CynaraAfter a break-in, a mother calls 911 seeking help for her disabled daughter, Cynara. Hours later, Cynara is dead, and her mother is the prime suspect in this gripping story of Canada’s justice system on trial. AIRS: Sunday October 22, 2023 at 9:00 PM ET/PT on documentary Channel
Born with cerebral palsy, Cynara had been dependent on her family’s care for her whole, short life. But this was never a burden for those who loved her. Ask any of her three sisters or her family’s church community, and all will tell you Cynara was lovingly cared for and cherished by all.
But when Cynara’s mother, Cindy Ali, is charged with her murder, the police and the prosecution present a dramatically different picture. Cindy is portrayed as an exhausted, financially-strapped immigrant who murdered Cynara and concocted an elaborate story of two armed intruders to shift away blame. This is ultimately what the jury believes. Cindy is convicted of first-degree murder and given a life sentence.
The film begins in a women’s prison, as Cindy mournfully celebrates what would have been Cynara’s 24th birthday with her husband, Allan, and tries to summon the strength to begin the process of appealing her conviction. Allan has been left alone to care for their three surviving daughters and keep the family together after such a devastating loss. With intimate access to the family, the film explores the trauma that can follow after a loved one is put behind bars. They believe in their mother’s innocence and grieve the loss not only of her and their sister Cynara but also their dismay at a justice system that feels anything but just.
The Ali family finds solace and support in their faith community, the Church of the Rock. Made up mostly of Caribbean and South Asian congregants, this community gathers monthly to pray after Cindy’s conviction - never wavering in their faith that Cindy is innocent. The group’s dynamic pastor, Sheela Durasami, is the family’s spiritual mentor and in providing support, inadvertently becomes a key and controversial witness at the trial.
Cindy’s story attracts the attention of award-winning Toronto Star journalist, Jim Rankin. Jim is known for his investigative reports on racial inequalities in policing and the courts. In 2016, Cindy’s conviction was so troubling that Rankin led a two-year investigation to uncover the flaws in Canada’s jury selection process.
Through Jim’s digging, which we follow in the film, we re-investigate Cindy’s case. What did the eyewitness really see that day and why did the jury so easily dismiss it, despite corroborating evidence? Was there any truth to the story of two men breaking in? How did the first responders interpret the scene when they arrived? Were biased opinions passed on to the first investigating officers? And what is this mysterious letter that later appeared at Cindy’s home? Who wrote it? Some of the most dramatic scenes of the film are from Cindy’s trial, which we’ve brought to life using a tableaux vivants technique and actors reading the actual court transcripts.
Cindy’s appeal becomes the backbone of this film. Defence lawyer James Lockyer and his team belong to Canada’s top wrongful conviction firm. Cindy’s case surprised Lockyer who says he’s never seen a first-degree murder conviction based on such flimsy evidence. Nonetheless, he believes Cindy’s conviction will be difficult to overturn. With no evidence of the two intruders and only one witness, her account is hard to prove. With exclusive access to the appeal proceedings, including rarely-seen footage from inside the courtroom, Lockyer illuminates the failings of the prosecutor, judge and jury. In doing so, he uncovers the wider themes the film tackles: Racism and a society biased against the disabled.
Cynara will debut at the 2023 Hot Docs Film Festival.