Yellow Journalism

“Children under the age of six, their memories are very malleable,” says documentarian Nonny de la Peña. “If [the Matthews] could get convicted of sodomizing a child repeatedly with a machete when there was no physical evidence, anyone could get convicted.”

The best documentaries are often advocates for their subjects. But, sometimes, that advocacy can blind the filmmaker to the bigger picture and to the need for balance. That’s the problem with the new documentary, The Jaundiced Eye.

The film, directed de la Peña, examines the case of Steven Matthews, a gay man in small-town Michigan, and his father, Melvin, who were convicted of sexually abusing Steven’s son – despite a complete lack of evidence and glaring inconsistencies.

The charges were eventually dropped, but de la Peña says she was fascinated by the homophobia in the case and by the ease with which the accusations took root.

The film implies that the charges were at least partially the result of homophobia on the part of the boy’s mother and stepfather, and that the conviction was eased by rural prejudice.

“It was definitely something the jury was aware of, even though they didn’t discuss it,” says de la Peña.

But the film never fully explores the homophobic angle. The main thrust of the film is the evils of false child abuse allegations or what’s come to be known as “suggestibility” in children interviewed by police and welfare workers.

“I was trying to deal with the issue of how false memories are created,” says de la Peña.

But the film makes virtually no acknowledgment of the existence of actual child sexual abuse. The film quotes the head of the US-based Child Abuse Defence Center as saying that for every genuine instance of child abuse, there are hundreds of false accusations. No evidence or statistics are presented for this view, yet it’s repeated several times.

The only person defending child abuse laws makes mostly inane statements, and is intercut with pictures of a noble, yet suffering, Steven Matthews.

When asked if she believes that false accusations are a worse problem than actual child abuse, de la Peña dodges the question. “I still think we’re seeing the ramifications of the hysteria that went on in the ’80s,” she says.

Everyone agreed that there are witchhunts. I do think people are willing to look under any rock for child abuse.”

But the film avoids even any context that would strengthen de la Peña’s case. There’s no mention, for example, of the infamous McMartin case, where a daycare centre was falsely accused of satanic child abuse.

“I felt like I really wanted not to make mention of all those cases, but to personalize this case,” de la Peña says.

She succeeds in that goal, but, unfortunately, it’s at the cost of any real intellectual depth or exploration of the complex and inflammatory issues surrounding child abuse and false accusations.


The Jaundiced Eye screens at 9pm on Sat, Sep 11 at the Cumberland (159 Cumberland St) and 4:30pm on Mon Sep 13 at the Varsity (55 Bloor St W).

Krishna Rau

Krishna Rau is a Toronto-based freelance writer with extensive experience covering queer issues.

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