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‘The Fire That Took Her,’ The Judy Malinowski Documentary at Athena Film Festival

Athena Film Festival (courtesy of Carole Di Tosti)
Athena Film Festival (courtesy of Carole Di Tosti)

The Judy Malinowski story by filmmaker Patricia Gillespie which screened at Athena Film Festival with a filmmaker Q and A afterward is like other women’s stories that involve abuse by heinous and monstrous men. One in four women in the nation suffer some form of emotional and physical abuse and violence from their partners or spouses.

In the Fire That Took Her, Judy Malinowski’s story is particularly egregious. The 31-year-old mother of two was in an abusive relationship with a man with a criminal history. After an argument, he doused her with gasoline, then burned her alive. This story separates from most women’s stories in its incredible and heartbreaking outcome that produced a landmark case and laws in the right direction helping women abused by men. After her death Judy’s video testimony about her murder was played before judge and jury and helped to sentence murderer Michael Slager to life without parole, which Judy felt was just. He would have received the death penalty if he had pleaded innocent, but his defense attorney insisted he plead guilty in case Judy died of her horrific injuries. She did.

AFF Q and A on The Fire That Took Her, Patricia Gillespie’s documentary (courtesy of Carole Di Tosti)

Gillespie’s amazing work, which she also produced, chronicles a portrait of this brave, Franklin County Ohio woman told in video clips of her childhood, archived family photos and interviews with her galvanizing mom Bonnie Bowes, her sister Danielle Gorman and Judy’s two daughters Kaylyn and Maddie. In these comprehensive videos, the family relates their feelings about Judy, emphasizing that she did well in school and she was a social butterfly growing up. Her situation started to go downhill after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and unbeknownst to her became addicted to pain medication. After she met Slager, she fell apart because she used heroin to take the place of Oxycontin prescribed to her after her surgeries. When the doctors cut her off Oxycontin, her use of heroin instigated by Michael Slager as a control feature of their abusive relationship began.

Through interviews principally with Bonnie Bowes and sister Danielle, Gillespie unravels the story. Slager became Judy’s “go-to” drug guy and sometimes paid for heroin to keep her addicted and close. The relationship grew so abusive that she became afraid of him. The day he attacked her, he was driving her to rehab where she was actually going to escape him and be safe. He knew it and most probably, it enraged him. When he insinuated himself on her to take her to rehab, as a weakness, so often found in abusive relationships between women and their partners, she allowed Slager to drive her to rehab. It was the last time she was to see life under normal circumstances ever again.

Bonnie Bowes and Judy’s sister Danielle during this segment profiling Judy discuss Slager and Judy’s toxic relationship. Slager manipulated and controlled her using with the drugs and “got off” on the power he felt as a result. The mother and sister give an account of the Judy’s deteriorating state of mind and physical condition, which was not only emblematic of the emotional abuse she was experiencing, but it was evidence of his negativity and condemnation which exacerbated her depression, low self-esteem and fear of him. To say their relationship was the antithesis of beneficial is an understatement. Though Slager’s attack on her was beyond calculation, he gained power through his sadism and keeping her under his own surveillance using her drug dependence. And when she tried to disengage or hide from him, he always found a way back to her.

In the segments where Gillespie explores Judy’s condition in the hospital, she uses commentary from interviews with the nurse who took care of her. Stacy Best describes burn wounds as the most horrifically painful to overcome. She discusses how the hospital gave probability stats on burn patients based upon the proportion of their body that was burned. When Judy came in, she was burned over 95% of her body. Her prognosis was very poor and they didn’t expect her to live. Judy continually amazed Best and those medical staff who took care of her. Best lifts up Judy as a strong, courageous woman and affirms that Judy’s fight to remain alive through the trial and presentation of video testimony that would convict Slager was miraculous.

Considering that she was in a coma for many months through her many surgeries and skin grafts, that she lived for two years after the attack was a testament to her extraordinary will and bravery. Best saw how Judy endured the psychological and physical trauma that she had to face each day she woke up to an unrecognizable face and searing, screaming pain coursing through her body. Nevertheless, she pushed through each day to become the integral witness to Slager’s felonious assault trial which moved to a murder trial after she died. The filmmaker uses salient film clips of the trial in her documentary.

At the beginning of the documentary outlining Slager’s fiery attack, Gillespie relies on interviews with Detective Chad Cohagen. He describes watching the ATM videos which captured a cinema verite account of of Slager’s diabolical, murderous assault on Judy at a Speedway gas station. Cohagen says how he couldn’t get the scenes out of his mind and was haunted by their remembrance which indicated the brutality and hatefulness of Slager’s violence. The ATM videos were used at the Slager trials and provided the prosecution with the evidence of Slager’s behavior. Importantly, they confirmed that he was lying about how the fire occurred which he said was an accident. He insisted (Gillespie includes this video of Slager in a hospital bed spouting his innocence) that he didn’t intentionally burn Judy. He claimed when she asked him to light her cigarette, somehow in doing that, she was ignited. That Judy would even ask to have an open flame around her while she was drenched in gasoline whose fumes can ignite, places the blame on Judy and makes her appear the provocative aggressor and Slager the victim of her suicidal request.

Patricia Gillespie, documentarian, producer of 'The Fire That Took Her' (courtesy of Carole Di Tosti)
Patricia Gillespie, documentarian, producer of The Fire That Took Her (courtesy of Carole Di Tosti)

Misogyny always places the blame on women for the violent acts men do to them. “They made me do it,” becomes a common refrain: from “she wanted it dressed like that,” to it was “an accident that she tripped down the stairs and broke open her skull.” The likelihood in a relationship filled with violence and abuse is that the man once more violated his partner. Oftentimes, women cover up men’s abusive physical behavior out of humiliation. That the men instigate this pattern with women, who minimize it, reveals the likelihood that there will especially be an attempt to to cover up a violent action if the result is death.

Throughout her documentary, Gillespsie refers to the ATM videos. In them we see Judy has an argument with Michael Slager during which she throws a cup of soda on him. His retaliation, psychotically out of proportion to her soda throwing, is to get a gasoline canister from the back of his truck, then douse Judy with the gasoline starting from the top of the head and down her back. After some seconds elapse, he ignites her and there is an explosion of flame with Judy struggling under the conflagration and begging for help.

(L to R): Co-Founder of AFF Melissa Silverstein and Patricia Gillespie discussing The Fire That Took Her (courtesy of Carole Di Tosti)
(L to R): Co-Founder of AFF Melissa Silverstein and Patricia Gillespie discussing The Fire That Took Her (courtesy of Carole Di Tosti)

Gillespie explores Detective Cohagen’s examination of Slager’s lies about intent which would help to get him off for first degree murder as to motive. The filmmaker also includes clips of the prosecution’s and Slager’s defense attorney Bob Krapence. Their discussion centers around Slager’s innocence versus willfully, knowingly, intentionally lighting her on fire to punish her for throwing soda on him. According to Krapence, Slager didn’t mean to harm Judy. The fact that he poured gasoline over her starting from her head wasn’t enough of an intent. The live flame was. And the video gives proof that he was not innocent about the open flame. Gillespie has law enforcement give a shot by shot explanation which confirms Judy’s testimony that she recorded in a deposition in the hospital before she died. Certainly, her injuries confirm what the video shows which is Slager’s intent to torture her.

Slager also lied about when he got a fire extinguisher to put out the flames, which he says he did immediately which proves his intent was to do no harm. However, the ATM video shows that it was only until a Good Samaritan bystander who witnessed his actions and screamed for help returned him to a consciousness of his own guilty actions. Then, he got a fire extinguisher and put out the fire that engulfed the woman that he said he loved. Prior to the bystander he waited and ignored Judy’s cries for help, watching her immolation.

(L to R): Mom Bonnie Bowes and Judy Malinowski before the attack (courtesy of the family to Marion Star)
(L to R): Mom Bonnie Bowes and Judy Malinowski before the attack (courtesy of the family to Marion Star)

The ATM videos were key pieces of evidence. In her interviews, Bonnie Bowes states she was in shock, finding it difficult to believe such an action could be done by human hands. Each of the subjects that Gillepsie interviews defines Slager’s actions to be reprehensible and beyond logic. Even Michael Slager’s defense attorney Bob Krapence, who futilely tries to contend that Michael didn’t mean to do Judy harm admits to Gillespsie in an interview that the film showing Slager’s actions is practically impossible to overcome. Thus, he leads Slager to take a guilty plea, knowing the possibility that Judy will die and he will be convicted of murder.

Judy’s deposition, taken in the last months of her life by the prosecution, was done with little pain medication. Thus, her agonized testimony is delivered in excruciating pain because prosecutors didn’t want it to be interpreted by the defense that the pain meds made her a euphoric liar. Gillespie includes the video taped deposition in her documentary. In the deposition Judy states how Slager’s eyes turned black and he was a personification of evil. Clearly, Slager’s prior record which goes on for pages indicates a personality of control and criminality. That he was not stopped before this event is a testament to the ineffective justice system and law enforcement. That the police didn’t focus on Slager as capable of such an act even though Judy repeatedly told them he was going to kill her and had to go in hiding from him indicates that law enforcement, as in many instances with violence toward women, doesn’t take domestic abuse and the threats to kill as seriously as it should.

Judy Malinowski before the attack and in the hospital after over 95% of her body was burned by Michael Slage (courtesy of Now/This)
Judy Malinowski before the attack and in the hospital after over 95% of her body was burned by Michael Slage (courtesy of Now/This)

Patricia Gillespie intersperses the interviews by the subjects with the trial video of the judge, Slager with his attorney and his family’s upset at the verdict of life without parole.The sentence of life without parole was what Judy wanted for him before she passed away. She didn’t want him to get the death penalty. Ironically, Judy was more merciful to him than he was to her which is one aspect of her personality which the superb documentary The Fire That Took Her reveals. Another aspect is how even after her death, she still is exerting her influence on the laws in Ohio and the federal jurisprudence system with Judy’s Foundation established by Judy’s family.

The maximum sentence that Slager would have received in Ohio was 11 years behind bars. While she was still alive, with her mother and family, Judy helped Ohio representatives pass a bill into law that would make assaults like Slager’s come with longer prison sentences for violent criminals who intentionally disfigure their victims by using accelerants to set them on fire. Prior to Judy’s campaign to get the law passed, a car had the same rights as a woman. One could light a car on fire and for that receive 11 years behind bars. What is a human being worth? Under the law the same value as a car. This is an egregious example of the justice system that doesn’t work.

Judy's Law being signed by Gov. John Kasich here present with Judy's family. (courtesy of Karen Kasler)
Judy’s Law being signed by Gov. John Kasich here present with Judy’s family. (courtesy of Karen Kasler)

Ohio’s HB 63, a.k.a. Judy’s Law, passed in May 2017, just a month before Judy’s death. Judy’s Foundation currently is working to federalize the Ohio law stiffening sentences and penalties so that victims are worth more than a car.

This is a vital documentary. Gillespie highlights the horrific permissiveness in the justice system that continually fails women when dealing with violent crimes committed against them. What Judy Malinowski had to do was die and leave testimony taken under horrifically painful circumstances to make sure her killer received the sentence she felt he deserved. Judy’s Law is a step in the right direction. However, folkways in this nation in many states which uplifted paternalism and viewed women with no rights as men’s chattel die hard. Gillespie points this out in the film’s themes which reveal the mistreatment of women has far reaching effects on the families, individual women and culture at large. That Big Pharma was an integral but hidden part of that mistreatment and abuse is another indictment found in the documentary.

This is one to see. It is a spur for us to continue to fight the good fight and to speak out and take agency and power when violent abuse and mistreatment is ignored and/or the perpetrators shielded. Judy Malinowski did not die in vain. As a force for goodness and Light, she lives on in the work being done with Judy’s Foundation.

You can see it streaming on your favorite channels.

‘Master,’ a Thriller With Twists, Athena Film Festival

Regina Hall in Master (courtesy of Amazon Pictures)

In Master written and directed by Mariama Diallo, the horrors of the past combine with present-day horror to gyrate into a memorable thriller with twists. The film screened at Athena Film Festival and SXSW.

Starring Regina Hall as Professor Gail Bishop, Zoe Renee as Freshman Jasmine Moore and Amber Gray as Professor Liv Beckman, Diallo presents three women of color. Each must find her own way to success at an elite New England university. Only one of the three succeeds. The reason why is disclosed by the conclusion.

Three Women of Color at an Elite University

Diallo opens with Jasmine who arrives at the campus welcomed by a student who intimates that she got “the room.” Later Jasmine discovers the legend about a woman hanged for being a witch. Part of the legend’s spin is that the university site is a Salem era gallows hill.

In macabre fashion, the “witch” picture hangs with other white Puritan ancestors/donors of the university. For whatever reason, the university perhaps views the woman as a martyr and eschews her dark and violent end. But the legend abides on the campus and underclassmen are tantalized by it as upperclassmen share the story abundantly so every student knows it.

Jasmine remains submerged in the legend and the hanging. Increasingly, she feels uncomfortable. Spooked by discussion that the witch forced a girl to jump to her death, Jasmine begins having nightmares. Her roommate and friends remain coolly distant and provide no help to make her feel accepted or comfortable.

The Dean Discovers a History of Racism on the Campus

Meanwhile, Gail Bishop enjoys the privilege of her position as “Master,” the dean of students. Though warmly welcomed by colleagues and students, she too must confront a terror which is in her beautiful but darkly lit residence. When Gail attempts to clean out some of the storage areas, she discovers the history of servitude and slavery in pictures left in shoe boxes.

Though her exalted position as a black woman makes her proud of her achievement to be appointed dean, in the artifacts she finds the unpleasantness of racism and servile abuse that existed in the house decades before. This is the site the official board of the university gave her to adopt as her home, but no one thought to clean out the storage areas. Is there an underlying message they are relaying? The pictures and weird, creaking noises stoke her fears. She visits her colleague Liv Beckman for comfort.

Meanwhile, something curious is happening with Jasmine in her classes. Though she achieved As in Tacoma, Washington and graduated as the Valedictorian, on the issue of critical race theory, she disagrees with Professor Liv Beckman. Beckman suggests that The Scarlett Letter has great racial bias and claims that the novel may be used to understand the racism in the setting and characters. Jasmine opposes that in open discussion. After she writes a paper expressing her views, she receives an F. Asking other students their grades, Jasmine determines that Beckman targeted her, so she files a complaint letter suggesting Beckman lacks competence.

Regina Hall in Master (courtesy of Amazon Pictures)

The Women of Color are on Campus to Represent “Inclusion”

Ironically, Beckman represents as a black woman who college officials hired to show they support “inclusion.” Jasmine and Gail are all there for the same reason, to reveal how open and accepting the university is toward women of color. Thus, Jasmine’s accusation against Beckman appears contradictory and weird as does Beckman singling out a “sister.” Instead of unity between two black women, division overshadows them. What is the spirit that causes this?

The complexity deepens when the professors challenge Beckman’s receiving tenure because she hasn’t published. Caught between supporting her “sister” and being objective, Gail brings up the letter of complaint Jasmine filed against Beckman. It appears that Liv will have to leave. The unity that should exist among all three women has been shattered. To appear objective and just, Gail feels forced to tell her colleagues who will vote on Liv’s tenure about Jasmine’s letter of complaint.

Master’s Terror Shifts From Legends to Realities

Diallo then ratchets up the revelations of racial bias on the campus among the student body. Terrifying events occur that seem strange on a New England campus that appears to support diversity. However, the university had a vile history of a racism even in the 1960s which Jasmine uncovers doing research in the library. The perpetrators were never found in the lynching of a black woman student. Was this the work of the witch or a ghoul? Or did the murderer or murderers have white faces?

Using lighting, camera angels, pacing and interesting cinematography, Diallo creates mystery and suspense tying in the legends of the witch with a cult that meets in the woods and the lynching of the black woman student. After Jasmine discovers the hate crime, something becomes unleashed. Her discovery becomes the turning point. Racism on the campus becomes overt. Jasmine and Gail are targeted. Beckman, Jasmine and Gail attempt to help each other. However, sadly, the help never makes a difference.

The lines blur between imagination and truth

In the last half of the film Diallo stuns with unexpected twists. At one point, I thought the film to be sophomoric because Diallo cleverly misdirects her audience. Manipulating our understanding, she blurs the lines between the characters’ imaginations, nightmares and reality without clear delineation. And then she slowly reveals what we anticipate is the truth, but it isn’t. She keeps us guessing. Indeed, the opaqueness remains vital to the mystery, horror and shocking events that occur by the conclusion.

When brutality arrives, it devastates. The victim and the viewers who identify experience the fullness of the traumatic events.

Thematically, Diallo’s work clearly focuses on empathy. Allowing others to experience the shock of trauma puts the audience in the shoes of those abused, of those who experience racism’s terror on a visceral level.

Regina Hall in Master (courtesy of Amazon Pictures)

When Terror Comes There is no Going Back

Once the characters sustain that terror, there is no going back. Certainly, political discrimination, white privilege and historical racism are undercurrents which Gail finally realizes permeate the university. And institutional racism floats everywhere and terrorizes like a ghost ubiquitously. It’s on the campus. It’s in the nation. Diallo proves that Gail has nowhere to run or hide from danger as a black woman, certainly not at this university. Like a flash of lightening the full import of title comes to us as ironic and diabolical. Finally, what Liv achieves when she receives tenure is a well planned outcome that is a travesty of justice built on lies.

Diallo’s twists create a greater horror than ghosts and legends in Master. But the elite university still remains. And that may be the greatest horror of all.

Master is screening on Amazon. Don’t miss it.

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