Wrenching Central Park Jogger film premieres at Cannes
A wrenching documentary about five men wrongly imprisoned for the 1989 brutal rape and attempted murder of New York's Central Park Jogger premiered this week at Cannes.
US film-maker Ken Burns, the one-man juggernaut behind ambitious television series such as "The Civil War" and "Jazz", turned his camera on the explosive case in a collaboration with his daughter and son-in-law.
"The Central Park Five" tells the story of black and Latino teenagers from Harlem who were falsely convicted of nearly killing 28-year-old white investment banker Trisha Meili while "wilding" through the park.
The case became a crucible for New York's tensions and fears at the time, when race relations were fraught, a crack cocaine epidemic ravaged poor communities, violent crime was rampant and the gulf between rich and poor gaped wide.
On a warm night in April 1989, Meili went for a night run in northern Central Park, was ambushed on a dark path and dragged into a ravine where she was beaten and sexually assaulted and left for dead.
She gradually recovered but had no memory of the attack, leaving police and prosecutors under intense pressure from hysterical media outlets and terrified New Yorkers to find the assailants and bring them to justice.
Within hours, investigators picked up the five boys in a sweep of the area and interrogated them at length, often without the presence of an attorney or a parent at first.
Exhausted, frightened and told they could go home if they told the "truth", the boys "confess", making up details and falsely implicating the other youths in the crime.
Their accounts are later videotaped, with a catastrophic impact on their defence when they are put on trial, even after they recanted their confessions.
Despite dramatic holes in the case against them and a lack of a DNA match from the crime scene, all were convicted.
The teenagers spent between six and 13 years in prison before a serial rapist confessed that he had attacked Meili alone that night.
Now adults, the men are struggling, with more or less success, to get their lives back on track but each becomes overcome by emotion as he recounts his experience for the film.
A civil suit they have filed against New York authorities remains unresolved.
-- "Original Sin" --
Ken Burns said he was drawn to the story as a parable about race relations in contemporary America.
"When you scratch the surface of American history, you always come across race," he told AFP in an interview about the film, which is heading for theatrical release.
"The fact that a few months ago a young man was killed needlessly in Florida and would still be alive today if his skin colour wasn't black," Burns said, referring to the February killing of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin.
"These are things that are part of our original sin as Americans, having been born under the sign of freedom but also under the sign of slavery simultaneously. But these are universal stories."
He said that despite their ultimate exoneration, the men deserved more.
"We thought the film could be a positive change engine, we could finally get the city to wake up and say 'wait a second, this stubbornness, this intransigence that we've exhibited for the last nine years of the civil suit and the last 23 years of the original crime, we need to settle'."
Sarah Burns published a book based on her eight years of research on the affair which forms the basis of the film that she and her father also produced and wrote with her husband David McMahon.
"I was just so moved by their story and so impressed by them and the dignity they had maintained in the face of all of this," Sarah Burns told AFP.
"When you talk to them now, it is written on their faces like it happened yesterday."
Ken Burns noted that while Meili had told her story in her 2003 book "I Am the Central Park Jogger", the men's plight had received comparatively little coverage in US media.
"We thought that the story that had never been told was the story of these five human beings who were turned into symbols, proxies, horrific animals without any dimensions," he said.
"We felt it incumbent upon us to tell the story that would give them humanity and integrity... without taking away from her (Meili's) story."
"The Central Park Five" is comprised of interviews with the five men, their lawyers, family members, two former mayors of New York, a historian and reporters who covered the case.
Meili, investigating officers and public prosecutors declined to take part.
In between interviews, the film folds in archival footage including the boys' videotaped "confessions" and sets the scene with a soundtrack of 1980s East Coast hip hop.
McMahon, who had worked with Ken Burns several times before, described the family's cooperation as "democratic".
The trio has already started work on a two-part series on Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to integrate Major League baseball.
© 2012 AFP