HBO rape documentary sidesteps cliches


All too often, the prime-time depiction of rape makes this most despicable of crimes a bit too simple and caricatured.

The victim is a wholly admirable member of an upper economic realm in society. The attacker is a wholly loathsome piece of disgusting trash. The police are insensitive louts. That they could possibly think of not pursuing and prosecuting such crimes is seen as ridiculous and criminal in itself.

"Rape: Cries From the Heartland," an HBO documentary that will premier tonight at 10 p.m., shows that the reality is a bit murkier than a made-for-TV movie scriptwriter might have you believe. But even as it shows that this is a crime that usually happens in the dark, often in more ways than one, sometimes to less than wholly admirable people, it also shows in a powerful, undeniable fashion that this is a crime of almost unbelievable brutality.

Maryann DeLeo, who has worked with Jon Alpert on his documentaries and contributions to NBC's "Today" show, spent several weeks over a three-month period in Memphis, Tenn., driving out with the police department when they received a report of a rape, waiting in the car until the police had determined if the victim was willing to go on camera.

"Most of them said no," DeLeo said in an interview from her home in New York. "I really appreciate the courage of those who agreed to be filmed."

In all, 12 victims agreed and seven of their stories are in tonight's hour. DeLeo was alone when she filmed them, holding the camera, asking a few questions, mainly recording on black and white videotape the victim's experience at Memphis' rape crisis center.

"I was surprised when I did research to discover that the highest per capita reports of rape were from towns like Little Rock, Ark., and Memphis," DeLeo said of choosing the Tennessee city.

"I think it's because they are reported," she said, indicating that victims there did not feel that the police department was another part of the monolithic bureaucracy but was an institution that would respond.

"And this rape crisis center is very well known in the community and quite respected," she said.

The program begins with the case of a woman, five months pregnant, brutally raped by two men. It is the only time that you meet one of the perpetrators, a young man who confesses to the crime but seems childish in his lack of understanding of what it is that he has done.

In the next incident, a woman shows the nurse at the crisis center some terrible bruises and describes an awful attack. Her case is not prosecuted, according to the documentary, because it was felt she would not make a credible witness due to her drug use.

These cases run the gamut from an elderly woman who was assaulted, beaten and raped outside her nursing home -- you empathize with the rage of her son -- to a young woman who got drunk, left a bar with a couple of men, went to one of their apartments, and came to the crisis center to report being raped.

She is unsure whether or not to go to the police, but her mother, in a scene of raw honesty, begs her to, telling her daughter of her own rape that she didn't report, in large part because she blamed herself, as her daughter was doing now.

But as much as you feel for this young woman, as much as you agree with the crisis center counselor who tells her that what happened to her was wrong, you also understand why the case was not prosecuted. She virtually admits that she was too drunk to remember what happened. What could she tell the jury?

"I think the police tried to do a good job," DeLeo said of her time in Memphis, not jumping on the blame-the-system bandwagon. "It was difficult for them, too."

At times, "Rape: Cries From the Heartland" borders on the sensationalistic and voyeuristic as it records these women reporting the details of what happened to them, and then showing the questioning and examinations they undergo as a result. DeLeo said she was sensitive to such concerns.

"I thought it was necessary that we show what we did so that people could understand what is happening to women, to wives, girlfriends, mothers, daughters, sisters, grandmothers, all the time, every day," she said.

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