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American documentalism is afraid of boredom even more than Werner Herzog. At least half of the almost two-hour Stephen Maing’s Crime + Punishment is arranged situations and directed scenes. And although for the European viewer this approach will not always be attractive, the image created by artist from New York is a look for attention mainly in his native city. If one wants to reach a wider audience, there is probably no other way – with an important topic you can forgive the fight for attention even by using popular means.

Maing’s goal was to draw public attention to the problem of the quota system of policy the New York’s police force. Despite the ban on this system (present since 2010), police superior officers were compelled to produce appropriate quantitative norms, explaining the high number of arrests, acquittals and withdrawals (of course, citizens paid for trials, bails and proceedings, providing millions of revenue per year to the city hall) using the slogan of crime prevention.

The creator manages to maintain an appropriate distance, while being close to both the top of the police hierarchy (the camera will often be right next to the main commander), as well as the emerging opposition institutions, ethnic movements and the sympathetic detective-former police officer working on cases of innocent’s, repeatedly and unlawfully detained by officers. The viewers will not get an impression that Maing is on the specific side of the barricade, even though those who wield power clearly are queuing up for negative heroes.

Regardless of his – journalistic in spirit – rhetoric using pure facts, Crime + Punishment tells not only about the hypocrisy of New York city politicians and their orderly hand, but also about the hidden mechanism of ethnic and racial repression. Here the police forces consist not only of white man. The first scene of the film – the vow of new officers – breaks this idea. Among the newly baked uniforms, we will also see faces with a different complexion than white. There will be fewer of them, but they will clearly indicate their presence.

Although this was not the director’s main intention, his film somewhere in the margins of the need for legislative intervention on the functioning of municipal services and their unfair focus on ethnic minorities, reveals the way the neoliberal system works under the guise of tolerance trying to hide its true intentions. Those most often arrested, according to statistics presented in the film more than 5 times more often than whites, will be minorities (we are talking about unlawful arrests without a warrant and a good reason). Most terrifyingly, officials from minorities are forced to carry out restrictions on the freedom of citizens – and it is they who will start the uneven, though, fair fight against the corrupt leviathan.

Crime + Punishment is a shy voice of hope for a residual, smaller with each passing year, confidence in the uniformed services not only in the United States. The scene of the meeting and attempt of difficult cooperation of minority representatives with the intra-structural opposition in the police is emblematic. Despite the feeling of resentment and lack of trust, both parties are aware that cooperation can contribute to the common good.

Can this unequal fight be won without demolishing the system? Rather not, as rightly suggestive voices in the background of minority conversations with police officers suggest. After all, in such a politically ossified society, a slight mitigation in the approach to the citizen can still be of great value and perhaps the only thing one can count on.

Still from the movie – Watch Docs’ press materials.

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Mateusz Tarwacki

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Laura Przybylska
Laura Przybylska