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New documentary about Haysom/Soering murder case among the highlights at Virginia Film Festival

(by Markus Schmidt, Richmond Times-Dispatch, October 26, 2016, Link)
 

The Virginia Film Festival boasts more than 120 films at its 29th outing, including two motion pictures with strong Virginia ties and a lineup that features some of the industry’s biggest stars. Academy Award- winning actress Shirley MacLaine, two-time Oscar nominee Liv Ullmann and acclaimed filmmaker Werner Herzog will bring a taste of Hollywood to Charlottesville on Nov. 3-6.

One of the on-screen highlights is the North America premiere of the film documentary “The Promise,” directed by German journalist Karin Steinberger, that re-examines the murder of Nancy and Derek Haysom in Bedford County and the subsequent trials of their daughter, Elizabeth Haysom, and Jens Soering, her German boyfriend, three decades ago.

“Our goal is to tell the story of a miserable, destroyed life that started with a big love between two young people,” Steinberger said in a phone interview from Munich. The journalist, who has written about the case since 2006 and has interviewed Soering several times, is planning to attend the screening.

The festival will open Nov. 3 with a film that also has a compelling Virginia background. Director Jeff Nichols’ “Loving” tells the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, the Caroline County couple who made history in 1967 when they found themselves at the center of a U.S. Supreme Court case that would end prohibitions against interracial marriage in the United States. The film was primarily shot in central Virginia.

“ ‘Loving’ is one of the highly anticipated movies of this fall season,” said festival director Jody Kielbasa, adding that actress Ruth Negga, who plays Mildred Loving in the movie, and Bernard Cohen, one of the lawyers who argued the Lovings’ case before the Supreme Court, will be among the guests at the film festival.

In 2015, more than 32,000 people attended the festival, which has been dubbed the flagship among film festivals in the commonwealth, Kielbasa said.

“Every year we have seen an uptick. We are already tracking ahead. Our reputation has grown, and we attract a lot of people that travel in from along the East Coast,” he said.

This year’s guest list includes almost 150 filmmakers who represent a diverse program that illustrates the broad spectrum of cinema — from some of the most acclaimed titles on the current festival scene to documentaries, timeless classics and new discoveries that cover some of the most important and widely discussed topics in the world today.

For example, “The Promise,” although it tells the story of a crime that happened more than 30 years ago, could become a pawn for convicted murderer Soering as he is seeking a pardon from Gov. Terry McAuliffe in light of new forensic evidence that he says proves someone else did the killing.

The 1985 slaying of Derek Haysom, a retired executive, and his wife, Nancy, at their home became a media sensation at the time and continues to draw international attention.

The jury believed the prosecution’s allegation that Soering, then 18, stabbed them to death. Haysom, who was 20 at the time of the murders, told investigators that Soering had committed the crime but pleaded guilty in 1987 to conspiring to kill her parents. She is serving a 90-year sentence at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women.

Soering, now 50, confessed to the killing under the impression that he would be spared the death penalty because of his father’s diplomatic status, but later recanted. He was convicted in 1990 on two counts of first-degree murder during a three-week trial that turned into a televised late-night spectacle. He is serving two life terms at Buckingham Correctional Center.

As a reporter for the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Steinberger had interviewed Soering several times over the years before she decided to produce a film documentary about the murders.

“I wanted to find out how can somebody survive 30 years in a prison, and why are there so many open questions but nobody is interested to ask them?” she said.

Steinberger’s goal is not to vindicate Soering, although the film’s website touts that the filmmakers revealed “a mismanaged, or perhaps completely corrupted, judicial process.”

“I don’t know who did it. Only the people who were there know,” she said. “But this is a case with reasonable doubt. Especially now, (because) it has been scientifically proven that the blood at the crime scene was from another man, and the blood was one of the big things that made the jury think it was Soering.”

Soering’s attorney last summer had announced new DNA findings that contradicted the prosecution’s conclusions from 30 years ago. The new data were included in a petition for an absolute pardon.

In a recent phone interview from prison, Soering said that the German documentary raises some important questions about his conviction and that he hopes the governor will get to see it.

“The (German filmmakers) have been working on it for four years, and I am very grateful for them doing it. My main thing is, I want people to look at the facts of what happened back then. I did not commit the crime, and I want people to know that,” Soering said, quickly adding that although he did a four-hour interview on camera in 2013, he had no control over the film’s content.

“It’s their movie, they didn’t tell me everything that they were doing and what was going on. And there were parts that were excruciatingly embarrassing, like the love letters between me and Elizabeth that were about our sex life, but it had to be done, I understand that,” he said.

Steinberger and her crew traveled to Virginia from Germany a total of six times for the project, shooting more than 70 hours of footage and interviewing investigators and attorneys involved with the case. They were also the first reporters allowed to film inside the Haysom home, where the crime occurred.

“Whenever there was a new development in the case, we got on the plane to come over,” Steinberger said.

“The Promise” will be screened Nov. 5 at the Paramount Theater — just minutes away from the campus of the University of Virginia, where Haysom and Soering first met as students more than three decades ago.

The festival also has secured three of its most prominent guests — MacLaine, Herzog and Ullmann — for its Conversation Series that will combine intimate and wide-ranging discussions of their careers and lives with clips of some of their most notable work.

“This is our strongest series to date,” Kielbasa said. “We previously had one filmmaker of note, this year we have three stars.”

MacLaine, a Virginia native, has notified organizers that she wants to take questions from the audience, Kielbasa said.

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