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Jaundiced Eye, The
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by Brian McKay

"An eye-opening look at the possibility of an accused pedophile's innocence"
4 stars

Child abuse, sexual or otherwise, seems to be an epidemic in this country. Unless you live a very sheltered existence, chances are you know someone, maybe more than one someone, who has been abused or molested at a young age. (And, if you're like me, you know them because end up dating them half the time). It's appalling, and no matter how many times we hear about it, we never quite seem to lose our sense of outrage. But what if someone is falsely accused of this crime, and ends up having their life ruined because of it? Isn't that cause for outrage as well? Filmmaker Nonny de la Peña thinks so.

The Jaundiced Eye is De la Peña's first time in the director's chair of a feature-length documentary, and she puts the pieces of an arduous decade together remarkably well. The film follows ten years in the lives of Stephen Matthews and his father, Melvin Matthews, who were accused of molesting Stephen's five year old son. Stephen, a man who became estranged from his wife after coming to terms with his own homosexuality, was later accused by the ex wife and her new boyfriend of having molested his own son, with the help of his father and mother, on numerous occasions. Details of the accusations revealed in trial recordings include sodomy on multiple occasions with multiple partners, and the extreme (and absurd) testimony of the child that the defendants had "shoved a machete up my butt."

Stephen and Melvin were initially convicted of these accusations and sent to prison for four years before managing to win an appeal - in spite of the fact that there was no medical or forensic evidence to back the claims up. No signs of abuse, zero indication of rectal trauma. Does anyone really believe that you can put a machete up someone's ass and not leave scars? Apparently the jury did.

What followed for Stephen and Melvin were years of ostracization from the community, abuse in prison, and seemingly insurmountable financial obstacles as they fought the uphill battle for vindication.

Now, I won't say that the film is completely agenda-free. Obviously the filmmakers have taken a side. However, like any good documentary should, it allows the subject matter to tell the story. It also gives the Matthews' accusers plenty of screen time to tell their side of it, and allow for opposing interpretation of events. Now, can we be one hundred percent certain, after the evidence and testimonies presented, that Stephen and his parents are completely innocent? No, because really, who can be one hundred percent sure about anything? However, are the facts presented compelling enough to convince any reasonable person that Stephen and Melvin may very well have been railroaded? Absolutely.

What The Jaundiced Eye makes clear is that these men were convicted with a complete lack of physical evidence (save for a fautly test for Chlamydia that gave a false positive result for the boy - even though neither Stephen or Melvin have ever had that disease), and what appears to be the coached testimony of a five year old child. While both of Stephen's accusers are interviewed, his ex-wife prefers to have her face kept in shadow, and her boyfriend would apparently only comment over the phone. While the documentary is very careful to not point any fingers directly, the boyfriend's veiled homophobic comments, along with the mother's lingering sense of uncertainty on certain aspects of the case, seem to cast further doubt on the validity of the accusations.

Meanwhile, Stephen and his father are cast in a very human light. Neither of them are portrayed as saints, and each is quick to confess past mistakes. But by the same token, neither of them seems to give off one iota of a pedophilic or predatory vibe. And while their father-son relationship is not portrayed as perfect either (some moments of wry amusement can be found as the bible-toting father and his openly gay son have minor clashes over ideology), there is nevertheless a sense of love and solidarity between them.

While the film is a harrowing look at the decade-long nightmare the Matthews family has endured, it is also a damning indictment of the bigger picture - a legal system that lets crucial evidence that might have exonerated slip through the cracks, that fails to follow up on important leads, and that tends to interrogate children in these cases using inappropriate methodologies. Additional insight is provided through interviews with several expert witnesses on either side of the fence, who provide a fascinating overview of the many factors that go into child sexual abuse cases, some of which can produce dubious results.

The DVD also includes a director's commentary, additional scenes, and most importantly, a brief "follow up" featurette which brings the viewer up to speed on the lives of all those involved - with some surprising revelations.

THE JAUNDICED EYE should not be confused as an advocacy for lenience in child molestation cases. Rather, it is a compelling caution against quick judgements without benefit of all the facts. While you should not find your outrage at the crime of child abuse at all dampened, you should be given pause to wonder how many Stephen Matthews there are in the world - and how easily you might become one of them.

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originally posted: 04/08/03 14:13:08
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  03-Mar-2000 (NR)



Directed by
  Nonny de la Peña

Written by
  Nonny de la Peña


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