David Zurawik: It's the chorus of survivors that matters most in Netflix docuseries on Jeffrey Epstein. Let their voices ring

David Zurawik, The Baltimore Sun on

Published in Op Eds

I am not a great fan of true-crime docuseries. I believe their ability to draw large audiences for premium cable and streaming services has resulted in making it harder for nonfiction filmmakers to get funding for productions dealing with less sensational, more complicated stories about such matters as growing economic disparity, racism and tribalism in American life. Going deep and getting sociological are not the primary concerns of such series.

But the more socially conscious true-crime docuseries can be powerful voices of righteousness, morality and potential agents of change. I put "Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich," a four-part docuseries debuting Wednesday on Netflix, squarely in that category.

The most apt comparison is to "The Keepers," the 2017 Netflix docuseries that revisited the mysterious disappearance in 1969 of a 26-year-old Baltimore nun, Sister Catherine Cesnik, and explored survivor accounts of a horrifying sexual abuse ring that preyed upon girls at the school where the nun taught, at what was then Baltimore's Archbishop Keough High School. At the center of the ring in the '60s and '70s, survivors said in the film, was a Catholic priest who served as chaplain at the school, the Rev. A. Joseph Maskell.

What made "The Keepers" such a soul-stirring production were the survivors, many of them still living in the Baltimore area, who refused to be ignored or silenced across the decades by some of the most powerful institutions in the community: the courts, the police and the Catholic Church, according to the women's accounts.

The survivors formed a community of resistance, remembrance, testimony and mutual support. And when filmmakers did finally come calling, they were ready, willing and able to movingly recount their histories of abuse and credibly bear witness to what they saw as the goodness of Sister Cathy and the evil of Maskell and his enablers.

"Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich" privileges the voices of those who survived the financier's mental and physical abuse in much the same way as "The Keepers" did with the voices of those who testified to having been abused by Maskell. And that's where its emotional firepower and narrative urgency come from.

Director and executive producer Lisa Bryant says that decision was fundamental to her strategy in making the film.

"These brave survivors deserve to be heard and respected. They'd been silenced for so long. I wanted to help give them a voice while letting them drive the narrative," she said in promotional material from Netflix.

And she definitely does provide a powerful platform for their voices to be heard.

One of the most moving moments comes when viewers see Sarah Ransome standing on a bluff looking out to sea as she recounts the night she tried to escape from Epstein's Caribbean Island.

She says she had been raped by Epstein three times that day, and felt she could take it no more. Her plan was to escape by swimming away as far as she could.

"The more he saw you being damaged, the more he enjoyed it. The more it excited him," she says, breaking into tears. "He did things to me that no man should ever do to a woman, and he did it all the time."

In addition to raping her, Epstein had started trafficking her to others in 2006, Ransome adds.

She had barely arrived at a remote part of the island that night of her desperate plan to escape when Epstein appeared.

"I knew then I was being watched, I was being filmed 24/7," she says. "There were cameras all over the island, and he got me back."

Virginia Roberts Giuffre says that she was recruited into Epstein's depraved world while working as a locker room attendant at Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla., in 1999 when she was 16.

According to Giuffre's account, Ghislaine Maxwell, who is identified as Epstein's former girlfriend in the film, recruited her after noticing that she was reading a book on massage. Her teenage dream was to be a massage therapist, and Maxwell told her she knew someone who was looking for a masseuse and could help her get the training she needed to be a licensed therapist.

That night, she met Maxwell and Epstein at his Palm Beach mansion. According to Giuffre, the evening started with Maxwell showing her how to massage Epstein starting with his feet. Before it was over, she said both Epstein and Maxwell had sexually assaulted her.


(Maxwell, who is facing civil and criminal actions, denies all allegations, according to the film.)

Before long, Giuffre said she came to feel: "I am now a slave to these people ... And then, I was trafficked, I was lent out to their friends."

Courtney Wild recounts first meeting Epstein as a 14-year-old living in West Palm Beach, Fla. As a result of her mother's addiction, Wild says she was essentially homeless, living in the homes of classmates whenever she could. When she was told she could make $200 for coming to Epstein's Palm Beach mansion and giving him a massage, she went for it.

"Massage escalated to him molesting me," she explains.

West Palm Beach plays a large role in the predatory pattern of recruitment that Epstein employed. Parts of West Palm Beach are where many of the people who work in the mansions on Palm Beach live. The socio-economic differences between Epstein and the girls he recruited, groomed, sexually abused and, in some cases, enslaved are important to understand.

It is impossible to watch "Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich" and not be outraged by the way his money not only allowed him to buy the bodies of mostly underclass teenage girls, but also gain grotesquely preferential treatment from police officers, lawyers, judges, jailers, politicians and even Justice Department officials.

Remember how Alexander Acosta, President Trump's pick to be head of the Labor Department, abruptly resigned amid a firestorm of criticism over a secret deal he brokered with Epstein in 2008 when he was United States attorney for the Southern District of Florida? That's in this series, too, and if it doesn't make your blood boil, you are on the wrong side of history when it comes to understanding and condemning patriarchy.

The best true-crime docuseries have to deliver some sense of justice served in the final hour, and "Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich" does just that. That is no easy task when the villain of the story is found dead in his jail cell before he can be publicly confronted with his monstrous crimes and condemned for them in a court of law. One of the survivors said she feels he escaped paying for his sins with what has been ruled a suicide.

But Bryant, the filmmaker, does find ways to let the survivors and others challenge the denials of wrongdoing by some of the famous men who associated with Epstein over the years: former President Bill Clinton, attorney Alan Dershowitz, President Donald Trump and Britain's Prince Andrew. The testimony and pictures some of the survivors have are a lot stronger than the denials, especially in the case of the pathetic Andrew.

In the end, though, "Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich," like "The Keepers," isn't about any of the men, even Epstein, as much as it is about the women who survived him and the strength, healing and sense of community they found as they came together in New York for court hearings after his arrest in 2019. The emotional payoff for viewers is in hearing the chorus of survivor voices sounding clear, confident and strong.

After Epstein's death, his lawyers filed a motion to dismiss. But U.S. District Judge Richard Berman was not about to let that happen without the survivors having their day in court on Aug. 27. More than two dozen came and testified to what Jeffrey Epstein did to them, according to reporting in the Miami Herald by Julie K. Brown, who exposed the secret deal Acosta arranged for Epstein.

"Judge Berman, he changed my life," Ransome says in the film. "For the first time I actually saw someone in a position of power who had any form of respect for us. And he listened. And that's all I ever wanted was for someone to listen and to hear me."

Ramsome and the other survivors will now be heard and seen by millions in coming days, weeks, months and years on Netflix.

(David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun's media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.)

(c)2020 The Baltimore Sun

Visit The Baltimore Sun at www.baltimoresun.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.




Jeff Danziger Lee Judge Chris Britt Scott Stantis Walt Handelsman Andy Marlette