By Jeff Piorkowski
Special to Cleveland.com
CLEVELAND HEIGHTS, Ohio - When the decomposing bodies of 11 women were found in October 2009 in and around the Imperial Avenue home of Anthony Sowell, the news hit like a sledgehammer in Cleveland, but also sent shock waves across the country, and even the world.
News reports, naturally centered on Sowell - who he was and how he came to be a mass murderer. Cleveland Heights filmmaker Laura Paglin, however, thought there was more to the story.
"Typically, attention will be focused on the serial killer and not his victims and why it happened," said producer and director Paglin. "I thought I would tell the story of the survivors."
Paglin, whose credits include "Night Owls of Coventry" and "Facing Forward," the latter a film that received national syndication from PBS, saw the release Jan. 23 of "Unseen," the true crime documentary about Sowell and the women he preyed upon.
The 75-minute film features interviews with five women who escaped Sowell's clutches and lived to talk about what they experienced.
Paglin and the survivors relate a story of women marginalized by society. These women, touched by the ills of their world - including drugs and prostitution - face the camera and tell of their life experiences.
Rather than bit players in the Sowell story, they are made human, speaking of their childhood dreams and the ways their lives took unfortunate turns, the results of their surroundings and the choices they made.
Paglin said the interviews were often emotional.
"It depended on the person," she said. "This was obviously a very difficult subject for them to discuss. As a human being, I didn't want to put them through it. But, for some, it was a cathartic experience."
Paglin, originally from Oregon and a local resident since 1985, began working on "Unseen" in 2009. She shot film of the Sowell house before it was demolished.
"The Mt. Pleasant neighborhood still has a charm to it," she said. "What first struck me was the sort of intimacy of the neighborhood, the narrowness of the streets. I was taken by the 'ordinaryness' of it, and then of what happened there."
"Unseen" considers how a 2009 rape led police to discover the women's remains, but how the cases of disappearing women had not garnered much police attention leading up to the horrific find at Sowell's house. Bodies were found on the third floor and basement of Sowell's home, as well as buried in his back yard.
Sowell moved to the house in 2007 after serving a 15-year sentence for rape.
In 2011, Sowell was convicted of aggravated murder and sentenced to death. He now resides on death row at the Chillicothe Correctional Institution.
"Unseen" debuted in 2016 at the Cleveland International Film Festival and was shown at DOC NYC in New York. It has also been shown at the Greenwich International Film Festival in Connecticut and at the Portland Film Festival.
The Huffington Post called the documentary "... riveting ... a scathing indictment on how society treats these marginalized women who suffer from addiction and poverty."
FilmRise is distributing "Unseen," which is now available on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu and on DVD and Blu-ray.
"It can be a difficult film to watch," Paglin admits.
She also believes, however, that those who do see "Unseen" will come away with a better understanding of not only the Sowell story, but of the lives of people many in society may never encounter.