Sean Penn is a brilliant actor, has proved to be a skilled director and now, also, a great producer. He also narrates the story presented in the documentary Witch Hunt (2008) that he produced, which was directed by Don Hardy Jr and Dana Nachman – a story of Bakersfield, a small town in California, and of the innocent people there who were wrongly accused of sexually abusing their own and other local children.
It all began when new a district attorney was appointed in County Kern in the early 1980s; an attorney whose goal was to become famous as a prime crime-fighter, but the way he chose to prove his talents was the cruellest possible – 34 adults living in Bakersfield were arrested and put in jail following fake accusations of child abuse, created by the town sheriff, district attorney’s office and social workers.
Married couples and loving parents were dragged from their houses, confused and mortified by the accusations that they were molesting their own kids. But the problem was that children from the town testified against them. Why? Not because these horrifying stories were in any way close to the truth, but because they were brainwashed by local officials.
Dozens of 6 and 7 year olds had been subjected to interrogations lasting hours and threatened that, if they didn’t say that their parents and neighbours hurt them, families and friends would have to deal with the consequences, that ‘something bad’ would happen.
Obviously, the terrified children eventually said what interrogators wanted them to say – many of them didn’t even know what child abuse was. It wasn’t until the charges became ridiculous (satanic practices, animal and human sacrifice) that the state attorney finally looked into the situation in Kern and noticed ‘mistakes’ in how the previous cases had been handled, and it took up to 20 years before the district attorney’s were free again.
I’m not normally a big fan of documentaries, but this one was not only very interesting, but raised all kinds of emotion in me – rage, hopelessness, sadness. It is a tragic story, and one that deserves to be told.
The district attorney in question remains in office to this day…