Following the impact of the docuseries Surviving R. Kelly, which helped lead to the arrest of singer R. Kelly on charges of aggravated criminal sexual abuse after years of inaction from authorities (Kelly denies the charges), Lifetime is turning its focus to uplifting the survivors of another high-profile predator: Jeffrey Epstein, the disgraced financier, friend to powerful world leaders, and convicted sex criminal who was facing further federal charges of trafficking teenage girls and young women all over the world when he died last summer in a death that was ruled a suicide. Surviving Jeffrey Epstein is a two-night, four-hour limited series telling the stories of eight survivors, with insights from people close to Epstein, airing Aug. 9-10, the first anniversary of Epstein's death.
The docuseries' executive producer Bob Friedman and directors Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern, Epstein survivors Kiki Doe and Rachel Benavidez, survivor attorney Brittany Henderson, and trauma psychologist Janice Stevenson assembled for a digital panel Monday to talk about how Surviving Jeffrey Epstein is different from other Epstein documentaries, like the recent Netflix docuseries Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich, and how the recent arrest of Ghislaine Maxwell, Epstein's alleged co-conspirator who is facing federal trafficking and enticement of minors charges, changed the documentary.
Director Ricki Stern said that Surviving Jeffrey Epstein is different from more news-oriented Epstein reports because it focuses on the women who suffered and gives them an in-depth platform to tell their story in their own words. "There's so much strength in these women's stories, in their history," Stern said. "To understand where they've come from and where they are today is so powerful, and that was something that we wanted to make sure that this series portrayed, and Lifetime is of course the perfect place for this series because they really value and they spotlight women's voices."
Maxwell was arrested in New Hampshire on July 2 while the documentary was nearing completion, and so the filmmakers had to rush to change the final chapter of the series in order to meet the immovable deadline of premiering on the anniversary of Epstein's death. The fourth episode ended up being very different than they originally planned, as it deals with Maxwell's arrest and the survivors processing the fact that they may get the opportunity for some kind of justice after all. "We ended up filming with all these women [on the panel] during COVID in the past two, three weeks, so our series really takes you up until the present day right now," Stern said. "I mean, we literally finished it yesterday, and it's going on air in a week, so that's a huge tribute to Lifetime's wanting to put this out there in a timely way, and all the team working together and people participating at the very last minute." Stern said that Maxwell's arrest gives a more "uplifting" ending to the series than if it had ended with Epstein dying, Maxwell disappearing, and the survivors being denied any chance for justice, and she imagines there will be a follow-up to the series as Maxwell's trial approaches.
There have been a number of Epstein-related projects in the past year, but the filmmakers don't see interest in the case waning, especially now that Maxwell is facing charges. "I don't think there will be viewer fatigue with the Epstein story," director Annie Sundberg said. "I think people felt very robbed of an opportunity to see a final stab at justice run its course. [After] Epstein's death, the criminal charges, everything went away. We finally have that chance again, and I think if you look at the response, and the interest when Ghislaine was picked up in New Hampshire, it's overwhelming. People really want to see justice happen here." She said that survivor Rachel Benavidez, who reports that she was abused by Epstein and Maxwell at his ranch in New Mexico, has an especially unique perspective on Ghislaine Maxwell that appears in the series. "The survivors who we profile in this story bring a different understanding to who she was and how she affected their lives," Sundberg said.
According to Lifetime, the network has partnered with Rise to run a special PSA during the airings of the documentary to encourage other survivors to use their voice to RISE UP and help establish Survivors Bills of Rights in their states. Lifetime will also run a PSA from RAINN to provide hotline resources for those in need.
Surviving Jeffrey Epstein premieres Sunday, Aug. 9 at 8/7c on Lifetime.