Marina Zenovich is no stranger to difficult, complex subjects, most famously directing not one but two documentaries on living-in-exile director Roman Polanski. Still, tackling the Duke lacrosse case a decade after the fact proved to be a doozy.
“I was just very interested and started calling people and got a lot of ‘nos,’ ” the director said.
But she persisted, and the result is “Fantastic Lies,” an ESPN “30 for 30” documentary that premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday — 10 years to the night after the notorious Durham, North Carolina, house party that started it all.
“It’s still very fresh,” Zenovich said. “Sometimes I would call my journalist consultant [Joe Neff], who was helping me, and be like, ‘My God, what is wrong with these people? Why will no one talk to me?’ . . . He would say, ‘This is so toxic.’
“It’s such an overused word. But this is very fresh and I got a lot of pushback: ‘Why would you do this? Why would you do this now?’ People want to forget about this . . . It was interesting to see as an outsider how alive the story still was.”
To make a very long story very short, three Duke lacrosse players were accused — falsely, as it turned out — of raping a female student from North Carolina Central University, Crystal Mangum, who had been hired as a stripper for a party near the Duke campus.
The case inflamed racial tensions in Durham and beyond, led to the eventual resignation and disbarment of district attorney Mike Nifong, opened the news media to charges of jumping to hasty conclusions and cost Duke lacrosse coach Mike Pressler his job. Among other things.
Zenovich believed she was a good choice to take on the project as a casual sports fan more interested in personalities than wins and losses.
Being a sports novice helps, she said, “because you can look stupid and it doesn’t look that bad. And you’re actually curious because you’re learning. I fell in love with Durham in this whole process. And I really like Duke, even though no one would talk to me.”
Like any documentarian, she hoped to flesh out the story with previously unseen footage and/or fresh interviews, neither of which was easy. “I’m so proud of what we got because it took a lot of work,” she said.
For example, when she first took the train to Long Island to meet Patricia Dowd, whose son Kyle was on the team but not among the three players charged, she initially received a firm “no” to an on-camera interview.
Eventually, though, Dowd agreed (with encouragement from her son), and later she landed interviews with parents of two of the players who were charged — Reade Seligmann and Chaminade High School alum Collin Finnerty.
“Once I got in, which took a lot of time — it always takes time — I got in and got a window into what [Patricia Dowd] went through, a situation that caused a lot of pain and suffering,” Zenovich said. “That’s why they don’t want to go back.”
The director added, “Everybody who went through this and was affected by this, they’re still a very tight community, like the lacrosse community is a tight community . . . I think as people started to meet me and talk to each other and see that I didn’t have an agenda, I think little by little people decided to talk.”
Zenovich did not interview Pressler nor the three players at the center of the case. “On one level I really respect they didn’t want to talk on camera,” she said of the players. “It’s like, the defining event of their lives, and they want to move on.”
She credits Patricia Dowd with paving the way for other parents to trust her. “I think they all felt very burned by the media, so it was a very difficult place to be,” Zenovich said.
Duke officials did not agree to interviews, she said.
“I tried so hard,” Zenovich said. “I actually ran into [university president Richard] Brodhead at the Washington Duke Inn and approached him and he wasn’t interested.”
She does sympathize with the position Brodhead and others were in at the time.
“I don’t think they knew what to do, because they’d never been in this situation before,” she said. “Could they have made better decisions? Yes. I would have died to get someone from Duke on camera saying that.
“To me, to have someone say that, people are on their side. It’s like, just say, ‘We made a mistake. We didn’t know how to handle this. It had never happened.’ To me, the mere fact of not wanting to say that, in my eyes, is wrong. But some people don’t want to do that.”
The Duke lacrosse case was not the last time the public and/or media reacted hastily to an allegation, of course. It happened just last year when Rolling Stone magazine published an article about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia, a story that was later discredited.
“This to me is a film about false accusations and a rogue prosecutor,” Zenovich said. “And it would have turned out differently if there was a different prosecutor,” .
Zenovich said she was as guilty as most people of reacting too quickly when she first read about the allegation at Duke in the newspaper 10 years ago this month.
“It’s like, holy [expletive], what happened?” she said. “So myself, I had the reaction. Everyone does jump to conclusions. Maybe after seeing this [documentary] they’ll say, hey, maybe we should slow down, because look at how this affects people’s lives.”