As published on LinkedIn Influencers on February 5th, 2019.
Just under two weeks ago the 2019 Sundance Film Festival officially kicked off in Park City with its annual opening day press conference with Robert Redfordand festival programmers. This year, when festival Director John Cooper spoke, he noted that while the festival never consciously chooses a theme for the year, invariably a theme emerges from each year’s crop of submissions. This year, he noted, that theme was truth. By the end of the festival I had watched over 30 films and it was clear to me what he meant. Truth was everywhere at Sundance 2019, and sometimes it was hard to bear.
This was never more evident than when Untouchable, the new documentary by British
filmmaker Ursula MacFarlane, had its World Premiere a week ago Friday. The film charts the rise and fall of disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, and asks the question of how he got away with being a serial sexual predator for so long. Just how long? The film opens with an interview with a woman who alleges that Weinstein raped her back in the 1970s, meaning he likely got away with harassing, assaulting, threatening, and violating women for over four decades. All this while being heralded as one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. He was considered a maverick who built his fortune with Miramax, the studio he founded with his brother Bob in 1979, and went on to become the most infamous bully in modern Hollywood history. Weinstein’s reputation as a tyrant was legendary, and he is credited with changing the game with respect to the Academy Awards and how the industry approaches awards season and campaign tactics. In his eyes, Academy Awards were a tool to wield for power, and it seems he’s been thanked onstage more times than God by winners. Harvey Weinstein was untouchable. Until suddenly he wasn’t.
On October 5th, 2017, The New York Times published an exposé by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey that reported on the widespread sexual abuse committed by Weinstein. Coincidentally, just a week before this year’s festival, I heard Ms. Kantor speak on her career and of course this watershed article live with the Park City Institute. She was incredible. Their piece was followed on October 10th by a report in The New Yorker by Ronan Farrow that alleged that Weinstein had raped three women and sexually assaulted dozens more. The reaction was swift and widespread.
For Weinstein, he was dismissed from the Weinstein Company by the Board of Directors (the company has since been dissolved), he was expelled from the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences, and he is currently facing criminal charges in New York City. On a wider scale, this event kicked off a global reckoning on the issue of sexual harassment through the Me Too movement and the Times Up Initiative. To date, over 80 women have accused Harvey Weinstein of abuse. More importantly, incredibly brave men and women all over the world from every possible socioeconomic background are sharing their stories of abuse and harassment and making it clear that this kind of behaviour simply will not be tolerated any longer.
The far reaching impact of the now coined Weinstein Effect will likely be discussed, debated, and studied for years to come, as it should be, but those are stories on a global level. Untouchable is a film about just one man, and how one man was able to get away with his despicable actions for so long. The film interviews former employees who confess to feeling guilty over whether or not they were complicit in aiding his actions. For me, one of the most compelling accounts came from a former colleague of Weinstein who saw legal documents accusing Weinstein of assault, and in feeling that the accusations were absolutely true, she chose to quit on the spot. She said that there are points in your life when you have to choose between your values and your pocketbook, and that this was one of those moments for her.
Other former colleagues confessed that there was simply too much money at stake to face the reality of what they knew was happening. This was a textbook case of institutionalized complicity, and make no mistake, this was all about a catastrophic abuse of power. An extreme and vile misuse of power. Harvey Weinstein wielded his power like a weapon, and he got away with it for decades. Untouchable lays bare this reality in a way that we can no longer ignore. It is the truth, as awful and heartbreaking as that truth may be.
The thing that resonated with me the most while watching this film was the how and where Weinstein’s abuses occurred. This was not some sleazy guy hitting on women in a bar. This was a powerful Hollywood producer who invited women to his hotel rooms on the pretext of business meetings and auditions, and then exploited that situation for his own sexual gratification. The film is filled with powerful testimonies from many female actors, and I thank them all for their courage to come forward. Each of them shared similar stories in graphic and disturbing detail, but the interview that left me in a puddle on the theater floor was by an actress with total night blindness who said she was shoved into a dark stairwell and derisively told to find her own way out after refusing to bare her breasts to Weinstein.
Before the screening of the film the audience was warned that the film may be triggering, and indeed it was. Even now, as I type these words, my head is filled with memories of my own experiences of sexual harassment as a young professional. I remember his words, almost the exact same words that survivors in the film used, that made it clear that if I wanted his help with my career I had to indulge his actions. If this is in no way your lived experience, then I hope you see this film. If you are someone who thinks that this whole #MeToo thing has gone overboard then I hope you in particular see this film. The purpose of a great social issue documentary is to tell a story that needs to be told to create understanding, empathy, and action. Untouchable is a great documentary.
“When you watch something so visceral and it makes you feel something very deeply, I think that’s a very powerful way to get a conversation going. But it needs so much more than that. We need to change structures and change employment law and legislation. All those things take a long time. At Sundance, there are a lot more women filmmakers this year. I’d like to think that if you can get rid of people like [ex-CBS chief and accused abuser] Les Moonves and Harvey Weinstein, these people can be toppled. I’d like to think people aren’t going to dare behave like that, but human nature isn’t that simple.” – URSULA MACFARLANE
I’ve been thinking a lot about truth since this year’s festival began, and I keep coming back to the famous line from A Few Good Men. “You can’t handle the truth”. There’s a lot of wisdom there. The truth is often ugly. It is often heartbreaking. It often involves all of us having to look inside ourselves and ask the hard questions. Am I complicit? Could I have done better? Now that I know, what do I do? The truth is a messy, dirty affair, and oftentimes it is so much easier to look away and allow the status quo to continue because it’s safe and comfortable. I will never forgive myself for not reporting my abuser because I know for a fact that he went on to abuse other women. But I also know that like many of the women who shared their stories in this film, I was the one without power, without status, and who lacked faith that appropriate action would be taken to protect me. What this film, and so many others that have debuted at this year’s festival show us, is that refusing to see the truth most often comes at the cost of those that are the most vulnerable. Maybe we can’t handle the truth, but we can’t ignore it any longer.
Please consider reading this article on Democracy Now – here Amy Goodman interviews the director of Untouchable, URSULA MACFARLANE.