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Allen v Farrow: Riveting four-part documentary that exhorts it’s time to amend the notion of genius

The documentarians refuse to peddle ambiguities that have long shrouded the discourse. Instead, much like their previous works, make their stand known even though this time they are pitted against judicial absolution.

Written by Ishita Sengupta | Mumbai |
March 23, 2021 5:30:03 pm
By taking sides, the documentary makes our default neutral positions unbearably discomfiting.

The MeToo movement, at its core, opened up possibilities of altering popular discourse. Collective voices of survivors prompted not so much as an alternate narrative but an examination of existing stories — a defamiliarisation of familiar figures. As an aftermath, a host of docuseries (Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich, Athlete A) emerged, capitalising on the heightened sense of awareness, attempting historical rewriting. They probed the doings of the accused using the emotional heft of the survivors’ testimonies as a guiding light, locating simultaneously our blindspots regarding power and in our regard for it. This makes Allen v Farrow–a riveting four-part documentary on the long-standing sexual abuse allegations against filmmaker Woody Allen, and the infamous trials that followed with his then partner and actor Mia Farrow –a direct result of social urgency. Except it overlays the pieces of evidence not to strengthen an instance of justice provided (Untouchable) or delayed (Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator) but underline its miscarriage.

Little about the case has evaded public knowledge or attention. The American director was accused of sexually abusing his then seven-year-old daughter Dylan Farrow at Mia Farrow’s home in Connecticut on August 4, 1992. On his part, Allen rejected every claim and countered the allegations as a vicious attempt by his partner of 12 years – Mia – to get back at him for being sexually involved with one of her adopted daughters, Soon-Yi Previn. Soon-Yi was 21, Allen 56.

He deemed her an “unfit mother”, and sought sole custody for their biological child, Satchel (Ronan Farrow) and adopted children, Dylan and Moses which he eventually lost. Parallelly Frank Maco, former Connecticut state attorney referred the Child Sexual Abuse Clinic of Yale-New Haven Hospital to submit a report, which after six months of investigation, gave a clean chit to Allen on identifying Dylan unreliable. Later Maco ceased pursuing charges to prevent Dylan from being subjected to further trauma. The same year, New York Child Welfare Agency of the State Department of Social Services concluded in their 14 months investigation that the allegations were unfounded.

These broad lines, laying bare Allen’s alleged misdemeanour and eventual acquittal, have long served as the premise of the infamous dispute. Filmmakers Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick chart a similar trajectory. But instead of retelling, they deep-dive in the familiar tale, uncovering deliberate omissions, exposing inadequacies. Take for instance how the Yale report was informed to Allen first, bypassing Maco who initiated it. Or, notes from the investigation were destroyed, apparently a malpractice. And that Allen worked overtime giving interviews and planting his version of the story–Mia coaching Dylan–in public consciousness.

The documentarians then refuse to peddle ambiguities that have long shrouded the discourse. Instead, much like their previous works, make their stand known even though this time they are pitted against judicial absolution. They build it as a case itself– evident in the wording of the title and using excerpts from Allen’s memoir Apropos of Nothing to make up for his absence (he apparently refused being interviewed)– choosing their side from the outset and refuting any criticism of ethical fallacy with our prolonged fallibility of judgement about powerful men.

The documentary counters any misgivings about not making us privy to the other side by suggesting that for long the ‘other side’ has been the only side; his story has been the only story. In that sense, Allen v Farrow’s merit rests solely on the effectiveness of the plea, the decisiveness of storytelling.

The documentary counters any misgivings about not making us privy to the other side by suggesting that for long the ‘other side’ has been the only side; his story has been the only story. (Source: Disney+ Hotstar)

Across four episodes, Ziering and Dick, whose filmography includes extensive work with sexual abuse survivors (On The Record, The Hunting Ground) lay out the known narrative and intercut it with the one they are telling–supplemented by reams of archival footage from home videos, rare photos and hitherto unheard phone conversations–to propose by extension the unreliability of Allen as the narrator, suggesting the director being capable of both: the one who wrongs and the one who projects himself to be wronged.

During one of Mia and Allen’s phone conversations when asked if he is taping the call (Mia started taping calls when their relationship was ending apprehending he was doing the same) he responds in his own neurotic way of not even knowing how to do it. Moments later he can be heard telling someone he indeed is doing so. In another instance, he accuses her of speaking to a magazine and outrightly denies doing anything similar. He appeared on the cover soon after.

This duality buttresses the other claims made by Mia– of being a frequent collaborator in his movies but sharing an unequal partnership. At one point, the actor admits being terrified before shooting. “I could be funny but not too funny” she recounts, admitting in the same breath that for years she did not have an agent and was frequently told she was easily replaceable. She appeared in an English language film 14 years after her decade-long personal and professional relationship with Allen ended in 1992.

But it gets most damning when Dylan–placed at the centre of the ordeal–recalls how indulgent a father he was, and voices with vivid details what he did later. Adopted by Mia after Allen expressed his desire for a blonde child, Dylan soon grew close to him. And he was obsessed. In several interviews, footage of many which are used, he claims to be “crazy” about her. As incidents of that horrific day are recounted, aided by the painful video of little Dylan telling Mia that “daddy touched my privates”, visuals of an empty attic dominate the screen. The furtiveness afforded by spatial perspectives puts the viewers in Dylan’s shoes, taking us to the attic with her, assuaging our feeling of being trapped. It implores us to piece together a picture the documentary seems terrified to do itself. It makes us share her betrayal with piercing clarity.

Evoking a sense of betrayal is both the intent and objective of the documentary. (Source: Disney+ Hotstar)

Evoking this sense of betrayal is both the intent and objective of the documentary. By existing in a hyper-aware world already battling with guilt of not knowing better, it weaponises our culpability. It fills us with a feeling of failure for having let Dylan down for all these years, for sitting on the fence till as recently as 2014 when she wrote an open letter detailing her abuse in no uncertain terms. But this deception, Allen v Farrow evinces, runs deeper. If Allen had let down his daughter, he did no better to us. If Dylan looked up to him, so did we for the longest time. If he broke her trust, did he not do something similar to us by using his films for years to normalise relationships–centering around older men (almost always essayed by him) yanked around by younger, sexually charged women–which restoration of history has proved to be inaccurate and abusive? Has he not used his art to assiduously craft his own defence?

What then, the documentary asks, do we do with his art, or of the many monster men who use their position to control narratives and gifts to sharpen their tools of exoneration? Do we shirk off responsibility by viewing their work divorced from their persona? Or do we, in keeping with the times, cancel them altogether? For someone who has lived most of his life with impunity, has a towering body of work and staggering number of accolades, the latter is both irrelevant and criminally belated. And if love is subjective should not the allowance we make for it also differ?

But by taking sides with the rigour of investigative journalists, Ziering and Dick exhort it is time to amend our notion of genius, to make place for moral failings in our adulation of legacy, to inform, if not limit the allowance we so freely offer. It is time to look at artistes for who they are and not who we want them to be. By taking sides, the documentarians make our default neutral positions unbearably discomfiting.

Allen v Farrow is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar

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