Film Reviews

The Real Villain in "The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez" Is Complacency

On a wider scale, the docuseries is an exploration of the complex layers of child abuse and its aftermath.

"Horrendous, inhumane and nothing short of evil," Judge George Lomeli described the crimes of Pearl Fernandez and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre.

In 2018, the couple was found guilty of first-degree murder in the 2013 death of Fernandez's 8-year-old son, Gabriel. What was uncovered in the five years leading up to the trial revealed the worst case of neglect and child abuse that many officials had ever seen.

In Netflix's latest devastating docuseries, The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, award-winning documentarian Brian Knappenberger traces the institutional failures and inhumane child abuse that caused the death of Gabriel Fernandez. Rated M for graphic descriptions of violence against a child, the six-part series follows lead prosecutor Jon Hatami as he asks for the death penalty against Fernandez and Aguirre. Knappenberger allows the docuseries to be a difficult viewing experience, recreating the brutal existence of Gabriel with brief dramatic reenactments, crime scene photos, and quick cuts to the autopsy photos, which revealed the extent of the abuse.

"The documentary is a really difficult watch but it's an important one," Knappenberger told EW. "We made the decision that Gabriel's voice needed to be heard, and in order to tell that story we had to be as honest and as straightforward as we possibly could. I think that in the end, this is a story of a kind of redemption, or a questioning of how things can be better in this system and that has motivated us to tell the story." Prior to his death, Gabriel was forced to sleep in a cupboard at the end of his mother's and Aguirre's bed, often bound and gagged; he was severely beaten by Aguirre, who believed the 8-year-old was gay and only gave the boy two dresses to wear; investigators found that the boy was forced to eat cat litter more than once.

The scope of the trial also involved the criminal negligence of four social workers who failed to remove Gabriel from his mother's custody despite at least 13 reports of suspected child abuse being filed with family services. "Nobody listened to Gabriel when he was alive," Knappenberger told TIME. "A lot of people failed him, and there's a lot of reasons that this happened. But when you get to the end, it's about: how do you want to treat kids?"

On a wider scale, the docuseries is an exploration of the complex layers of child abuse and its aftermath. As the episodes trace the development of the trial, Knappenberger also turns our attention to the far-reaching effects of child abuse, from Gabriel's siblings who witnessed the abuse to the security guard who tried to get local authorities to intervene to his teacher, whom Gabriel confided in about the abuse. In a revealing interview, the lead prosecutor even reflects on his own experience with child abuse. While Hatami says he would never compare his experiences to those of his clients, it does inform his goals in court: "That's the real thing people need to understand: the stress of being beaten everyday, the stress of not having any toys, the stress of being ashamed of who you are, the stress of feeling that it's your fault; being scared every day."

In a sense, this humanizing lens doesn't completely forsake Pearl Fernandez, either. "The answers aren't as easy as you think they are in the beginning," Knappenberger noted, "It's easy to demonize both of them, and they deserve it. There are plenty of people who have been abused that didn't turn out this way. I think the more you learn about Pearl and Isauro, you'll understand where they came from—particularly Pearl." During her trial, she was evaluated by clinical psychologist Deborah S. Miora and found to have a severely limited intellectual capacity that rendered her "virtually unable to use thought to guide her behavior and moderate her emotional reactions." She was further diagnosed with a depressive disorder, developmental disability, a possible overall personality disorder, and PTSD from her own childhood with an abusive mother. "Like her son, she probably had no one to turn to," says Wendy Smith, a Distinguished Scholar at USC's School of Social Work.

While trauma survivors like Jon Hatami drew from their experiences to protect others, Pearl became the embodiment of a broken system. Absence of care and oversight became repeated patterns of abuse and dehumanization, resulting in the death of a child. Knappenbrerger said, "The word evil was thrown around the courtroom a lot, which surprised me a little bit. There's no question that these acts were evil but there's also a broken system that allows this to happen. Which is more evil? Which causes more pain? There's no excuse for Pearl or Isauro and I want that to be clear. But they are humans who were a product of their own upbringing, and that's a big part of the story, too."

During Pearl Fernandez's and Isauro Aguirre's sentencing, Judge George Lomeli said, "I hope you think about the pain you caused this child and that it tortures you. I rarely say that." In The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, Knappenberger doesn't just examine the fatal abuse that Gabriel experienced but rather the long-term effects that abuse has on society, from immediate family members to teachers, social workers, and first responders who live with regret and confusion. Viewers begin to feel that same sense of regret over how easily systems become broken and how broken systems destroy lives.


Nazi-Chic: The Aesthetics of Fascism

Let's take a look at Nazi-inspired fashion.

Villains always have the best outfits.

From Darth Vader's polished black space armor to The Joker's snazzy purple suit, bad guys always seem to show up their protagonists in the fashion department.

Way more handsome than Batman.

But could there possibly be a real world equivalent to the type of over-the-top villain fashion often found in fiction? It would have to be sleek and imposing, austere and dangerous. Probably black.

Maybe it's him. Maybe it's fascist ideology.

Oh, right.

Let's call a spade a spade. From an aesthetic standpoint, the Nazi SS outfit is very well-designed. The long coat tied around the waist with a buckle portrays a slim, sturdy visage. The leather boots and matching cap look harsh and powerful. The emblem placements on the lapel naturally suggest rank and authority. And the red armband lends a splash of color to what would otherwise be a dark monotone. If the Nazi uniform wasn't so closely tied with the atrocities they committed during WWII, it wouldn't seem out of place at Fashion Week. Perhaps not too surprising, considering many of the uniforms were made by Hugo Boss.

Pictured: A real thing Hugo Boss did.

Of course, today, Nazi uniform aesthetics are inseparable from the human suffering doled out by their wearers. In most circles of civilized society, that's more than enough reason to avoid the garb in any and all fashion choices. But for some, that taboo isn't a hindrance at all–if anything, it's an added benefit.

As a result, we have Nazi chic, a fashion trend centered around the SS uniform and related Nazi imagery.

History of Nazi Chic

For the most part, Nazi chic is not characterized by Nazi sympathy. Rather, Nazi chic tends to be associated with counterculture movements that view the use of its taboo imagery as a form of shock value, and ironically, anti-authoritarianism.

The movement came to prominence in the British punk scene during the mid-1970s, with bands like the Sex Pistols and Siouxsie and the Banshees displaying swastikas on their attire alongside other provocative imagery.

Very rotten, Johnny.

Around this time, a film genre known as Nazisploitation also came to prominence amongst underground movie buffs. A subgenre of exploitation and sexploitation films, Naziploitation movies skewed towards D-grade fare, characterized by graphic sex scenes, violence, and gore. Plots typically surrounded female prisoners in concentration camps, subject to the sexual whims of evil SS officers, who eventually escaped and got their revenge. However, the most famous Nazisploitation film, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, flipped the genders.

The dorm room poster that will ensure you never get laid.

Ilsa was a female SS officer and the victims were men. She spent much of the movie wearing her Nazi uniform in various states, sexually abusing men all the while. As such, Ilsa played into dominatrix fantasies. The movie was a hit on the grindhouse circuit, inspiring multiple sequels and knock-offs and solidifying Nazi aesthetics as a part of the BDSM scene.

Since then, Nazi chic fashion has been employed by various artists, from Madonna to Marilyn Manson to Lady Gaga, and has shown up in all sorts of places from leather clubs to character designs in video games and anime.

Lady Gaga looking SS-uper.

Nazi Chic in Asia

Nazi chic has taken on a life of its own in Asia. And unlike Western Nazi chic, which recognizes Nazism as taboo, Asian Nazi chic seems entirely detached from any underlying ideology.

A large part of this likely has to do with the way that Holocaust education differs across cultures. In the West, we learn about the Holocaust in the context of the Nazis committing horrific crimes against humanity that affected many of our own families. The Holocaust is presented as personal and closer to our current era than we might like to think. It is something we should "never forget." Whereas in Asia, where effects of the Holocaust weren't as prominent, it's simply another aspect of WWII which, in and of itself, was just another large war. In other words, Nazi regalia in Asia might be viewed as simply another historical military outfit, albeit a particularly stylish one.

In Japan, which was much more involved with WWII than any other Asian country, Nazi chic is usually (but not always) reserved for villainous representations.


That being said, J-Pop groups like Keyakizaka46 have publicly worn Nazi chic too, and the phenomena isn't limited to Japan.

In South Korea, Indonesia, and Thailand, Nazi imagery has shown up in various elements of youth culture, completely void of any moral context. For instance, in Indonesia, a Hitler-themed fried chicken restaurant opened in 2013. And in Korea, K-Pop groups like BTS and Pritz have been called out for propagating Nazi chic fashion. Usually such incidents are followed by public apologies, but the lack of historical understanding makes everything ring hollow.


So the question then: is Nazi chic a bad thing?

The answer is not so black and white.

On one hand, seeing Nazi chic on the fashion scene may dredge up painful memories for Holocaust survivors and those whose family histories were tainted. In this light, wearing Nazi-inspired garb, regardless of intent, seems disrespectful and antagonistic. Worse than that, it doesn't even seem like a slight against authority so much as a dig at actual victims of genocide.

But on the other hand, considering the fact that even the youngest people who were alive during WWII are edging 80, "forgetting the Holocaust" is a distinct possibility for younger generations. In that regard, perhaps anything that draws attention to what happened, even if it's simply through the lens of "this outfit should be seen as offensive," might not be entirely bad. This, compounded by the fact that Nazi chic is not commonly associated with actual Nazi or nationalistic sentiments, might be enough to sway some people–not necessarily to wear, like, or even appreciate its aesthetics, but rather to understand its place within counterculture.

Ultimately, one's views on Nazi chic likely come down to their own personal taste and sensibilities. For some, Nazi chic is just a style, an aesthetic preference for something that happens to be mired in historical horror. For others, the shadow of atrocity simply hangs too strong.