A harrowing, affecting documentary about an unspeakable crime, The Fire That Took Her is in many ways a difficult film to watch.
Judy Malinowski was a woman experiencing turmoil in her life. She’d developed a drug dependency after surgery for ovarian cancer and was trapped in a bad relationship that had turned abusive with a man named Michael Slager. When she walked away from the relationship, he set her on fire.
She suffered burns to 95% of her body and by all accounts should not have survived. It took her two years to die, but before she did, she gave landmark testimony that helped ensure Slager was appropriately punished.
The result isn’t just a terrible crime brought to justice. It’s part of a terrible struggle, but one that did lead to great change in the form of “Judy’s Law,” which in the state of Ohio places additional penalties on assaults where the attacker purposefully disfigures the victim.
Director Patricia E. Gillespie and producer Julie Goldman take an unflinching look at the crime and its aftermath, showing security camera footage of the crime repeatedly, along with the aftermath of Judy in the hospital. But they also show an appropriate amount of sensitivity in outlining some of Judy’s struggles, particularly with drugs, in a way that could have been sensationalized or leaned toward victim shaming or blaming.
To their credit, Judy’s family, including her daughters and mother, don’t let themselves off the hook, discussing how Slager charmed them, lied to them and manipulated them and Judy to his advantage along the way, not only enabling Judy but buying drugs for her as a control tactic.
There is plenty of blame thrown at the feet of the state of Ohio, and with good reason by the way it sounds, though this is hardly the first time a flawed system allowed someone to take advantage of lax laws. It just seldom happens in such a grisly and horrific manner.
Judy’s testimony, given ostensibly from beyond the grave (via video) is particularly touching. It would have been nice to see more of it than we actually do, but it’s still a powerful moment.
In the end, Fire is the sort of film that doesn’t tug at your heartstrings so much as it rips them out. While it’s not a feel-good sort of experience, and is the kind of film that’s often uncomfortable to watch, it does celebrate Judy Malinowski’s bravery and ultimate triumph.
The Fire That Took Her will screen during the 31st Heartland International Film Festival at:
5:15 p.m., Monday, Oct. 10, at the Kan-Kan Cinema and Brasserie, 1258 Windsor St., in Indianapolis
3 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 15, at Living Room Theatres, 745 E. 9th St., Suite 810, in Indianapolis
The Fire That Took Her will also be available to stream online from noon Thursday, Oct. 6 through 11:59 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 16 (all times Eastern) through Heartland’s virtual platform.
Tickets are available at heartlandfilm.org/festival.