Sunday, March 15, 2020

Brian Knappenberger | The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez

a shock to the system
by Douglas Messerli

Brian Knappenberger (director) The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez / 2020

For the last couple of days, sidelined by the almost lockdown of the Covid-19, I watched the 6-part series of what is described as a documentary work on the death the 8-year old Palmdale, California child, Gabriel Fernandez. It is a grizzly and painful work, and just perhaps as Los Angeles Times television critic Robert Lloyd described it, “another slice of tragedy as entertainment”—although I did not perceive it that way.

     If this series was a bit overlong, and somewhat “messy” in its structure—not entirely revealing actually that the true monsters, Gabriel’s mother Pearl and her boyfriend Isauro Aguirre, who quite literally locked up, hung up, and tortured this evidently loving child, eventually beating him to death—were punished with death and life imprisonment.
      I read the 2013 Los Angeles Times pieces, recounted daily primarily by the reporter Garrett Therolf, for weeks after the death of Gabriel and tried to wipe away the tears. I couldn’t, and Howard would not even let me share them with him. He refused to even hear of such events.
      As the accounting nurse at the time of Gabriel’s entry into a local hospital, after he had been beaten to death by the two, describes—in complete disbelief at what she and the doctors saw: his entire body was covered with welts of torture, his inner body revealing bi-bi shots into it, cigarettes were put out on the surface of his skin, a wasting of his body since he’d been locked up in a closet and fed, for long periods of time, only cat litter. And then what was worse than even the movie reveals, evidently that had been hung-up by his legs, “was forced to eat cat feces and his own vomit; made to sleep in a locked cabinet without access to the bathroom; and subjected to regular beatings.”
      The abrasions to his body were so severe that the reporting nurse could hardly write up her she and director Brian Knappenberger commiserate upon the horrors that this lovely boy had to report. If nothing else about this series is moving, it is the moving first moments of this film, in which she can hardly deal with the child’s suffering.
      Even worse, as the series moves forward, we realize that the entire social system, which was meant to protect people like him, failed. The movie makes it clear that there were so many signs, teachers and relatives reporting what they felt was abuse, which the four-charged, ultimately released social workers simply refused to accept or believe, allowing the tortuous life the young child had to survive to continue. It’s as if they turned away from their focus to accept the concept that somehow it was better for a child to live with his quite disturbed mother (abused as a child herself and as an adult mentally incompetent). There’s even a suggestion that she and her lover Aguirre received sexual pleasures in the abuse of the innocent.
      As the film’s narrator confirms:

               Everything you can think about Gabriel had went through
               of feeling, it’s your fault. Being scared every day. At that
               age you can’t do anything.

     Although the film concentrates on his unbearably painful last year, Gabriel did, in fact, have move through loving relationships with his gay uncle and his companion and, later, his grandparents, who fought with the mysterious Los Angeles Office of Childhood Protection, not even quite controllable or, evidently overseen by the powerful LA County Supervisors nor the errant Los Angeles Sherriff at the time, the now-imprisoned Lee Baca.
     The white-knight hero of this film is prosecutor, the handsome (almost Hollywood-like figure) Jonathan Hatami, who takes on this cause with a serious sense of disgust for all it represents, pushing, successfully for the death sentence—which in Newsom’s current governance means little (thank heaven, I might add)—of Aguirre. Nevertheless, he is locked up for life! Unlike O. J. Simpson’s trial, the dedicated Hatami made it work.
     The real punch-in-the-gut, however, was that Aguirre and Pearl Hernandez mostly punished this young boy because they thought him to be gay. He once proclaimed he identified himself as such and liked to play with dolls. They forced him to wear dresses and tortured him for that very fact. He was only 8 years old. He had evidently received the love of his gay uncle and attempted to reclaim his life in that respect.

     Knappenberger’s documentary does not truly deal with this, nor with the final logistical decisions Hatami accomplished, without allowing us to truly seek a resolution for such absolute punishment of a kid who was seeking to find a source of security and love in a world of absolute horror. This is a film-series I cannot ever watch again, but I’m glad I saw it once. The Los Angeles systems of power must simply bow their head in sorrow to their ineffective embrace of protecting our most innocent and vulnerable citizens.

Los Angeles, March 15, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (March 2020).

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