' ' Cinema Romantico: Roll Red Roll

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Roll Red Roll

Nancy Schwartzman’s documentary “Roll Red Roll” takes its name from the chant for the Steubenville, Ohio high school football team, which was at the center of the 2012 Steubenville, Ohio rape case, two of its players standing trial for the assault of an unnamed Jane Doe and eventually sentenced to juvenile prison. Her film opens with stomach-churning audio excerpts of cell phone recordings from the night in question of boys who witnessed or heard second-hand about the terrible act, as well as images of text messages, including one to Jane Doe, superimposed on the screen over shots of a mostly sleepy Steubenville main street. It’s an effective device, evoking not so much a peek behind the curtain but a full-fledged dredging up of the rot masked by ostensible small-town values, the kind often referenced to shield precisely what this court case so nauseatingly uncovered. If Jane Doe remaining as such in the documentary is a legal matter, it’s also aesthetically right. It’s about her, of course, but also about rape culture and how if it remains unchallenged it merely festers. A Steubenville local wonders, after protests erupt in their small downtown, how this could happen to their town, and “Roll Red Roll” answers that it’s been happening, that’s been there all along.

Text messages and cellphone recordings, as well as Tweets, are not just an aesthetic device, however. They prove to be a backbone of evidence. If a Steubenville football player says one thing, he is later summoned again to police headquarters and told in no uncertain terms that they know about the pictures he has of the accuser on his phone. Tweets, meanwhile, show that while people claimed to have no knowledge of a rape having taken place, that, in fact, they did, using that exact language, and often in harsh, sickening language. Much of this information was first uncovered by a crime blogger, Alexandria Goddiard, who combed through social media to find various posts on different platforms by Steubenville football players and students and pieced together the timeline of the night in question. Local detectives, led by J.P. Rigaud, who is interviewed throughout, reached the same conclusion, though whether these dueling amateur and professional investigations ever truly intertwined unfortunately remains unclear.

In this way, social media emerges as something almost akin to an inadvertently willful surveillance state, kids both knowingly and unknowingly documenting their every move and thought not so much for posterity’s sake as potential evidence. The ethical implications of Goddiard uploading this information to the Internet, and subsequently drawing the attention of the hacker group Anonymous which leaked a video that stamped a face to rape culture, are mostly glossed over in “Roll Red Roll’s” refusal to editorialize, leaving it all to feel as a natural consequence of the digital world in which teenagers immerse themselves. But even if you think the kids who were not present or not directly involved did not deserve public scrutiny, this footage is revealing nonetheless, evidence of the chickens coming home to roost, a cautionary tale you can virtually feel passing right by viewers even as they watch it.

If the un-accused males come across cruelly blithe in the digital evidence that Schwartzmann submits, one of the kids assumes an entirely different air in front of Rigaud, as seen in interrogation room footage, where the high camera placement evokes God’s eye, from whom nothing escapes. This teen’s suddenly meek tune is difficult not to compare and contrast with the footage of his team’s football coach – Reno Saccoccia – in his own interview with Riguad. Here you can virtually see where the behavior of a patriarchal forebearer trickles down to those he is charged with overseeing, initiating a vicious cycle in which everyone remains trapped, unable to escape from absent reflection, the kind that seems impossible in a place programmed to circle the wagons in the face of the slightest question and then close down once it’s been asked.

Near the beginning, we hear audio of a local radio D.J. issuing the sort of victim-blaming heard the world over. Much later, after the truth has emerged and been born out by the facts, he says he just wants it to go away, as despressing an evocation as you will find of the longstanding belief that if we simply close our eyes, rape culture will disappear.

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