When Penn State senior lecturer Boaz Dvir decided to delve into the aftermath of the 2005 abduction, rape and murder of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford as the subject of his first documentary, he worried that audiences would hesitate to follow him into such dark territory.
Instead, Dvir’s 2011 film “Jessie’s Dad” focuses on Mark Lunsford, a Florida trucker-turned-impassioned advocate who succeeded in convincing Pennsylvania and 45 other states to impose tougher sentencing on sex offenders and establish new procedures to protect children after the abduction, rape and murder of his daughter.
“This film has had no marketing. It’s all word of mouth. People watch, get inspired, get angry and tell their friends,” Dvir said.
His film screened by politicians and policy makers, collected accolades and awards from venues like CINE (the Council on International Nontheatrical Events) and won best documentary at the 2011 ITN Distribution Film and New Media Festival. Years after building a broader viewer base on paid platforms such as Amazon and iTunes, “Jessie’s Dad” finally scaled the paywall and is available for free on Hulu. It’s exactly the kind of exposure that Dvir envisioned for his film and the issues it raises about child safety.
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“I really did want to make a difference with it,” he said. “I wanted to help the cause.”
Scene of the crime
His interest in a big cause started with a small connection; Dvir’s sister attended the same elementary school in Homosassa, Fla., as Jessica. While working as a freelance journalist in Florida, he noticed that a bulk of the media coverage focused on the trial of Jessica’s killer, while in the background, her father slowly was transforming himself into a legislative force after the state’s passage of Jessica’s Law in 2005. The law increased measures used to monitor and incarcerate sexual predators, including the introduction of a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 25 years and a lifetime electronic monitoring.
“(Mark Lunsford) at the time was not quite the advocate that he became, but he jumped in,” Dvir said.
The newby director followed Lunsford from state to state as he met with policymakers in an arrangement that resulted in 120 hours of film, soon to be pruned and finessed into a lean 50-minute running time. By the time Dvir assembled a rough cut of the documentary in 2008, he said Lunsford already persuaded about 22 states to pass some variation of Jessica’s Law, bringing Dvir’s fledgling narrative of an ordinary man transformed by extraordinary events into sharp focus.
“It shows people that, despite how vast the world is and how complicated it can be, one person can make a difference,” Dvir said.
Still, the inspirational overtones of “Jessie’s Dad” remain rooted in tragedy, a fact that isn’t lost on the now-veteran documentarian. Dvir said he’s been pleasantly surprised to see how many people are willing to brave the darker subject matter of his film and join the difficult discussions that follow. He said even some of his friends remained reluctant holdouts until he explained that the heart of the documentary was not Jessica’s gruesome murder but the crusade it inspired.
“They often tell me they were glad (they watched it). They say they find the film ‘inspirational.’ They, in turn, inspire me to tell the stories of other trailblazers who are fighting to make the world a better place,” said Dvir, who recently screened a cut of his 2013 documentary “Discovering Gloria” at the College of Education. The film tells the story of Gloria Jean Merriex, a former teacher at Duval Elementary School in Florida who spearheaded innovations in educational reform.
After the screening, Dvir was approached by a teacher who recently paid to view “Jessie’s Dad” on Amazon and was excited to learn that the documentary was now available for free on Hulu. Dvir said the teacher planned to send links to friends and colleagues encouraging them to watch.
“Hulu is an extremely successful, visible and beautiful site,” Dvir said. “To have ‘Jessie’s Dad’ on there as a free offering is a dream come true. Now everyone can easily watch it.”