Dylan Farrow began her 2014 New York Times op-ed with the following, “What’s your favorite Woody Allen movie? Before you answer, you should know: when I was seven years old, Woody Allen took me by the hand and led me into a dim, closet-like attic on the second floor of our house. He told me to lay on my stomach and play with my brother’s electric train set. Then he sexually assaulted me.”
This was in the year 1992. The previous year, in December 1991, Woody Allen was allowed to legally co-adopt Dylan, Mia Farrow’s daughter. Mia Farrow and Woody Allen were together for over a decade but lived their lives in separate apartments across Central Park. They would play sweet games, like switching on and switching off lights in the room to signal to one another across the lush green pool of the park, surrounded by grey concrete, “I love you”.
Then, in January 1992, Farrow found a stash of images of Soon-Yi, one of her daughters now in college, adopted when she was already around 7 years old, at Allen’s home. The images were pornographic, something “they wouldn’t even put in Playboy” according to Farrow. It was soon clear that Soon-Yi was also in a relationship with Allen. Then came the details and dates. Based on evidence from cleaning ladies who changed stained sheets and saw condoms in dustbins every time Soon-Yi visited, and watchmen, it was concluded that Soon-Yi was a teenager, in high-school, when the courtship with Allen had begun. In his memoir, Allen notes of the first time they kissed, “[Soon-Yi] is complicit in the osculation”.
One aspect of this is infidelity, that Allen was in a relationship with Farrow while also pursuing Soon-Yi. This part is contested—that Allen and Farrow were separated at the time is one side of the story. The other, more disturbing aspect was the age difference between them— Allen was 56 years old.
HBO’s Allen Vs Farrow, streaming on Disney+Hotstar, is a stunning takedown of this second, more disturbing aspect. The four-part series, with hour-long episodes, tackles this on many fronts. First, by treating the allegation of Allen’s sexual abuse of Dylan as fact. Second, by building a portrait of Allen’s predatory patterns and behaviour that he cemented and validated with his iconic movies and characters. Third, by painting Allen as a Goliath-like PR machine in the world of glitter and news, with no one willing to step up to him.
Dylan’s account of her abuse begins with Allen’s forceful, intense, but not sexual attention he showered on her, and only her, as an infant. Soon, as a child she began running away from him, hiding under beds and behind doors when he walked in through the door. Then came that incident of sexual abuse that Dylan notes. That very day, Mia Farrow immediately notes something off in her body language and starts recording her with a camera, asking her questions of “what daddy did”. This is the footage we are seeing for the first time. Chomping on the ends of her blonde hair which she would dye auburn later, eyes darting into the distance, now right, now left, as she points at her “front side” when Farrow asks where Allen touched her. “I did not like it,” she notes. The vocabulary she had to express this act of Allen’s violence, like the vocabulary of any young kid, was I-centered. “I did not like this”. “I was afraid”. Not “He did things to me I did not like”. Not “He made me afraid”. This I-centered view would spiral into guilt, and shame.
When this allegation went public, Allen geared up the PR machinery to turn Farrow into a vengeful, hysterical ex, and Dylan into an unassuming kid who was being groomed to hate him. He fought for custody of three of Farrow’s kids. In 1993, he lost the case with the judge noting the “grossly inappropriate” nature of his relations with Dylan. The same year, the Connecticut State Attorney said there was probable cause to charge Allen for abuse, but he did not pursue this because Dylan’s mental and emotional fragility was cause for concern.
We wish for a 7 year old to have strength to speak of her abuse more than we wish for a 42 year old man to not abuse, because it seems more likely, more probable, and given our post #MeToo feminist tailspin, even more necessary.
At this point Dylan had been telling her story of what happened in that attic again and again, to investigators, and therapists. She was a child, not supposed to know the specificities of human anatomy, and how dignity and shame are apportioned to each body part by the society around her. The attorney knew that she would have to take the stand and speak again in a courtroom, possibly re-traumatizing her, and thus decided against pursuing it, despite having the evidence. Farrow notes, “No punishment of Woody would be worth punishing Dylan.”
In the documentary, Dylan, an adult seeking therapy with the gift of retrospect, resents this. She wishes she was stronger then to have gone through with the trial. I too wished the same. And that’s the tragedy. We wish for a 7 year old to have strength to speak of her abuse more than we wish for a 42 year old man to not abuse, because it seems more likely, more probable, and given our post #MeToo feminist tailspin, even more necessary.
After the scathing judgment, Allen went back to his life. From 1994-97 he directed a film each year. In 1997 Allen and Soon-Yi married; Allen was 62, Soon-Yi was 27. Mia Farrow was made persona non-grata, not finding work in America. To keep afloat she found work abroad in Ireland. Farrow notes Woody telling her, “No one will hire you [in this country] again.” She began working with UNICEF, while Allen was hosting the Oscars, entering the gilded stage to a standing ovation. This dynamic rings familiar, even today. The next movie you watch, attached in whatever capacity to a #MeToo accused person, think of what happened to the accuser.
There are two things to note here, both argued by Jia Tolentino in her essay We Come From Old Virginia on campus sexual assault. The first is the idea that we as a society find false accusations of rape or abuse more abhorrent than actual rape or abuse. Second, is how we find patterns of abuse more convincing than single instances of it, and thus the desire as spectators to find patterns in stories of abuse. In 2014 when Rolling Stone put out the famous story of one instance of campus gang-rape that it had to retract because it found the woman an unreliable narrator, the lesson was learned. All #MeToo stories thereon, the biggest of which was broken by Ronan Farrow, Dylan’s brother, had to be not of individuals, but of multiple instances, of multiple people. Because no one believes an individual survivor.
But in Woody Allen’s case, Dylan was the only person he sexually abused, and he did that only once. In an ideal world this should be enough to believe Dylan, to believe Farrow. But that’s not the case, and so the documentary is forced to weave a narrative around who Allen is through his art in the first two episodes. This is the least persuasive aspect of this show—to make sense of one’s life through one’s art, to find in his disturbing archetypes a hint of his proclivity for pedophilia.
As a result, this documentary brings to the table the voice of critics and cultural commentators. This helps create the portrait of Allen as a writer-filmmaker-actor, filling his vacuum in the documentary. He refused to be interviewed; what we hear from Allen are from his interviews, press-conferences, taped phone-calls, and audio snippets from his controversial memoir. (It was dropped by its publisher, picked up by another one, Stephen King tweeting telling us to vote with our wallet and not cancel writers, even if they are pedophiles who have put children in harm’s way.) These snippets are, however, reactionary. It is his art that is supposed to give a richer portrait of a man who saw himself as the charming hero in whom you house your aspirations, as well as the weak, nervous everyday man in whom you find a reflection of yourself. His characters, as noted by some critics, “make you feel less alone”. I agree. In Annie Hall I found vindication of my jittery courtings. In Manhattan I found a grammar to express desire as more than just an idea of permanent possession. His work was both relatable and aspirational. How could this man finger a child? It’s a moral impossibility.
Then, in the second episode, there is the darker part of his filmography—his fixation with older men courting younger women (Not necessarily loving them. In Manhattan, based on an affair he had with a college student, he keeps pushing the college kid to sleep around with college boys while keeping him on the side). In so many of his films this shows up, explicitly, or in passing: Manhattan (1989), A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982), Broadway Danny Rose (1984), September (1987), Another Woman (1988) Crimes And Misdemeanors (1989), Husbands And Wives (1992) Mighty Aphrodite (1995) Whatever Works (2009). The pattern is striking, and the documentary wants us to believe that through his art Allen was creating an alibi for his desires, especially vis-a-vis Soon-Yi.
This age difference is familiar to film, especially Bollywood, audiences. But there is a difference here — an old actor playing his age courting a much younger actress playing their age is different from an old actor playing a younger version of himself courting the young actress. We can find more of the latter in Hindi movies and this is a validation of the predatory veneer that age gaps can have. They understand that to show an old actor playing his age with a young actress playing her age sounds odd. Hence, the age discounting on-screen.
The documentary pads this theory with the reality of the PR blitz that was taking place. Diane Keaton, Alec Baldwin, Xavier Bardem all were saying things in his favour. Leslee Dart, in charge of Allen’s PR machinery made sure that publications that did not run with stories she planted did not get invited to major press events involving her high-profile clients. PR people trade stories to embed a narrative and soon the narrative becomes a cultural fact.
Allen uses a phrase “parental alienation” coined by a hatchet-job pop-psychologist. This allegedly happens when mothers groom their children to tell the courts that their father abused them when cases of custody were being fought. It is a theory that holds no water in the peer-reviewed journals of psychology and yet because it was so often cited in the news, it was used in courts in arguments that mostly favoured the fathers, the alleged abusers. The statistics the documentary shows on this are a smack on the face. It makes taking sides a moral imperative. It puts to rest the idea of impartiality. It gives documentaries the function of being correctives and apologies and not journalistic narrations.
Should this documentary have treated the allegations of sexual abuse as fact? They reached out to Allen for comments but he refused. Soon-Yi, now his wife too refused to comment. She gave an interview with the New York magazine, but, as this documentary notes, Allen was present throughout it. She has two children with him. Even if they did give intend otherwise, the bias of the makers is apparent. Allen’s statement against this show notes that the HBO network “has a standing production deal and business relationship with [Mia’s son] Ronan Farrow”. Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, the directors, have made no bones about where their allegiances lie. Dick noted, “Woody’s story is out there”. Ziering noted, “This film is about complicity, the power of celebrity, the power of spin, how we all are viral and will believe something that’s repeated enough.”
The last episode touches on the Art Versus Artist debate, veering on the side of those who decide not to support, with one’s pocket, with one’s pedestal, artists who have harmed humans. The idea isn’t that only good people produce good art. That’s preposterous. It’s that bad people produce great art, and their greatness pads their badness, and in some cases, even burnishes it. Maybe we do need a well-produced, over-researched documentary with an optimally tense score and multiple, multiple, multiple women coming out and saying We Believe Woody Allen Molested His Daughter Because She Said So Multiple Times, to actually be shocked into throwing Woody Allen’s films from our to-watch list. It’s not that his films aren’t great. It’s the moral cost of appreciating, even participating in that greatness.
One may wonder what a more balanced documentary would look like, but that would be to wonder a different kind of documentary. We often come to believe “balance” and “truth” must be on the same side. But to tell a balanced story of an imbalanced situation is, by default, untruthful. To tell a truthful story, sometimes, you have to just believe.