By Henry Stewart
Excerpt: …Unseen inspires the opposite emotion. (Not even German has the word.) If The Promise exposes problems in Virginia’s justice system, Unseen (Nov. 11, 9:45pm, Cinepolis Chelsea) tears Cleveland’s apart. This devastating film concerns Anthony Sowell, who, released from jail, where he was serving a sentence for rape, moved to Imperial Avenue in Cleveland’s jobless, crack-ravaged Mount Pleasant neighborhood; two years later, in 2009, police found eleven bodies decomposing on different floors of his house or buried in his backyard—eleven women whose disappearances hadn’t even been investigated by police, six of whom had been killed even after a woman who escaped his house had spoken to police.
Most of the victims were not only black women but also drug users and sex workers. The local bodega owner, Assad Tayeh, who knows everyone and their business, says the community needed more Sowells—“he clean up the garbage.” It’s an attitude the police apparently shared, but director Laura Paglin interviews locals, relatives and victims who got away, many of them former sex workers and recovering addicts, to remind us of the victims’ humanity, denied not only by the killer but also by the culture and its institutions. One now-grown man describes his mother, one of Sowell’s victims, as “a beautiful person who was sick,” and Paglin makes that case for every one of them.
She also explores the ruined community, the toll drugs take on addicts, their friends, families and neighbors, and makes it painfully plain that Mount Pleasant’s problem wasn’t a single murderer but the conditions that allowed him for years to get away with it. Everyone’s indicted. One woman who escaped Sowell’s home describes the moments immediately after, as people on the street laughed at her. “No one helped,” she says, weeping. Do any of us, ever?