The documentary premiered at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival and recently made its U.K. debut at the Raindance Film Festival where it won the best documentary award. FilmRise holds theatrical and digital rights to the film for North America, the U.K. and Ireland.
Set in the heart of the Latino community of South Texas, the film explores the life and trials of Melissa Lucio, the first Hispanic woman sentenced to death row in Texas, the state responsible for the most executions in America since 1976. Lucio, who was blamed for the abuse and subsequent death of her two-year-old daughter, has been on death row for 12 years.
Her conviction was recently overturned, but the State immediately appealed that ruling. Lucio is now awaiting the State’s appeal. Her lawyers argue that the system was stacked against her — from the court-appointed attorney who didn’t bring forth certain evidence, to the District Attorney, who is serving a 13-year sentence for bribery and corruption.
Although “The State of Texas vs. Melissa” took Van Tassel several years to make, it’s coming out at the right time. The Federal system recently reinstated executions after a 17-year hiatus, resulting in several deaths during the final weeks of President Donald Trump’s term. President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris have expressed interest in reforming criminal justice.
Rihet, whose track record includes stints at Gaumont Buena Vista International, Warner Bros. and Studiocanal, told Variety that he and Delphine Rihet, his wife and associate, strongly believe “The State of Texas vs. Melissa” will resonate with French audiences. “The story of Melissa Lucio and the bond that Sabrina Van Tassel built with this woman, to whom she dedicated three years of her life, touched us deeply,” Rihet said.
“Even though it speaks about a different culture than ours, we could relate to what the film says about humanity, about the injustices that are created by our legal system, and the necessity to shine a light on people who are living on the margins of society,” said the distributor.
He also highlighted the cinematic look of the film, which will be key to lure theatrical audiences. “Many documentaries look like they have been made for TV, but ‘The State of Texas vs. Melissa’ looks very well polished, and the original score and cinematography gives it a fictional dimension,” said Rihet, whose past documentary releases include “Wonder Boy.”
Alba Films, launched nearly two years ago, ranked within the top 20 distributors in France in 2020. The banner released nine movies this year, a few of which opened during the pandemic and performed well. Among them is the animated feature “100% Loup” which came out two days before theaters closed on Oct. 30. Besides “The State of Texas vs. Melissa,” Alba Films’ slate for 2021 includes several elevated genre films, notably “Le Calendrier,” which Alba is also co-producing.