At one point in Ursula Macfarlane’s deeply moving and urgent Untouchable (streaming on Netflix), five female actors recall specific incidents from their past. Their recollections constantly intercut each other but do not muddle the clarity of the moment. Barring tiny variant details, all follow the same narrative arc: an aspiring young female actor meets a media mogul and he forces himself upon her. Their separate testimonies add a sense of cohesiveness to the story we have come to know only too well: a powerful man exploiting his position to inflict and perpetuate abuse for decades. With every incident, the face of the woman keeps changing but the man remains the same – Harvey Weinstein.
In her 2019 documentary, Macfarlane attempts unpacking the Harvey Weinstein myth — not the audacious producer with an uncanny ability to discern a good script from a bad one but the abuser who believed himself to be untouchable by any punitive measures. Considered one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, Weinstein’s history of violating women goes beyond his career as a producer. Untouchable puts a date to it — 1978 — when he was a concert promoter in Buffalo and reportedly raped a young woman.
But as the narrative unfolds and his pathological predatory nature comes to the fore, it becomes evident that a vast trajectory of his actions perhaps still evades documentation. The absence of any evidence or source from such a time speaks less of the need of the documentary to locate a starting point or of Macfarlane’s probing eye. Instead, the silence throbs with the same beat decades-spanning lull over his actions did. The cause of both is likely to be the same–coercion, intimidation and life-altering threats.
During the running time of an hour and 40 minutes, woman after woman sit before the camera and recount their horrid experiences, seat-shifting discomfort and a similar sinister warning meted out to them, “Do you know who I am?” Over the years, several measures were taken to keep the lid over his appalling deeds intact: Non-disclosure agreements, staggering amounts of money and bullying. All of this changed in 2017 when Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor broke the story of his misconduct in The New York Times aided by Ronan Farrow (all three appear in Untouchable).
We know all this and Macfarlane ensures we also see the faces of Erika Rosenbaum, Hope d’Amore, Rosanna Arquette, Zelda Perkins among others; that we witness their individual brokenness which hitherto had been homogenised by words. But her interest and intent — as reflected in the documentary — lie in not merely bringing our attention to it, but in examining the factors which contribute in making an instance of silence into a culture. She not just documents the story of a familiar powerful man but dissects the familiar story of powerful men. And she does that by making us question our perception of power.
Weinstein, as Untouchable demonstrates, did not carve out an insular narrative for himself. He was not an outlier. Instead, he was nourished and enabled by a system which constantly makes leeway for powerful men by identifying their misdeeds as ancillary to their position and absolving them. Macfarlane captures the extent of this acceptance in unflinching detail. At one point, John Schmidt, Miramax’s chief financial officer, recalls bringing a female friend into the company. He was later told that Weinstein had assaulted her. Schmidt did not quit. In another instance, a journalist says that everyone from producers to agents were aware of what was happening.
This covert complicity gives away to full-blown expectation when gossip columnist AJ Benza maintains he found nothing odd. The obviousness of women flocking to and sleeping with Weinstein for better roles is compared by him to moths hovering over a light on the porch. “They come along with the power.” By the usage of this analogy, Benza inadvertently stresses on an accepted narrative where power bears no onus to be responsible. It is blameless and will be even if the moths get crushed.
But what is more telling is the genericness with which the columnist alludes to Weinstein like the latter is a cog in the wheel. Macfarlane outlines the truth of the statement by astutely placing the most unsettling bit of five women — Nannette Klatt, Caitlin Dulany, Paz de la Huerta, Rosanna Arquette and Louise Godbold — recalling their experiences next to this. In spite of the disparity, there runs a uniformity in the stories, held together not just by the presence of the same man in all the scenarios but the way a man was safeguarded by expectation, acceptance and even silence.
If these separate testimonies of the women add a sense of cohesiveness to the story we have come to know only too well — of a powerful man exploiting his position to inflict and perpetuate abuse for decades — they also add up in the larger narrative of powerful men standing on crutches which oblige at every turn.
Untouchable flips the timeline of Weinstein’s story by opening on May 25, 2018 when the producer had surrendered to the police in the presence of a sea of reporters. In a way, the documentary about him begins with the onset of his end. And it does so because Macfarlane is telling another story, a bigger one where the face of the abuser keeps changing but the vulnerability, fright, helplessness and complete brokenness of the abused remains the same. It is directing our gaze to a flawed system that acknowledges light only when moth hovers over it. That narrative arc remains the same, and it is far from over.
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