By Norman Gidney
After a two-year period during which numerous women were reported missing in Cleveland’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood, a reported rape leads police to a grisly discovery: a serial killer, operating virtually in plain sight.
Unseen is a brilliant new documentary from filmmaker Laura Paglin that takes the viewer through a staggering checklist of emotions. Recounting a tale of negligence within the criminal justice system we are subjected to empathy, shock, disgust, rage, heartbreak, and ultimately a small burning flame of hope in the human spirit.
In 1989 crack cocaine swept through the Mount Pleasant neighborhood, a lower class suburb just outside Cleveland Ohio. The drug held countless members of the community in its grip addicting even the unborn. Meanwhile Anthony Sowell, a former Marine, was luring a woman into his home where he bound her hands with a tie and a belt, then raped and strangled her to the brink of death. Sowell plead guilty to the charges and served 15 years in prison, being released in 2005. However, the worst was yet to come.
Unseen opens on a collection of survivors, not of crack, but of Sowell’s second reign of terror. Former prostitutes, users, and business owners of Mount Pleasant recount with frank detail their lives when Sowell returned in 2005. Marginalized and dismissed as a druggy, Crystal Dozier was the first to vanish. While her children were still waiting for her to come home, Sowell had already strangled her, and hid her lifeless body in a shallow grave in the basement of his home. Police ignored when her family filed a missing persons report as she had a habit of disappearing. Nobody seemed to care.
In 2009 Latundra Billups went to the police claiming that Sowell had beaten and raped her. Police returned to Sowell’s residence with a warrant and discovered 10 more bodies, either dismembered or buried.
Paglin shrewdly beings the film by introducing us to the former residents of Mount Pleasant as they are now, clean, respectable, recounting who they once were. We connect with them. None of them wanted to be in the situations they were in. Yet somehow, they were there, doing everything in their power for one more hit. “It was like Hurricane Katrina,” says Vanessa Gay, a recovering addict and survivor of Sowell, “It came through and ravaged my whole life.” These women had hopes, dreams and aspirations, few of which were realized.
We follow the life of Sowell, his first stint in prison, and his return to Mount Pleasant. His repeated crimes that happened in plain sight, and the horrible effect they had on the members in the community who were crying for help, with little response. Yet Unseen isn’t a crime thriller documentary. We follow the timeline, but the focus is the unanswered cries of help. Why were they not heard? Sowell knew nobody cared about his den of victims and seized on the chance to pick off whomever he pleased yet it took the death of 11 women and generations of addicted families to grab the attention of the authorities.
In one of the most chilling scenes, we see footage of Gay’s testimony in court. Held prisoner for days, her recounting of survival is a moment that stops time and sears into the mind.
Deeply moving, disturbing, and provocative, Unseen is an argument for compassion and a searing indictment of a legal system governed by efficiency rather than actual justice. “You could have never told me, or told anybody, that in two and a half to three years, I’d have an associates’ degree,” survivor, Billups says reflecting on her life. Her life was almost snuffed out not just by Sowell, but by an addiction and a society that would rather claim ignorance than have compassion and vigilance.
Unseen (2017) Written and directed by Laura Paglin
Unseen is worth Full Price (****).
Norm’s Rating System: Full Price (****), Matinee (***), VOD (**), Don’t Bother (*)