Applause broke out multiple times Sunday during a sold-out Freep Film Festival screening of a documentary featuring Detroit's successful fight against a massive rape-kit backlog.

"I Am Evidence" premieres to a national TV audience at 8 p.m. Monday on HBO. The film gives an unblinking look at the flaws in an American justice system that let tens of thousands or more rape kits go untested for years.

Emmy-winning actress Mariska Hargitay appeared at the Sunday event in the Detroit Film Theatre at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

"This is like a dream come true," said the "Law & Order: SVU" star, before the screening.

"It’s so incredibly meaningful, because the first shooting for the movie was (done) here four years ago," she said. "It was a hope and a dream, but I didn’t know it was something that we could pull off."

An enthusiastic audience didn't let the persistent rain of a chilly weekend dampen its spirits. After the movie, Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley led a panel discussion with Hargitay, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy (who's featured in the documentary), and the "I Am Evidence" directors, Trish Adlesic and Geeta Gandbhir.

It's a tough film to watch at times, Hargitay admitted to the crowd. But she said it's also a tribute to what can be accomplished by "the power of bearing witness."

Detroit plays a central role in the documentary, through the story of Worthy's efforts to deal with the more than 11,300 untested rape kits that one of her staffers discovered in 2009, languishing untested in a Detroit Police storage building.

Since then, enough money has been raised with help from groups like the Michigan Women's Foundation to send those kits for testing. The last 600 of them are in the midst of being processed. So far, 130 rapists have been convicted, more than 270 cases are under investigation and more than 800 serial sex offenders have been identified.

Hargitay told the crowd that her role on TV as crime-fighter Olivia Benson in the Special Victims Unit has inspired many real-life women to confide their own painful experiences to her.

"I carry their stories with me every day," Hargitay said

The panelists included three metro Detroit survivors, who were described as warriors by moderator Riley.

Before the screening, Hargitay told the Free Press that it felt like a miracle, bringing the completed movie back to a Detroit that's made such strides with solving its backlog.

"”I am so in awe of Kim’s determination and strength, and her attitude of against all odds was so deeply inspiring to me…I’m just deeply honored that our stars aligned and our paths crossed," said Hargitay.

Worthy said that Detroit's efforts send a message to other cities of what determination can accomplish. "Even if you have no money, no resources, no support, this can still be done. It’s just force of will ... Ultimately, you cannot stop if you want to do what’s right.”

Hargitay's Joyful Heart Foundation, which spreads education about sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse, and helps empower survivors, has made ending the national backlog its top priority.

She sounded hopeful that the goal can be reached, because she believes it just takes one person, like each of the assault survivors who participated in the movie, to change things for the better.

"Individual acts of courage are what changes the planet," said Hargitay.

Contact Detroit Free Press pop culture critic Julie Hinds: 313-222-6427 or jhinds@freepress.com.

"I Am Evidence"

8 p.m. Monday

HBO

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