SXSW ’16: Uncovering the truth in “Fantastic Lies”

Director Marina Zenovich talks with realscreen about her latest documentary, Fantastic Lies, on the 2006 Duke University lacrosse scandal, ahead of its premieres at SXSW and ESPN's 30 for 30.
March 11, 2016

Without having planned it, many of Marina Zenovich’s documentaries have centered on subjects who have refused to appear in her films, whether that’s French actor Bernard Tapie (Who Is Bernard Tapie?) or embattled filmmaker Roman Polanski (Wanted and Desired and Odd Man Out). Her latest film, Fantastic Lies, is no different.

The doc, which enjoys its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival in the Documentary Spotlight category, revisits the night of March 13, 2006, when Duke University Blue Devils lacrosse players hosted an off-campus team party that ultimately led to three male, Caucasian athletes – Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and Dave Evans – being accused of raping an African-American exotic dancer. The film, crafted without the participation of the three men, will make its television debut across ESPN on March 13 at 9 p.m. EST/PST.

In response to the allegations and mounting media pressure, Blue Devils coach Mike Pressler was forced to resign and the remainder of the 2006 lacrosse season was canceled.

The three athletes, however, would eventually be exonerated when the accusations made against them were proven to be false. As a result, lead prosecutor and Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong – who initially deemed the alleged offense a “hate crime” – would later be disbarred for what a three-member disciplinary committee called “dishonesty, fraud, deceit and misrepresentation.”

“It’s a very toxic story and it was a nightmare for a lot of people,” Zenovich tells realscreen. “Yet [it was] the perfect storm for the media, so it kind of had all these elements that I thought would be interesting to try to make a film about.”

Fantastic Lies director Marina Zenovich

Zenovich initially boarded the project when Lightbox’s Simon Chinn and Jonathan Chinn – who serve as the film’s executive producers – approached her with the idea of shooting a documentary for ESPN’s 30 for 30 series timed to the 10-year anniversary of the party. Producer P.G. Morgan joined the project shortly thereafter.

The director began by attempting to reach those involved with the criminal case - from members of the lacrosse team to Duke University staff – through emails and cold calls. Although her interview requests were largely ignored, Zenovich managed to break through when former Duke lacrosse player Kyle Dowd coaxed his mother Patricia Dowd to share her experiences on the months-long trial.

Once she gained Dowd’s trust, Zenovich was further able to persuade Kathy and Philip Seligmann, parents of Reade Seligmann, and Kevin Finnerty, father of Collin Finnerty, to open up on film.

“I was curious to talk to those three [Duke players], but I was more interested in talking to their parents because I realized that these kids were between 18 and 21 when this happened and everything’s almost worse when it happens to your kid,” the director explains.

“There are a lot of Duke teachers, administrators and coaches who didn’t want to talk because I think people just want to move on – the silence speaks for itself,” she adds.

Running out of time and without a Duke athlete tied to the project, a rough cut of the film was hosted in a New York City boardroom for more than 20 former and current Duke lacrosse athletes and their parents. The goal, Zenovich says, was to encourage players to come forth and provide insight into the events that made national headlines in 2006.

“It was extremely stressful because I didn’t know how they were going to respond,” Zenovich says. “A lot of younger players told me they had to deal with the ramifications of this case and how Duke lacrosse was vilified not just that year, but as the years went on.”

tony mcdevitt

Tony McDevitt, former Duke University Blue Devil

Former Blue Devils defender Tony McDevitt (pictured, left) would be the only athlete in attendance at the screening to come forward and lend his voice to the project.

“He ended up coming to the screening and he agreed to talk, and that meant a lot to me,” Zenovich notes, adding that she bonded with the Duke alumnus after finding footage of a sobbing McDevitt being consoled by a recently fired Coach Pressler.

Duke Blue Devils midfielder Rob Wellington later accepted an interview request from his Texas home.

While the seriousness of campus sexual assault – as evidenced by Kirby Dick’s The Hunting Ground – remains a hot topic across the U.S. and internationally, Zenovich is quick to point to her film as one that instead deals with prosecutorial misconduct and unfounded allegations.

“This is a film about false accusations and what they can do to people, families and a community,” she explains, “but I don’t want this film to somehow diminish the seriousness of the crime of sexual assault against women which is being [committed] every day.”

  • Fantastic Lies screens during SXSW tonight (March 11) at 7:15 p.m. at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar in Austin, Texas, and again on March 12, 17 and 18. Visit the festival’s website for complete screening info.
  • The film will also air across ESPN’s 30 for 30 series on March 13 at 9 p.m. EST/PST.
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