By Andrea Simakis
The Plain Dealer

From "Unseen," a new documentary about the Anthony Sowell killings at the Cleveland International Film Festival. (Laura Paglin)

From "Unseen," a new documentary about the Anthony Sowell killings at the Cleveland International Film Festival. (Laura Paglin)

Ironically, the most memorable moments in "Unseen," a documentary about the Anthony Sowell killings, aren't the lurid details of his unspeakable crimes.

In 2009, police uncovered 11 bodies in and around Sowell's property at 12205 Imperial Ave. in Cleveland's Mount Pleasant neighborhood.

It's the stuff of horror movies to be sure. But that doesn't compare to the riveting, direct testimony of women who made it out alive - among them Vanessa Gay, who staggered, limping and bloody, out onto Imperial Avenue one Sunday morning. ("Church people" passing by turned away, she says. "Nobody helped me.")

For years cops ignored reports from family members about their missing kin but those expecting an indictment of the beleaguered Cleveland Police Department won't find it here. Cleveland Heights filmmaker Laura Paglin keeps her camera, and her narrative, tightly focused on survivors as they speak about their lives before they discovered crack, a lure Sowell used to get them into his house.

"It robbed me of my sense," says Gay, the lens trained on her lovely face and intelligent eyes. She explains how the girl in pigtails, who was president of the National Junior Honor Society, became a strung-out woman.

As tears roll, Gay recalls the day her 10-year-old daughter chased her into the street and "laid in the middle of Broadway just to get me to come home."

"I couldn't choose my child over dope," she says, still not quite believing it.

(A few small knits: A date in the timeline of the Sowell case is wrong - nothing a little tweaking before a wide release can't cure - and one of the survivor's faces is blurred as she tells her story, an unfortunate visual in a movie called "Unseen.")

As Gay and others speak of their miraculous escapes - from Sowell and from the pernicious hold of addiction - the message is clear. Crack, the film argues, was Sowell's accomplice.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a louder cry for more, and better, rehab programs in the inner city than this searing documentary.

Anthony Dozier, son of Crystal Dozier, the first of Sowell's 11 victims to go missing, talks about how his mother tried, but failed, to get clean. "She wanted to be a mother; she wanted to be normal."

"She was a beautiful person that was sick," he says. "There's a lot of people out here like that."

Make no mistake. This horror movie is about human potential cut short, the awfulness of that waste.



What: Directed by Laura Paglin (2016/USA). 77 minutes.

When: 11:15 a.m. Saturday, April 2 (with Film Forum), 6:20 p.m. Sunday, April 3, and 12:10 p.m. Monday, April 4.

Grade: A-