'What Haunts Us': Film Review

An imperfect but moving argument that communities share blame for the abuse they fail to stop.

Paige Goldberg Tolmach's doc looks at student molestation at a private school and the community that allowed it to happen.

A lament for scores of boys at a South Carolina school who were molested by a teacher, Paige Goldberg Tolmach's What Haunts Us is most moved by a part of the assault equation that isn't yet getting enough attention in our current focus on sex and harassment scandals: the number of bystanders who had suspicions (or more) about what was happening but did nothing to stop it. Though the debut film makes its share of storytelling missteps, its heartfelt message will surely connect with viewers, many of whom will likely remember teachers in their own schools who worked for years under the cloud of rumors nobody ever investigated. Just getting started on the fest circuit, the doc would play well on cable, especially if aired soon.

The director was a proud alum of Charleston's Porter-Gaud, which in her old snapshots looks like a preppie playground. (Stephen Colbert attended Porter-Gaud around the same time, though he isn't mentioned here; Shepard Fairey attended later.) A onetime all-boys military academy that morphed into a co-ed school favored by Charleston's rich and powerful, Porter-Gaud prided itself on high-minded ethics; its motto was the acronym "WATCH," which stood for the Words, Actions, Thoughts, Character and Habits that guided students through life. In Tolmach's hands, the motto becomes an ironic comment on a school whose administrators looked the other way.

Tolmach begins the documnetary moodily, with a voiceover announcing "My hometown is haunting me" and reporting that "another suicide" has taken place among the school's alums of a certain age. In the class of 1979, we're told, 49 male students graduated. To date, six have killed themselves. Here and throughout the doc, the director manipulates yearbook photos and other source material to emphasize loss and shame: She scratches faces out of pictures, burns photo negatives, uses white-out and a guillotine slicer to deface memories that have been tainted by the story we're about to hear. The heavy-handed effects grow distracting and, given what she has to tell us, aren't at all necessary to stoke our horror.

We hear of Eddie Fischer, a handsome, Porsche-driving coach at Porter-Gaud. Fellow teachers thought he had the air of a con man, but students loved him, especially when he let them experiment with booze and drugs at his house after school. He was doing much more than that.

The details are hazy, but five years ago, Tolmach got a box full of documents regarding the case that eventually sent Fischer to jail. As a first-time documentarian is wont to do, she offers plenty of unnecessary footage of herself looking through these documents, watching videos, typing emails and making calls. We learn early on that there's a good reason for her experience to be part of the film — not only was she a classmate of victims, but one boy told her Fischer was touching him inappropriately and Tolmach "never told a soul." But her own part of the tale is not well-integrated into her storytelling, and certain other elements of the timeline raise unanswered questions.

Relying heavily on the account of Guerry Glover — a student who bravely reported molestation and, more bravely, fought to expose Fischer long after he was rebuffed by authorities — Tolmach digs into the assorted ways Fischer manipulated students into intimate one-on-one situations. She learns how close the predator was to the school's principal, James "Major" Alexander, and how both Alexander and headmaster Berkeley Grimball ignored parents' allegations of abuse. Later, when allegations became impossible to ignore, school officials would allow Fischer to resign and go work for another school. (Alexander and Grimball were later found negligent by a court.)

The long saga elicits rage on many fronts, even when we have questions about the sequence of events. But as she draws to a close, Tolmach reveals that her film's title doesn't refer to one adult's abuse of children, nor to the cowardice and pride that kept the school from bringing him to justice. She turns the focus back on the friends and families of those who were exploited, bystanders who, whether they'd been told something was going on or not, had both reasons to suspect and reasons to remain willfully ignorant. As long as that sort of environment exists, whether in schools or the office or on film sets, predators will have little trouble exploiting the vulnerable.

Production companies: Matt Tolmach Productions, The Kennedy/Marshall Company
Director: Paige Goldberg Tolmach
Screenwriter: Mark Monroe
Producers: Sarah Gibson, Paige Goldberg Tolmach
Executive producers: Frank Marshall, Matt Tolmach, Regina K. Scully
Directors of photography: Adam Dubrowa, Michael Parrys
Editors: Derek Doneen, Paul Bartunek, Derek Doneen, Allan Duso
Composer: Nathan Halpern
Venue: Austin Film Festival

69 minutes