The Film Debate: Can great art justify the artist? (2)

Megan Harding 28 September 2017

cn: child sexual abuse

Historically, films have been made to be enjoyed. But ever since the invention of moving pictures, people have also sought out films that don’t just entertain, but make statements on humanity and its many nuances. What a director intended their creation to say has mattered just as much as the reaction elicited from the viewers who watch it – so should that not also apply to the way a filmmaker conducts themselves personally?

When Woody Allen was accused of molesting his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow in 1992, a time at which she was just seven, the creative world was divided on a matter of morality. Because Allen was already a successful director noted for his quirky and distinctive filmmaking, his private business became public and those who enjoyed his work took his side. It is easy to understand why: it’s never nice to find out that your idol is potentially a criminal and an abuser. But this outpouring of support from the filmmaking factions of the world skipped over any possibility that the young Farrow was telling the truth, and had become a survivor of sexual abuse.

What’s most important to note about this case is that it is only one of many incidents of sexual abuse allegations against members of the filmmaking elite, with men such as Roman Polanski, Mel Gibson, Marlon Brando and Casey Affleck all being accused by people they have worked with, or members of their family. These incidents have been public scandals that caused a stir among the sensational media – and yet, justice never seems to be served. The Academy caused controversy last year (as they so often do these days) when Casey Affleck was awarded Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Manchester By the Sea, a heartbreaking film dealing with the aftermath of trauma and loss. It is somewhat ironic, then, that Affleck was the actor to play the part, after his own involvement in a series of 2010 lawsuits from Amanda White and Magdalena Gorka, two former colleagues who claimed he had harassed them.

Yes, the lawsuits were settled, and Affleck has since issued multiple apologies. Perhaps finding a connection between his role and his personal life isn’t the most important piece of this puzzle. But that does not erase the bigger issue that these incidents serve to represent: the way that the film industry forgives abusive men purely on the merit of their work, regardless of their actions.

The biggest example of this unjust bias is Roman Polanski: legendary director; convicted child rapist. Despite pleading guilty to the charge in 1977, and then fleeing the country to avoid sentencing, Polanski has since enjoyed some of his largest successes as a director working in European cinema, including 2002’s The Pianist. He has yet to face formal justice for his crimes – something he has achieved through the support of the film community, who appear ready to ‘step away’ from his past in favour of the benefits he will bring as a creator.

To me, the easy forgiveness offered to abusers by those in powerful creative positions is shameful. We live in a culture of celebrity status where those who work in the limelight are given liberties different to those of a regular workplace. We pay attention to what they say, do, and promote, pay them for their activism, listen to their politics, and give them roles as social ambassadors. Because of this, it is also necessary that they are held accountable when their actions don’t reflect the values we hold as a society. Forgiving filmmakers for inappropriate conduct or downright criminal behaviour just because they make films, awards them a perilously elevated status as people whose work matters more than the lives and the wellbeing of those who they have abused. As a world struggling against inequality, we cannot let the film industry justify their creators’ poor conduct as the actions of a troubled genius, and silence the rights of the victims who strive to be heard.