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Legal protections are one thing; social stigma is another

Law Library
|Written By Damian J. Penny
Legal protections are one thing; social stigma is another
The Hunt, directed by Thomas Vinterberg, released 2012

A curious anomaly in our justice system; the offence with the most severe penalty under law is not the crime toward which most people feel the most personal revulsion.

Maybe most of us will concede a situation, however remote the possibility, where we would take the life of another person. Taking away the innocence of a child, however, seems uniquely evil and incomprehensible. One who sexually abuses a child may not spend the rest of his life in prison, but the stigma that accompanies the offence is unparalleled.

Now, imagine being falsely accused of this unspeakable crime. Especially when your livelihood depends on working with children.

That’s what happens to the main character in the Danish film The Hunt (originally titled Jagten), a nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at the most recent Academy Awards.

Lucas, played by Mads Mikkelsen, is a kindergarten teacher accused of molestation by one of his students. In reality, the little girl — who had latched onto her trusted teacher while her parents constantly fought — was upset about a perceived slight by Lucas, but in reality had been briefly shown a pornographic picture from the Internet by her older brother and his friend. But in a moment of anger, she told her principal that Lucas had shown her what she saw in the photo.

Little Klara (portrayed by then-seven-year-old Annika Wedderkopp, who had never acted before but proved to be a natural) subsequently admits she made it up, but the damage is done. School officials ask her leading questions about what “really” happened, and soon the allegations spread throughout this small Danish community. Then other children, perhaps pushed by hysterical parents and officials, come up with their own horror stories.

Lucas is forced from his job, ostracized by his community, and hauled into court. I had hoped that The Hunt would show us more about how the Danish justice system works, but the film is really about the effect these allegations can have upon a trusting community, and how a false allegation can destroy a life. I presume you’re innocent until proven guilty in Denmark, but that’s certainly not how Lucas’ colleagues and neighbours feel.

Without giving too much away, I will say that the The Hunt’s startling final scene shows how the accused is forever guilty to the general public, even if the authorities say otherwise.

Directed by Thomas Vinterberg (who made another brilliant drama centering on allegations of sexual abuse, 1998’s The Celebration), The Hunt is a somewhat low-key, deliberately paced film that fans of Lifetime network movies about this subject may find dull. But Mikkelson’s performance as a man trying to keep it together while subjected to a Kafkaesque witch-hunt is a revelation — so much so NBC subsequently hired him to play the title role of the most famous serial killer in all of fiction in its series Hannibal.

The thing is, far more often than we like to admit, for this kind of thing there really are witches out there. Americans and Britons are still reeling from the revelations about beloved football coach Jerry Sandusky and entertainer Jimmy Savile, respectively. I grew up in Newfoundland when the unspeakable horrors at Mount Cashel Orphanage came to light, and I’ve never forgotten what these poor kids went through. Child sexual abuse must be taken seriously, but that must be balanced with ensuring that those accused of such offences receive every legal protection to which they are entitled.

In New Zealand, the conservative government and Labour opposition are falling over themselves to stack the deck in favour of prosecutors in sexual assault cases. Maybe they should be forced to watch The Hunt.

Of course, as the film shows, legal protections are one thing. Social stigma is another. How does the wrongly accused defendant get his reputation back? That’s a question The Hunt can’t answer, and I’m not sure anyone can.


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