Film Review: ‘The State of Texas Vs. Melissa’ – A Gripping Doc on the Judicial System’s Exploitation of the Marginalized in America

Screen Shot 2020-04-30 at 5.27.44 PM

Melissa Lucio, Photo: Courtesy of The 2050 Group

As the first Hispanic woman facing death row in the state of Texas, Melissa Lucio’s milestone or accomplishment isn’t worthy of recognition, especially for Latinos, yet her story and impending fate is compelling and requires attention. The State of Texas vs. Melissa, a documentary by French-American director, Sabrina Van Tassel (The Silenced Wall) asserts how the laws of injustice favor poor, uneducated people of color. And how their cases are inevitably swept into the vortex of anonymity. Sabrina Van Tassel first encountered Melissa as she was researching for her documentary about women in jail. Van Tassel, an investigative journalist and filmmaker for over 15 years, was reluctant to meet Lucio as her case centered on the homicide of her 2-year-old daughter, Mariah. An abhorrent charge, undoubtedly. What drew Van Tassel to Melissa’s case was the inmate’s demeanor, the facts of the case, and belief that she’s innocent.

Screen Shot 2020-04-30 at 5.27.58 PM

Director, Sabrina Van Tassel, Photo: Courtesy of The 2050 Group

The director does a fantastic job of letting the images and cast of characters guide the narrative- everyone from Melissa’s family members to defense attorneys and forensic scientists play significant roles in how the documentary unfolds. From the beginning, as Melissa is interrogated for over 7 hours by unrelenting police in Southern Texas, the audience can surmise she was coerced into confessing to the murder. The filmmaker paints a vivid picture of Melissa’s life. We see she comes from a broken home, suffered physical abuse at the hands of relatives and her mother’s ex-boyfriends. The indifference Melissa’s mother shows towards her daughter’s sexual abuse and current situation is quite telling of the lack of parental and emotional support Melissa received. The drug abuse, abject poverty and guardianship of 14 children overwhelmed Lucio. It’s obvious her unresolved trauma led to her downward spiral, but this impossible situation does not make a murderer. Or does it? With no history of violence, as confirmed by family members and psychologists, there wasn’t sufficient evidence she was prone to commit this heinous crime. Melissa Lucio was a negligent mother and child services eventually removed her children from her care, the director glosses over these facts. The audience could have benefitted from learning more about Melissa’s state of mind during the actual death of Mariah.

Screen Shot 2020-04-30 at 5.30.55 PM

Although some details were omitted, the documentary chronicles the turn of events that make Melissa’s story so fascinating. A corrupt DA looking to seek re-election in Texas’  Cameron county; a defense attorney with career aspirations that trumped his client’s best interest and goal of being freed; Melissa’s other daughter, who may have been responsible for her sister’s death. Van Tassel sets the stage for a documentary-style whodunit. And in doing so, we see how easily Lucio was railroaded in a failed judicial system. Sitting on death row for over 13 years, Melissa Lucio is on her last appeal, which if overturned, may go to the Supreme Court.

Making its Tribeca 2020 Film Festival world premiere, The State of Texas vs. Melissa has received well-deserved media attention from virtual festival filmgoers and panelists. Written and Directed by Sabrina Van Tassel, produced by Vito Films in co-production with Tahli Films and Andaman Films has a running time of 97 minutes. To learn more about The State of Texas vs. Melissa, click here.

 

 

‘Hurdle’ Review: Palestinian Youth Combat Political Strife With Inspiring Creative Outlets

Screen Shot 2019-11-15 at 4.41.31 PM

Photo: Courtesy of Hurdle Film

The world is in political turmoil domestically and internationally as evidenced by the ongoing deadly protests in Hong Kong, Venezuela, Chile and Bolivia. Reaching its 50th year of Israeli military occupation, Palestinians have mastered the virtue of resiliency in fighting for their rights to exist and living with the oppression that brings social injustice; they’ve taken to the streets for half a century, and attempting to reclaim their land is nothing new. But what has emerged, and shed light on this age-old Middle Eastern conflict, is a fresh perspective by documentary filmmaker, editor, cinematographer, producer: Michael Rowley. In his film Hurdle, audiences can judge for themselves what Palestinians are fighting for.

Screen Shot 2019-11-15 at 4.43.06 PM

Photo: Courtesy of Hurdle Film, Mohammed by Wall In Occupied Palestine

Hurdle begins with Mohammed, a Palestinian photographer examining a wall built to confine Palestinians to their “territory” by the Israeli military. Mohammed is clearly anxious and frustrated by his and his family’s current situation, but uses his photography business to enlist the youth in his community to find what’s beautiful and intriguing in the midst of all the violent attacks on their people. It’s gut-wrenching yet hopeful to see this community persevere and strive for a better life and brighter future.

Screen Shot 2019-11-15 at 4.42.11 PM

Photo: Courtesy of Hurdle Film, Parkour Team Member Jumping

The film then follows Sami, a parkour instructor who teaches young men to jump and flip over rooftops and structures with measured form. Apart from the mental and physical demands the sport requires – it invokes the spirit of these young men to persevere, to attain the unattainable and overcome obstacles in currently occupied Palestine, even with all the violence and bloodshed simultaneously consuming their daily lives.

Rowley’s Hurdle film is candid. It shows daily Palestinian life: the celebrations, familial moments, triumphs and tribulations that connect us on human level. There are devastating violent attacks that can strike at a moment’s notice. On one side, we see people (Palestinians) fighting for their very existence, and on the other, Jews waving their flags rejoicing as they claim victory over their enemies. It’s an eye-opening experience to see basic freedoms we are all entitled to, squashed, but in succession, witness a movement of self-preservation and determination. Rowley documents the breathtaking landscapes and energy of Jerusalem with captivating cinematography and music. Winner of the Best Documentary Feature Film from the 2019 Tulsa American Film Festival, Hurdle is destined for more accolades and world-wide recognition. To learn more and check out future screenings of the Hurdle documentary, click here.