Two things you need to know about the Woody Allen documentary that is airing in four parts on HBO ending in mid-March are that 1) it is the prosecution’s side only, and 2) they make a compelling case. You have to know these two things because both of them are going to matter in the coming weeks as the remaining 3 episodes of of the documentary unfold.
To the first point, the reason we have a justice system with lawyers and courts and punishment is that mob rule can never, has never and will never be trusted. The justice system, as imperfect as it is, is all we have when it comes to guilt and innocence. Yes, it’s a justice system that has favored the rich, the white and the male and that also has to be taken into account but the system itself has to change. Mob rule can never be put in power to decide anything, especially not in 2021.
The filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering have, with the help of Ronan and Mia Farrow, over the course of three years put together an incredibly damning case against Woody Allen to be argued in the public square. Obviously, there are no criminal charges to be brought, no legal guilt rendered. But it is in the public square they wish to try their case, to see some kind of justice exacted upon Woody Allen.
This film reminded me a lot of the film the Democrats used to prosecute Trump’s impeachment. It was convincing, it was damning but it was not only a one-sided view but they omitted a few key facts. Without going into it too much, it is important to note the difference between a trial in the public square and an actual trial.
If you only watch CNN, MSNBC, read the New York Times, and follow Left Twitter their video of Trump’s guilt in inciting a riot seemed true and accurate. But if you don’t exclusively follow these information streams and you spend time reading and listening to other points of view, it is much easier to see where the inaccuracies came in. They had to prove “incitement,” which they could not convince 43 Republicans to see, since it’s a tough thing to prove, for starters, but also Trump said in his speech to march “peacefully and patriotically.” The House Democrats removed that part of their video. The defense side could then come in and point out this inaccuracy.
Why this matters is that the Woody v Farrow documentary does much of the same kind of thing. It is trying to change people’s minds about the case, specifically those hold outs who continue to doubt Dylan Farrow’s account, and insist that Woody Allen has been falsely accused in the public square. Since the prosecution’s side is the only side people hear, most will come away with certainty that he’s guilty. They will then be asked what to do with that information, how far will the public go in rendering the punishment that never came from the courts?
Ultimately, I do not believe one can render judgment without hearing the full throated defense. The doc is interesting to watch because it puts the whole day of the incident into better perspective. And for those with lingering questions, it answers many of them. We see the side Woody kept hidden from public view, we saw why his relationship with Soon-Yi was so damaging to the whole family, we see what Mia claims is his suffocating obsession with young Dylan. It’s all there in video footage that has been selected as evidence, and in the stories recounted by Mia’s friends and family. They tell their whole side and they have four episode’s worth of material to get their side across.
The reason to watch it is to see some things we’ve never seen before, namely Dylan’s own testimony on camera. The defense would then perhaps request for the entire video recordings to be shown rather than edits of what she said. They would also get to cross-examine her, which no pro-Allen documentary can ever do. Video is easy to edit and manipulate if you are trying to depict a person a certain way. But for it to be fully vetted, the whole thing has to be watched and here we don’t have that.
The reason to make this documentary is for the Farrow side to make its case in a way that those people, and anyone else who might stumble into this story, see Allen as guilty unequivocally, with or without a legal verdict. But more to the point, it’s to vindicate Mia, Ronan, and Dylan Farrow whose version of events has been disparaged by those who do not believe the story. This has hit Mia Farrow especially hard, as she’s often been painted as the hysterical lunatic lying and manipulating the facts as an act of vengeance against Woody Allen for his relationship with Soon-Yi.
The relationship with Soon-Yi is explored here, but again just from the point of view of Mia and her allies. She is portrayed as an emotionally and psychologically damaged girl that Woody groomed and eventually brought to his apartment where he kissed her. In his memoir he says she kissed him back. Watching the documentary, however, one can’t help but get completely creeped out by a guy who was there for most of her life and hovering as a father figure who then makes a pass at her when she’s in college, at the age of 21. Had that happened in my family he would have been hit with not just a custody fight but probably a lot more than that.
What do I mean by a defense? Well, for starters, how much of the sexual relationship between Woody and Soon-Yi did Mia share with the children? How much imagery did she put in their heads and how did she think they were going to process that? Mia claims that her therapist told her she had to tell the children about the naked photos she found, but when you’re 7-year-old Dylan and 5-year-old Ronan and you hear that fact, what does it make you think and see? In the early 90s American culture was in the grips of a panic about child molestation – it was everywhere and most kids were being talked to constantly about it, the fear was as palpable then as the fear of racism now.
As creepy as that may be is, it’s important to remember that Soon-Yi and Woody have been together all of this time and have raised, by all accounts, two happy young women. Soon-Yi, for her part, has called Mia extremely abusive — this is denied in the doc but it must also be factored in, which is why there needs to be a defense offered up.
A defense matters because the facts seem convincing until a defense attorney points holes in them. Look at the film The Verdict, starring Paul Newman. He is trying to sue the Catholic diocese for an accidental death of a patient. They said that the patient lied on the form about when she’d eaten last. Their Deus ex Machina comes in the form of a witness, a nurse, who was silenced but just happened to have a copy of the form that proves the hospital changed the form.
For me, I found the documentary convincing enough that it changed the way I saw the case. At least until I hear a defense that sheds more doubt on what we actually see in this film. The two most damning things about it are Dylan herself, not just her own life and the damage this case has done to it, but also 7-year-old Dylan talking about what happened to her. And in that case, she very casually describes going to the attic with Woody Allen.
Mia Farrow continues to record her talking about this, four times maybe. Her story never changes but she is visibly uncomfortable having to continue to recount it. The subsequent investigations would go on and on and on and she’d be asked to recount it and talk about it over and over again. It’s hard to know which of these two things was more damaging to her. But her story never gets more extreme. She doesn’t add flourish. She simply states what happened as fact.
The other problem are some of the recorded phone calls between Woody Allen and Mia Farrow which depict a side of him I personally have never heard before. He displays a cruelty, almost a sadistic coldness to Mia’s distress. Now, that is likely manipulative and the defense should be able to then counter and say, okay, well listen to THIS recording. But we don’t have that here. We just have a one-sided depiction of the worst things he has done and said.
When you put the whole thing together it is difficult to walk away from this doubting the story. You then have to ask yourself what does that mean? Does that mean you can never watch any of his movies ever again? Does it mean the Academy should remove his wins and his membership?
For modern generations this will not be a question. They have no problem rendering a moral judgment and condemning him and his work for the foreseeable future. But for those of us who didn’t grow up that way and don’t have that kind of certainty, it isn’t that simple or easy.
The documentary is really for the sake of the Farrow family, for Dylan and Mia and Ronan to have closure. They were able to get it all out in the open and for that, it has to be a good thing ultimately, especially for Dylan whose life has been greatly impacted by it. There is so much of it that is none of our business. But they still have a right to tell their story. Hopefully having their say completely will help them heal through something so traumatic.
But when it comes to punishment, to rendering guilty verdicts, to punishing actors who work with him or worked with him, to the awards won for his movies — that can’t depend on a one-sided documentary. There has to be, as with all things, due process. I know it is pointless to say because we simply don’t live in that kind of a world. We must fight for that kind of world all the same.
We seem to never tire of persecuting and prosecuting people in the public square now. That’s because we have a public square. We have a way to call people out and shame them, to have them fired, to deplatform them, to censor information we don’t like if we feel justified in doing so. I will always force myself to rely on a better system of justice and if that system is imperfect, in working to make it better. But the last thing I will ever do is trust justice to be crowd sourced.
Thus, while the film really makes a strong case for the prosecution, I think it’s necessary to also hear the defense before making a final judgment.