker, and Mary Kay asks if he is looking for work, since she knows a job has opened up across town. He does not get it.

A copy of the Internet data sheet appears in everyone's lockers. Workers pick a fight with Walter, who is saved by the boss' intervention.

 

The Woodsman
Saying the unsayabl
e

by Jamie Bennett

Jamie Bennett is a professional prison manager working in the England & Wales Prison Service. He has previously held posts including Head of the Dangerous & Severe Personality Disorder Unit at the high-security HMP Whitemoor, and Deputy Governor of HMP Gartree, which houses life sentence prisoners. He is currently Deputy Governor of HMP Whitemoor. He has written on a range of criminal justice issues, including prison films, for publications including The Prison Service Journal, Criminal Justice Matters and Journal of Crime, Conflict & the Media. He is also editor of the Prison Service Journal.


Sex offenders, particularly child sex offenders, are amongst the most feared and reviled people in today’s society. Media representation, political and public concern about a number of high profile, extreme crimes has driven a hard-line approach including lengthier sentences, increased supervision and heavy stigmatisation. Against this backdrop attempts to engage in a more rational discussion about the risks and policies often results in highly emotive criticism and condemnation (e.g. see Silverman & Wilson 2002).

As one commentator writes,

"[People] have become increasingly angry in recent years in response to a series of violent and highly publicized sexual assaults, primarily against children, committed by individuals with extensive prior sexual offence histories. This outrage has been intensified by the perception, justified or not, that systems traditionally used by justice agencies to monitor law-breakers returned to the community do not adequately protect the public from that unique category of individual known as the sex offender." (Chaiken 1998)

Against this background, it is perhaps an unusual career move for an established Hollywood actor and a first-time director to make a film that attempts to sensitively and humanely depict a paedophile, but that is exactly the challenge accepted by Kevin Bacon and Nicole Kassell. The result is an outstanding film that, whilst not avoiding challenging issues, sensitivity and rationality depicts the difficult and painful attempts of Walter Rossworth (Kevin Bacon) to re-establish himself in the community after twelve years in prison for molesting two young girls.

The plot of The Woodsman (Dir. Nicole Kassell U.S. 2004) is as follows: Walter is released under the supervision of tough cop, Sergeant Lucas, and receives ongoing support from a counsellor. He finds employment at a local wood mill where he develops a relationship with co-worker Vicki and he struggles, unsuccessfully, to rebuild his relationship with his sister, through his brother-in-law, Carlos.  However, the pressures of his desires and events in his life start to affect Walter’s behaviour. His relationship with Vicki comes close to breaking point when he reveals his offence. Sergeant Lucas harasses Walter every time an offence is reported in the local area. His relationship with Carlos breaks down. And his co-workers in the mill violently shun him when his offence is revealed. Housed in a flat overlooking a school, Walter watches another sex offender, whom he names "Candy," grooming children. With the pressures in his life building up, Walter’s battle to resist his desire to re-offend becomes increasingly difficult until he finds himself developing a relationship with a young girl, Robin. When she reveals that her father has abused her, Walter faces up to his actions. He sends Robin home and returns to the school where he confronts and viciously attacks Candy. An uneasy calm returns, with Sergeant Lucas backing-off, knowing what Walter has done to Candy, Vicki decides to stand by him and he has his first, albeit unsuccessful, meeting with his sister. While there is a long and difficult road ahead, Walter has made it through the first battle.    

The film has enjoyed some critical success (Ide 2004, Johnston 2004) and was awarded the Satyajit Ray Foundation prize for best debut film at the London Film Festival. However, with such a challenging and controversial film, its power to move beyond the cinema is a crucial mark of its success. This article explores the social context in which this film has been made, its purpose and the issues it raises.

The social construction of reality:
sex crimes & the media 

Over the last decade, there has been an increased concern about the risk presented by sex offenders. This has been characterised as a "moral panic," out of proportion to the reality of the risk (Silverman & Wilson 2002). Analysis of media representations of sex crimes has consistently shown that "stranger danger’ is disproportionately emphasized (Soothill & Walby 1991, Greer 2003a, 2003b & 2003c). Coverage is often superficial, ignoring wider issues in favour of sensationalism, stereotyping and inaccuracy, which refuses to differentiate sexual offences (Greer 2003b).

However, this should not be seen in isolation. This reflects wider changes in the representation of crime, which has seen an increase in coverage of sexual and violent crime (Reiner, Livingston & Allen 2003); in market forces (Silverman & Wilson 2002); as well as in issues such as increased tabloidization of news, law & order politics, the efforts of campaign organisations, and the increased openness about sexual issues in society (Greer 2003c). However, it is also true that the horrific nature of a small number of crimes is such that they have a wider, enduring resonance because they are so shocking. On occasions, these have become "signal crimes" (Innes 2003), leading to calls for wider changes in law and policy. Obvious examples are the appalling murders of Megan Kanka in the US and Sarah Payne in the UK that led to calls for increased supervision and public notification of sex offenders. 

These crimes achieve the most extensive media coverage and have the greatest resonance with the public. They therefore start to shape a picture of sex offending based on the rarest and most extreme examples, rather than on more common, lower-level examples of offending, often by family and acquaintances of victims. These skewed media representations have an impact on viewers' perceptions and beliefs. As Ray Surette describes it:

“[P]eople use knowledge they obtain from the media to construct a picture of the world, an image of reality on which they base their actions. This process, sometimes called "the social construction of reality," is particularly important in the realm of crime, justice, and the media.” (Surette 1997)

This construction of reality comes from a mixture of popular culture, personal experience, the experiences of others, and information from institutions. The influence of the media becomes increasingly significant when alternative sources of information are not available (Surette 1998). As most people, thankfully, do not have direct experience of sexual offending in general and sexual offending against children in particular, media representations take on an increased importance, whether that be factual or fictional representations. 

In relation to sexual offenders, the media shape our views in a number of important ways:

“Media representations of sex crimes give important indicators of the nature and extent of the problem, of how we should think and feel about it, of how we should respond to it, and of preventative measures that might be taken to reduce the risk of victimization.” (Greer 2003b)

Films can be particularly important in shaping views. Wilson & O’Sullivan (2004) develop this argument in their analysis of how cinema representations of the criminal justice system shape public perception (this analysis was developed in relation to prison films but their conclusions are equally relevant to other criminal justice agencies). They argue that the media shape views by providing an insight into a world that the general public know little about and have little direct experience of. The authors provide a benchmark for acceptable treatment, translate academic and political concerns into digestible narratives, expose perspectives that are often at odds with media and official descriptions, and create empathy with offenders and those that work with them (Wilson & O’Sullivan 2004). It can be seen that the depiction of sex offenders in the media builds a picture of who they are and how they act, shapes the response of the community and views about how effective this is, as well as condition our emotional response to these people.

Recent research also supports this view about the impact of the media, showing that individuals’ views about crime and punishment can be changed when alternative perspectives are presented, including in fictional forms (Gillespie et al 2003). However, entrenched views are difficult to dislodge. Where there are large gaps in knowledge, people fall back on pre-formed assumptions and prejudices. This research shows that tabloid newspapers are particularly influential in shaping punitive attitudes. In relation to fictional depictions, Gillespie writes:

“Viewers are more likely to respond favourably to alternatives to prison when the story or drama offers multiple perspectives and identifications. When a drama focuses on the crime and the police investigation, rather than on common humanity and shared experiences, viewers are less likely to consider alternatives to prison as satisfactory options.” (Gillespie et al 2004)

Previous films to address sex offending have strongly focussed on the investigation, in films such as Bunny Lake is Missing (Dir. Otto Preminger UK 1965) or The Pledge (Dir. Sean Penn US 2001), the subsequent destruction of the family, such as Exotica (Dir. Atom Egoyan Can 1994) or Happiness (Dir. Todd Solondz US 1998), or indeed the grotesqueness and brutality of the crime itself, such as Irreversible (Dir. Gaspar Noe 2003). They have therefore simply confirmed existing perceptions rather than challenging them or presenting alternatives. In contrast, The Woodsman tries to challenge these common representations and build an important counter-point. The narrative includes building empathy with a child sex offender’s attempts to resettle in the community, challenging public policy and exploring alternative approaches to the problem.

In summary, cinematic depictions of sex offenders, and those that offend against children, tend to be one-dimensional. They create an impression that the risk is high and increasing. They encourage a concern about stranger attacks that perhaps masks the reality of the risks. They foster rejection, exclusion and even hate as emotional responses. The media is important in shaping public perceptions about crime, but to date, films have merely confirmed widely held fears and stereotypes about sexual offending. This has significant implications for the community and its ability to manage the risk effectively. However, The Woodsman attempts to stand against this tide.

Seeing the wood from the trees:
sexual offending against children

Sexual offending is rightly considered to be amongst the most serious crimes. However, it is thankfully rare and is reducing. In the United States, it has been estimated that there were 250,000 sexual offences committed in 2002 (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2003), down from over 300,000 in 1996 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, nd). This accounts for around 1% of all crime. It has been estimated that about a third of these offences are committed against victims under 18 years old (Snyder 2000). In UK, 5,700 sexual offences resulted in conviction or caution in 2003, 0.5% of all offences. This has declined from 7,600 a decade ago. All specific offences against children have reduced, except gross indecency with children, which has seen a very minor increase (Home Office 2004).

Whilst coverage often focuses on the most serious crimes committed by faceless, predatory offenders, the so-called "stranger danger," the reality is that sexual offending is much more diverse. It also often takes place much closer to home. One study suggested that 93% of offenders were a family member (34.2%) or acquaintance (58.7%) of their victim (Snyder 2000), a finding that has been replicated in other studies (Greenfield 1996). 

In terms of diversity, sexual offending covers a broad spectrum from the most serious offences, such as sexual murder and rape, to offences such as indecent assault, exposure or lewd public behaviour. The majority of sex offences are not at the extreme end of the spectrum. If we look just at the most rare and extreme cases, stranger murders of children remained static for three decades (Silverman and Wilson 2002). In the United States the increase in child murders is largely accounted for as a result of deaths amongst teenage urban males, unconnected to sexual offending, but more closely connected to social issues such as drugs, gangs, violence and gun control (Greenfield 1996). 

However, politicians and the media have often painted a picture that is at odds with the evidence. Texas Senator Florence Shapiro has stated:

“I like to say they [sex offenders] have three very unique characteristics:
1. They are the least likely to be cured
2. They are the most likely to reoffend
3. They prey on the most innocent members of our society” (Shapiro 1998)

However, one US study followed almost 10,000 sex offenders, including 4,000 child sex offenders, over a three-year period. They found that just over 5% were reconvicted of a sexual offence. The total re-arrest rate was 43%, compared to 68% for the general population. Indeed, 87% of the new sex offences committed by released prisoners were committed by people who had no previous convictions for sexual offending (Lanagan et al 2003). Similarly, in the UK, the overall re-conviction rate for adult males is 55% within two years, but for sexual offences it is only 14%, with less than one in five of those convictions being for a sexual offence. Again, new sexual offences by released prisoners are overwhelmingly committed by those not previously convicted of a sexual offence (Home Office 2003).

We can see, then, that despite public fear and political assertions, sexual offences are rare and declining. They are overwhelmingly committed by family or acquaintances. And sexual offenders are less likely to re-offend.

It is without question that every single sexual offence is an appalling act and no offence is acceptable. The immense damage caused by sexual offending should never be forgotten. However, we must have a genuine picture of the reality of offending, the risk presented and the steps that can be taken to reduce that risk, and such a realistic picture must inform the response of the community. Unfortunately, the media and political climate does not always encourage a realistic or rational approach.

Continued: Criticisms of current policy


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The Woodsman: Full disclosure by Lesage and Kleinhans