Sabrina Van Tassel on Uncovering Flaws in the System in “The State of Texas vs. Melissa”

Sabrina Van Tassel is a French-American film director and journalist. As an investigative reporter, Van Tassel has directed more than 45 documentary films over the last 15 years for major television programs. She focuses mainly on social and politically motivated matters, such as women forced into marriage, underage sex trafficking, post-traumatic stress, children in the white nationalist movement, women in prison, and the Holocaust. “The Silenced Walls” was her first documentary to be released theatrically.

“The State of Texas vs. Melissa” is now available on VOD and in virtual theaters.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

SVT: “The State of Texas vs. Melissa” is a character study about a woman on death row who is on her last appeal, and is about to be executed. It tells the story of Melissa Lucio, the first Hispanic woman sentenced to death in Texas.

On the surface, she checks all the boxes of the ideal culprit. She’s a mother of 14 children, with a history of drug abuse and a life of poverty, who is accused of abusing her younger daughter to death. But through the film we discover who the real Melissa was — the abuse she suffered as a child, the harshness of her life, how she was accused without any proof and interrogated for hours until she surrendered. The film revisits how a court appointed attorney willingly set aside evidence, and a district attorney used Melissa’s case to be reelected.

This film not only depicts the America of the less fortunate, but also the fate of a woman who was a victim from the day she was born, a woman who has been crushed by the American judicial system.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

SVT: Three years ago I was assigned to do a documentary about women on death row. I had picked a few women throughout the U.S. Melissa was one of them, but I almost didn’t cover her story: so little had been written about her, she was estranged from her family, and I didn’t think there was much to say about her case. It seemed like a random child abuse case by a drug addicted mother. Unfortunately, there are many like that out there.

At the last minute I decided otherwise. I went to South Texas to meet Melissa’s siblings and what I discovered down there blew my mind away. They told me that her little girl had fallen down a flight of stairs and that some of the other children had witnessed it. They also told me that I was the first person in 13 years to ask anything about her case — that even her lawyer at the time of her trial had never tried to meet them.

I realized there had been no investigation whatsoever, that none of her family were allowed to testify at her trial. What’s more, the district attorney involved in her case was in prison for bribery and extortion. It all seemed very bizarre to me.

When I met Melissa for the first time, I knew in my gut that something was seriously wrong with her case. I left death row that day knowing that I would do a film about her. Through her story, I saw all the flaws and the racial bias of the system which tends to get rid of the most vulnerable defendants.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

SVT: Not to judge a person hastily based on what they represent in the eyes of society, but to deal with the facts instead. Most defendants who are victims of wrongful convictions are very flawed characters who had broken lives. They might not have been model citizens, but that doesn’t mean that they’re guilty of the crime of which they are accused.

I would also like people to realize that death row targets the poor, and it targets Black and Brown lives. It is a very unjust system. You probably would not be on death row if you were a rich white male. However, you may well be on death row because you have a court appointed attorney who doesn’t have the means to defend you and a district attorney’s office who has all the means in the world to get you convicted. Ninety percent of court cases are won by the State. That’s a fact. That is why most poor defendants accept plea deals even if they’re innocent. They don’t stand a chance in a court of law.

W&H: What was your biggest challenge in making the film?

SVT: Finding people and getting them to talk to me. It’s hard to imagine how traumatic a death sentence is for a family and the collateral damage it creates. Melissa’s family, and some of her children, felt so railroaded by the justice system, they didn’t trust anyone anymore. It was hard to convince them to talk to me. Melissa’s children had been placed all over the State of Texas. It was hard to locate them, and hard to know how much they remembered and how much was hearsay.

As for the judicial part of the film, nobody wanted to talk, obviously. People involved in the case stood me up, and hung up on me. I had to chase her court appointed lawyer for almost two years to get him to talk. I finally bumped into him one day right in front of the courthouse where Melissa was trialed. Luck is a big part of documentary filmmaking.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made. 

SVT: The film was almost entirely privately funded. I met someone who believed in the project and financed it out of his own pocket. I know that’s going to sound crazy but he basically said to me, “Go save Melissa’s life.” It’s the kind of story that happens only once in a lifetime! This enabled me to create my production company and co-produce the film. Believing in the film, like this person did, not only gave me wings, it made me have complete control artistically and saved me so much time and energy. He was an angel on my path.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

SVT: My parents were movie fanatics. I was named Sabrina because of Billy Wilder’s film with Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. As children in the ’80s, my sister and I would spend hours watching VHS tapes that my parents had recorded. Some kids grew up with books — we grew up with films. It went from French Cinema to Westerns to “Casablanca” or “Kagemusha” to Ingmar Bergman films, so it was pretty diverse!

I was fascinated by “Three Days of the Condor” by Sydney Pollack. It’s probably the film that I saw the most as a kid. I guess I already had a taste for political investigation.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

SVT: “You might as well dive in” was the best advice I got. It came from from a female director who encouraged me to start doing features rather than short films 15 years ago. She explained to me that, in the end, it takes the same amount of energy, and that’s absolutely right.

The worst advice I was received recently came from a friend. They told me to listen to my then co-producer, when he told me to entirely re-edit my film. My friend said, “He must know what he’s talking about. He’s been in the business so long.” I never gave up, fought for my film the way it was, and ended up separating from that producer.

Forty-eight hours later the film was selected at Tribeca and was subsequently acquired by a big distributor. You’re the director and you know the film you want to make. If the same thing had happened to me when I was a young filmmaker, with less confidence and self-esteem, I wonder what I would have done. I cringe when I think about it.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

SVT: Stick to your vision, to the film you really want to do. Don’t let yourself be patronized or intimidated. Stay focused and never give up. There are more and more of us out there, but the industry is still led mostly by men.

Even though most of my experiences with male producers or distributors have been good, you still wouldn’t believe the sexist comments I heard along the years. There is still a very long road ahead of us.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

SVT: I can’t name one in particular, but Kathryn Bigelow is my favorite female director. I feel she really led the way for a lot of women of my generation to think this was possible, that we could do this, long before it started to be considered a plus to be a female director. “The Hurt Locker,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” and “Detroit” are among my favorites from her.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

SVT: Well, my film was finished a week before lockdown last April. That was lucky, but incredibly stressful at the same time. We didn’t know what was going to happen. It so happened that the press and the industry had nothing else to do but watch films during that period, so we benefited from that. Since then, all the festivals have been online and all of my interviews have been on Zoom.

The film has been released on virtual cinemas all over the country. It does feel like I’m out of the movie “Blade Runner” and my entire world is virtual now. I badly miss the interaction with the public and meeting people, but to tell the truth, I’ve never been so busy and focused.

W&H: Recent protests in the U.S. and abroad have highlighted racism and anti-Black police brutality. The film industry has a long history of under representing people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?

SVT: We need to have more minorities behind the camera producing and distributing films. To have their voices heard. Ultimately, we talk about what we know. If we want to fight stereotypes, we need people who know the story firsthand to show it the way it is. Nothing tops real life experience in narratives or documentaries. I put everything I am, all that I’ve witnessed in my films. It’s no accident that as a woman I tend to film other women. I look forward to seeing more films by Black, Hispanic, and Native American directors. Let’s just imagine the stories they have in store for us.

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