| May 4, 2021
I am a fan of Kirby Dick’s work; I like the guy personally and have for years. I met Amy Ziering a few docs ago and like and respect her.
Allen v. Farrow is, sadly, not so much a documentary as a commercial.
Unlike The Invisible War, The Hunting Ground, and On The Record, this film does not represent an underrepresented, barely told story about power being inflicted on the powerless. Both sides of this story have money, power and access to the media. In fact, the greatest flaw of this film is that it keeps trying to force the narrative that Woody Allen is King Kong and The Farrows are the equivalent of the helpless Ann Darrow with whom he is both obsessed and reckless.
This is not an excuse for anything he may have done. But if there is a primary theme in this doc, it is that Woody Allen is overpowering and with this power has erased the truth. Finding an answer to the question of whether Woody Allen inappropriately touched his 7-year-old daughter in a Connecticut attic on August 4, 1992, is not a question asked by the film. It is assumed from the start.
There is no chance for criminal prosecution to come from this film. Civil litigation is off the table. I don’t think Dick or Ziering committed to making this movie for money or awards. And as a story of the ills of how the rich abuse government systems, this case of a high-profile entertainer, his high-profile former-partner, and their shared child is a unicorn, not a template.
So what is the goal of the film and its advocacy for one unique case? I see it, as presented, as an effort to convince as many people as possible that Allen molested his 7-year-old and to make it impossible for the public to embrace him or his work moving forward.
My concern as a critic seems to be confirmed in this exchange from their Hollywood Reporter profile:
“It really is a mirror to our society at large,” says Ziering. “The way these crimes go unpunished and all the reasons they do, the way that all of us are unwittingly and wittingly complicit to some degree. Woody’s persona disarmed all of us. We have this celebrity culture, and that gives them this shield of impunity. We imbue them with a certain trust and a love and then can’t believe or hear the cognitive dissonance. We give their crimes cover.”
Adds Dick: “He was like, ‘I’m just this disheveled guy who is caught in the headlights. This vicious woman has come after me.’ He is always painting himself as a victim, which again is classic. People who are accused of sexual assault, that is the first move they make. It’s like, ‘I am the victim because I have been falsely accused.'”
Allen v. Farrow repeatedly claims objectivity over the course of four hours – starting in the first segment before opening titles – but fails to deliver on that promise.
Advocacy is not an illegitimate goal for a documentary. Advocacy documentaries are abundant, though many hide their advocacy/funding. This film can’t be mistaken for an advocacy doc by any objective eye, but it also presents itself as an investigatory doc, but only offers detail that confirms its bias, except when acknowledging public information to later refute it.
There are repeated protestations that the Farrow Clan didn’t want this film to happen. But however it came together, the film leans almost exclusively on the participation of the Farrow family and friends, primarily Mia and Dylan. Of nine children who were in the family in August 1992, only three are on camera (Dylan, Ronan, and Fletcher Previn). Daisy is on audio. Soon-Yi, Moses, and the Previn twins are not interviewed. Lark passed away in 2008.
Mia Farrow would bring five more children into this situation between 1992 and 1995. None of these children participated in any recorded content. Unmentioned in the film, one of the five, Thaddeus Wilk Farrow, was named in honor of the judge who harshly rejected Allen’s custody claim. Sadly, Thaddeus committed suicide in 2016 and his sister Tam did as well in 2000. (Mia disputes the finding of suicide in both cases.) (ed note. date corrected after publication)
Anyone who isn’t in lockstep with Mia Farrow is marginalized, diminished or mocked, especially the two children who left her home and later accused her of her own abuses.
The most serious direct criticism of Mia Farrow has come from Moses Farrow, who is now a 43-year-old family therapist (he was 14 in 1992). Not only do the filmmakers choose not to quote him directly from his 2018 blog post on all of this, using footage of tabloid TV reporters as the only reference to his statements, but they offer on-camera family members, first explaining how great his childhood was and then referring to him as being “dead to them” as a result of his public statement.
One of the most ironic moments in the film is a segment about Dylan’s publication of her letter in the NYT accusing Woody Allen directly, leading to Allen denying the claim, which leads to her comment of frustration, “To be told, not only, that the things you are saying are not true, but that you don’t have the authority to speak about your own experiences.”
This segues directly into an examination of Moses Farrow and his public statements. In the doc, Dylan asserts that finding out about what Moses said, “It was like I’d just been told that he died.” In his May 2018 blog post, Moses wrote:
After I spoke to People magazine in 2014 about how I was treated, Dylan called it a “betrayal” and said that I was “dead to” her. She later publicly dismissed my recollections of my childhood as “irrelevant.”
He also mentions, when discussing Mia Farrow’s reaction to the Soon-Yi photos…
For months now, she had been drilling it into our heads like a mantra: Woody was “evil,” “a monster,” “the devil,” and Soon-Yi was “dead to us.” This was the constant refrain, whether or not Woody was around. (So often did she repeat it that Satchel would announce to one of our nannies, “My sister is fucking my father.” He had just turned four.)
“Dead to me” is not a rare phrase for people to use. But I find the repetition of the usage in a family context of betrayal interesting, at least. Not interesting enough to make it into the four hours.
Moses was also one of the voices about the electric train in the 3.5′ high attic space. As described by Dylan, “I remember staring at that toy train, focusing on it as it traveled in its circle around the attic.”
Moses responds, “The idea that the space could possibly have accommodated a functioning electric train set, circling around the attic, is ridiculous.” He also points out that “she never brought up (the train) during the original investigation or custody hearing.”
The filmmakers offer a schematic drawn by a a Connecticut State detective of the attic space showing a small 4′-wide train track in a corner of the attic space, behind a clothes closet. No date. No indication of whether there was electricity or even trains. No picture of the space. No date on the document.
None of that lacking specificity disproves the existence of a train. Or, for that matter, that there was a working train in the attic. The semantic distinction of Dylan’s “around the attic,” which the schematic does not suggest in any way, is a minor detail, so I hope no one gets caught up in that.
But this is how so much of the doc’s “new facts” are presented. Big flourish, no follow-up. If you have a smoking gun/guns, why not do something more with it than some copy on screen and ten seconds looking at a schematic? What was the space like? How could this physical event have taken place? Was there electricity and trains?
The film doesn’t feel any need, in four hours, to discuss the specifics of that 20 minutes in any detail. If you are going to drop the guillotine, drop the guillotine. And if you can’t, admit you can’t, but let us know all you know and let us take away what we take away.
The film degenerates repeatedly into Bill Maher’s “I don’t know it for a fact, but I know it’s true” routine.
These filmmakers are beyond competent. They spent three years delivering a four-hour+ film. They didn’t leave out the details that they had. They wait 45 minutes into the final episode to show us a schematic and not only are we expected to accept it without context, we are expected to have our brains exploded by its existence.
One of the most compelling moments in Allen v. Farrow is an interview with Sheryl Harden, a senior supervisor for the New York City Child Welfare Administration from 1982 to 1993, who quit her job because she felt the city was tying the hands of her department, quite specifically in cases of low-income and Black families. Strong, committed human. I applaud her conviction. But The Farrows are not underprivileged or powerless or without media resources. And though the movie argues otherwise, the media, in my memory, was more than happy to take down Woody Allen. He did not cause Sheryl Harden to quit. But the insinuation hangs out there.
Time after time, the documentary makes a statement of fact and then offers up emotional talking heads that contradict the fact that was just offered. The Yale/New Haven report is always under attack. So one minute you have the film’s experts literally screaming about how Yale/New Haven did too many interviews with Dylan (in which they found inconsistencies) and later you have Dylan’s consistencies in repeatedly telling her truth touted as proof of her truthful memory.
The theme of a conspiracy of Allen’s power haunts much of the film… but there are no facts or even specific accusations supporting them. Ohhhhh… he has a publicist! Ohhhhh… he becomes less open when he realizes he is being taped by Mia! Ohhhhh… he spoke to the press at Yale/New Haven after he was told the results, exonerating him, before the New Jersey AG. (The film obscures a fact that it offered earlier, that Mia Farrow was told the result at the same time and also spoke to the same press corps minutes after Allen.)
The film also jumps around in time a lot. I’m not here to suggest style choices to filmmakers, but it feels like the placement of different segments are intended to shift the audience focus in a manipulative way.
The conflation of the Soon-Yi story and the Dylan story is also a big problem for me. We probably agree that any fixation by grown men over 30 on girls under 21 is bad news and often illegal. But do men with unhealthy fixations fixate on both prepubescent girls and girls over 16? At least one talking head in the film taking a position on this issue would be helpful.
Again, the thing is not that I, as a viewer, needed an expert opinion with which I already agreed. It could be an opinion with which I disagreed. But the lack of any strong voice on the issue suggests that the film doesn’t think the issue is worthy of consideration. And in a film that pushes the Soon-Yi button a lot, that is a failure.
While the movie is very comfortable tearing down Soon-Yi, using third-hand witnesses, does it ever consider that Soon-Yi may have been influenced by Mia Farrow’s marriage at 21 to a man 29 years her senior or her second marriage to her best friend’s husband after she was impregnated by him? No.
There are dozens of choices that are highly manipulative. Lots of family photos that just happen to have a pre-teen Soon-Yi somewhere in frame. The slow obsessive push into a Lolita-like photo of Christina Engelhardt when she was an underage model and dated Allen while there are obviously many more sophisticated images of her. The absence of Stacey Nelkin, yet another teen who slept with Allen, but who still supports him. The shabby treatment of Diane Keaton, looking silly in her defense of Allen in an interview with Matt Lauer. The early marginalization of Moses in the film, except for his angry note of rejection aimed at Woody soon after Mia’s “Soon-Yi’s Hustler-like nudes” family meeting.
The film even takes one positive memory of Woody by Dylan, her first Broadway show (Guys & Dolls), then turns it into proof of Woody’s manipulation to isolate Dylan. Later, we see a photo of Woody and Dylan and Mia and Ronan going to that show together. (Don’t even get me started on taking a 5-year-old to a Broadway show not meant for kids.)
All I wanted to get in this film was 30 minutes without a WTF moment as a viewer… not a lack of surprises in the story, but in the storytelling. After four years of Trump, I admit that my WTF button is well honed. But still, I watched, open to the storytelling, hoping not to have the facts overworked for just a chunk of time.
The stretches that offer some of that peace in the film are with Dylan, both in speaking her truth about 1988- 1993 and later in the film as she feels more control of her life. That is a story of absolute truth, not matter what you believe about August 1992.
All of the children are clearly victims of a seriously messed up situation. Every one of them. Most of all, Dylan. Whatever actually happened. Whatever you believe. She has been abused.
The one-sided nature of the documentary means that it will not be definitive. It is not a stringent documentary effort, seeking to come as close to the truth of the events as possible. There is no exacting timeline or analysis of the day in question. There are too few efforts to challenge emotional notions that are spoken of as fact.
The subject of the sexual abuse raises all kinds of passions and biases. Understandably. It brings out both hypocrisy and a relentless need to unearth truths. It plays into both misogyny and misandry, as well as hard truths about how we perceive and value gender in an honest and loving way.
Dick & Zierling made a movie that is not about questions, but about reaffirming the guilt of Woody Allen. They had already decided that he was not only guilty, but just a typical guy making the same old excuses, duplicitous in every way. All the Farrows, including Soon-Yi and Moses, are his victims. And anyone who doesn’t agree is a sucker or a victim.
I wish they had made a more serious film about what happened, challenging every fact on every side, wherever it lead. And then, even though some might disagree, the documentation would be complete. But that was not what this effort was.
History deserves better.
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