By Steve Kopian
Anthony Sowell was convicted of the rape of Melvette Sockwell in 1989 and went to jail for 15 years. In 2009 the bodies of 11 people were discovered in and around his home in the Cleveland neighborhood of Mt Pleasant. The women had disappeared over a three year period, however the police never investigated the cases of the missing women until the bodies turned up.
Similar to the Grim Sleeper killings in California where the police didn't investigate a decades long serial killing spree because the women were black, and in many cases suspected to have questionable reputations, the Cleveland killings went unnoticed because the neighborhood had fallen into extreme poverty and many of the people were addicted to drugs. The cops seemingly couldn't be bothered, despite multiple missing person reports, despite ungodly smells and despite a visible pattern to look into any of the disappearances. They did nothing until they actually saw the first two bodies.
UNSEEN is a sad sad film. Not so much because it looks at the crimes of Sowell but because the film is really at a society so broken that things can happen pretty much in plain sight and no one will say anything. The film will have you shaking your head wondering how it could have happened, and pondering how often things like this are still happening. Despite our hopes that things like this won't happen, more and more its turning out that they have and do occur... we just didn't notice it because it wasn't in the nice part of town.
While we follow the sordid details of Sowell's crimes, ultimately they are more the spine to hang a look at the lives of the victims on. They were all women trapped in poverty with no way out but to escape into drugs. It was the drugs that made the women willing to go with Sowell and it was drugs that made several survivors not report their encounters with the killer. It is this last bit that is saddest of all, it might have ended sooner if the women thought they would have been believed. And they probably wouldn't since in the films most chilling moment a local store owner sides with the killer who he said was "taking out the trash".
UNSEEN is a quietly powerful film that transcends the true crime documentary to become deeply moving reminder of what is lost when we marginalize each other.
One of the best films at the Portland Film Festival and a must see when it plays later today. For tickets go here.