Beyond the Lens: In Search of the Right Filmmaker
In the winter of 2002, I was falsely accused of molesting Tiffany Smiley, a 16-year-old student. I was a teacher within an African-American alternative high school known as Sullivan House, located in an impoverished area on the far south side of Chicago. Because of the surreal chain of events surrounding this circumstance, I was told that perhaps a documentary film would best convey the pain I felt due to the desecration of my character, the loss of my profession as an educator, and the many children of color who were emotionally scarred as a direct result of the allegation leveled against me. It became imperative that I find a documentarian with the ability to take me back in time, and make me comfortable enough to revisit a nightmare in the presence of a stranger holding a camera. In this essay, I will discuss the arduous but successful road to finding a filmmaker best suited to tell my very unusual and disturbing story.
This was not by any means a typical teacher/student sexual abuse case. Tiffany never stated that I’d violated her; and yet, I was given the option of voluntarily resigning from my position or being terminated on the spot—everything transpired in the presence of my colleagues and children who loved and respected me. The Department of Children and Family Services was never notified, nor was I arrested. I was merely issued a final paycheck, a letter of recommendation, and escorted from the building like a criminal. On August 8th, 2002, I filed a defamation lawsuit against the principal (my accuser) and the institution: Myra K. Richardson vs. Sullivan House and Lynn Nuzzo. For nearly five years the defendants maintained the position that no such incident ever occurred within the school. Instead, they claimed that I’d not been accused of committing a sexual act against the young girl, and I invented the story due to severe mental illness and a desire for attention.
During the pretrial phase of my fight against the school’s administration, I was exposed to unnecessary psychiatric exams and a host of anti-depressant medications, all at the urging of my two lawyers, Daniel J. Stohr and Kevin S. Besetzny. Supposedly, I would be taking the pills to prevent any type of suicidal ideation and the psych exams would prove that I was in fact sane. It wasn’t until a month or so before my trial that I began realizing why the attorneys I’d trusted implicitly would continue to insist upon my ingesting a litany of powerful drugs. They didn’t want me mentally alert enough to question their highly unethical behavior. The lawsuit was going to be corrupted, and a judge would assist in preventing the matter from going before a jury. A case which had taken many years to prove would ultimately be destroyed by the very men I’d hired to represent me.
On August 14th, 2006, four days before my trial, I was abandoned by my lawyers and left alone in the chambers of Judge Bill Taylor. He proceeded to threaten me, offer a teaching position within an institution where he was affiliated, and finally demand that I accept a settlement of $17,000. I was told to simply take the money, keep my mouth shut and walk away. I vehemently refused and insisted that I have my trial in order to be vindicated. On August 18th, 2006, Judge Taylor issued a court order enforcing the settlement and demanding that my attorneys sign legal documents against my will, in addition to forging my signature onto settlement checks (of which I received nothing). This case would have set a precedent, as no teacher has ever been accused of child molestation by an institution only to have the school later claim that nothing ever happened and the teacher invented the entire circumstance due to mental illness. If an officer of the court could do something as criminal and unethical as forging a client’s signature onto settlement checks, then what else might he be capable of? My parents urged me to write a book about the accusation and court battle for my own safety. It would include all legal documents related to the case. The resulting work is The Innocent Molester.
I’d been invited to take part in an Authors You Should Know book signing event at Roosevelt University in Chicago. I was often asked why my story hadn’t received any type of press—especially considering the grave nature of the accusation, the highly unethical behavior of the judge, and the harm which had come to so many of my former students. Many persons in attendance suggested that I find someone to make a documentary based on my story. They felt that the public needed to be made aware of such a blatant abuse of judicial power, and it should be done in a bold and direct manner if I ever wanted to receive the trial and vindication I deserved. At the time, I didn’t know how to make this sort of thing happen. I just knew it had to be done.
Every morning I’d scour the internet for filmmakers. I Google searched filmmakers in Chicago, famous filmmakers in Chicago, unknown filmmakers in Chicago, film schools, student filmmakers, clubs for filmmakers, and on and on and on. When I’d stumble across something or someone with promise, I’d send an email containing background information regarding my case. I spoke of feeling sad, tired, defeated, and not wanting the stigma of having been labeled a child molester to place a cloud of doom over my children and grandchildren. It was nearly impossible to encapsulate 9 years of legal battles, anguish, and loss. I received many responses from filmmakers who said they had too much on their plate but wished me well. One special message came from Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker Leslie Woodhead. He spoke of being touched by my sad tale and insisted that I continue reaching out no matter how many rejections might come my way. He had faith that someone would eventually agree to work with me.
I later stumbled across a site for women filmmakers called agnès films and was advised by its editor-in-chief, Alexandra Hidalgo, to consider more productive ways of reaching out to filmmakers, e.g., stating why I believed my story would make a good documentary, using my book’s cover and trailer to give my statement visual credibility, and so on. After a couple of weeks, Alexandra posted a link containing the book’s cover, its trailer and a synopsis of the case. Now I could submit information to prospective filmmakers in a professional and concise manner. Unfortunately, the search was still slow and tedious.
I began to do some research regarding how to be more selective when partnering with a filmmaker. What I learned was invaluable. I found much information at documentaryfilms.net. There was also a fascinating article written by Christopher J. Boghosian, I Am A Nobody Filmmaker. Another article by Tom Isler, Whose Story Is It Anyway? Obtaining a Subject’s Life-Story Rights, was extremely informative as well. But, the writing which touched me most was by Evan Luzi, Cameras Don’t Make Movies, People Do. In the following excerpt he says, “What this all boils down to is that a camera will not make a movie great—the people will. The actors in front of it will draw our emotions. The director will command a film’s presence. The cinematographer will create depth. A camera does none of these. There is no mythical Golden calf in the realm of filmmaking, pick a camera that suits the story and the budget.” Other articles warned against having a filmmaker enter into a venture of this magnitude if the first thing mentioned is the cost involved. No doubt, this is important, but it shouldn’t be the primary topic of discussion early on. Lastly, finding a filmmaker whom can empathize with your subject matter is crucial, especially since they will need to project your emotions and message in a way that will either grab an audience or make them doubt you.
Many professed a genuine interest, but strict time constraints on their end coupled with an absence of secured funding sources made it next to impossible to make my vision a reality. Finally, I contacted indie filmmaker Ted Mangan. I heard from him almost immediately, and he said the story was fascinating. He spoke of a great passion for making provocative films in his spare time and was proud of having completed a documentary short about an 8-year-old boy dying of Leukemia. He also shared the fact that my email touched him to the point of feeling compelled to do something if at all possible. I was later asked to provide a copy of my book. Ted would write after completing each chapter, wanting to walk in my shoes before committing to collaborating with me. Finally he said, “I’m no Spielberg, but I have a camera, time, and the desire to allow you to speak and tell the world what you’ve needed to for so long.” He didn’t have enough money to fly, but said he’d be willing to drive to Chicago from Allentown, Pennsylvania. This journey would take him seventeen hours one way. He asked for nothing more than gas money and a place to sleep.
Before making the trip, he contacted everyone involved in the matter. He let me know right away that the lawyers refused to take part in the documentary. The judge contacted Ted and told him that I was severely mentally unbalanced and he shouldn’t waste his time coming to Chicago. Ted called me and seemed strangely reticent. He was concerned about driving such a long distance to meet someone who could possibly be insane. I began to cry and asked him to at least question the witnesses for my trial before changing his mind. After speaking with each one, he assured me that nothing would prevent him from coming. If a powerful judge with connections to the Illinois Supreme Court would take the time to convince him that an unknown little teacher was crazy, then maybe there was something he wanted to keep hidden from the public.
Ted arrived in Chicago and he was the sweetest man ever. He was humble, patient, and willing to allow each subject the opportunity to contribute in any manner which was most comfortable to them. He didn’t try to stage things or insist that we follow any type of scripted dialogue. Everything was natural down to the telephone ringing during a conversation, too much sunlight at times, Ted’s thumb in the way of the lens, and my having to walk away abruptly because I needed to calm myself down after reliving something painful. We just let things flow as they would. After five days of filming, the result was more than 15 hours of raw footage. It was definitely no picnic. The voices of a filmmaker and subject must merge. You can’t possess the mindset that it’s your vision, and complete say belongs in your court, any more than a filmmaker is correct in the perception that only he/she knows the process best, and is therefore unwilling to acquiesce. Ted wanted to strangle me at times and the feeling was mutual. But I respected his craft and came to love him for giving me the latitude to be myself on camera.
The entire experience was fascinating, and I was sad to see him go. If I’d given up on my search, there would be no documentary or screening in the future. I wanted the opportunity to talk about what happened to my teaching profession while at Sullivan House. I wanted the public to understand that no person is immune from injustice or its many disguises. I wanted to prove to myself that I wasn’t a quitter, no matter how many doors slammed in my face or how people might perceive me after learning of the heinous crime I was allegedly guilty of. I now have a great reverence for filmmakers that I never had before. It’s not easy making a subject feel comfortable enough to reveal what they want to reveal, and at times even what they don’t.
The title of the documentary is, ACCUSED: the Vindication of Myra Richardson. Click here to learn about future screenings.
Click here to visit Myra’s profile.