In many ways, we’ve grown accustomed to the premise underpinning the HBOMax series Allen v. Farrow, directed by Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick. Yet another heralded male celebrity, this time Woody Allen, is exposed by accusations of sexual assault. Yet, what’s most disturbing about the details uncovered by the investigative work in Allen v. Farrow is just how much hid in plain sight—for nearly 30 years.
Of course, that is exactly the nature of childhood sexual abuse, a crime that takes place in homes within families, but often without the conscious knowledge of other family members. It’s a crime that often provokes disbelief—even from those most close to the victim. Not only can it be disorienting to recognize a spouse or a parent as a perpetrator, but, as a society, we simply don’t want to believe that such things happen to children.
Ziering and her crew, however, are not ones to steer away from difficult subjects. In her collaboration with co-director Dick and producer Amy Herdy, she has made numerous groundbreaking documentary works—including the Emmy Award-winning film The Invisible War about the epidemic of rape in the military and the Oscar Award-nominated film The Hunting Ground about sexual assault on college campuses.
In this interview with Ms. writer Michele Meek, Ziering talks about taking on the issue of incest with their latest work Allen v. Farrow.
Michele Meek: Why do you think that incest is one of those topics that is not talked about?
Amy Ziering: First of all, any type of rape is something very difficult to talk about. This crime is such a primal violation and even though we are, as a culture, so hypersexual in many ways, we are also very repressed and puritanical when it comes to describing our own actual sexual experiences.
I remember interviewing a prosecutor once who told me she was getting increasingly frustrated because juries in rape cases were never ruling in her client’s favor. So, on her next case, right before it began, she gathered the jurors together in a room and said: “Ok, everybody close your eyes and think back on your most positive recent sexual experience in graphic detail. Got it? Ok, so who now wants to tell me about it?” And there was silence. So she said, “Ok, if this was a positive sexual experience and no one here wants to speak about it in front of a room full of strangers, why on earth do you think anyone would ever want to talk in public about a horrific sexual experience they had in graphic detail if they were making it up?”
Then just imagine how that shame and reluctance to speak out is magnified if your perpetrator is a loved one, someone you trust and love deeply and are fiercely connected to and dependent on. And someone whom you, in many ways, want to protect. It’s such a psychologically torqued situation.
And, of course, on top of that, the patriarchal nuclear family is ground zero in our Western Christian patriarchal white supremacist society. And anything that could suggest that a father could be committing these crimes and violating the sanctity of the family is very hard for people to believe or even begin to contemplate.
Not to mention the immense legal hurdle, which is why it took us so long to figure out how to do an incest film. Because if you come forward and say, “my father assaulted me,” it could be deemed libelous, and he could sue you. And so all of those things have made talking about incest very third rail.
Meek: From your documentary, I got the concerning feeling that maybe not as much has changed as we think.
Ziering: Unfortunately a great deal hasn’t changed. In episodes three and four of the series, we examine the family courts, and expose how it’s much more common for children to be sent back to their offending parent than not. In fact, if a mother asserts that the father is assaulting their child, it is more likely for the judge to give custody of the molested child back to the father. And more often than not, that child is subject to further abuse. Many of the experts we spoke with trace this phenomenon back to the legacy of the Woody Allen case, as Allen v Farrow was the first high profile case to employ this DARVO defense (Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender). In Allen v Farrow, Woody asserted that he himself was the hapless victim, not his child. And the press ran with that narrative—and it spread like wildfire as a canny defense strategy for predators.
But on a much more positive note: The positive reception to Allen v. Farrow points to how much things have, in many ways, changed for the better. If I were to just track the differences in the response to our earlier films: Invisible War, and The Hunting Ground to that of Allen v. Farrow, I see a big shift in terms of the lift we had to make in forging our arguments in those films and engaging with press. Our biggest talking point with those two earlier films: was “believe women” and we had to repeat it over and over again—and it was received as a quite radical and novel, if not heretical concept. But that isn’t quite the bar anymore for stories of assault and harassment post #MeToo. The groundwork has been laid that shifts credibility from perpetrators to women.
Meek: I think that one of the things that was most disturbing about his defense then and now is this idea, well, why would I suddenly become a child molester at this age? But, um, you know, you did marry one of your girlfriend’s daughters.
Ziering: Chelsea Handler tweeted something that really aptly summed it up: —“Woody Allen denying any sexual relationship with his daughter—with the defense being—that he’s in a sexual relationship with his other daughter.”
Meek: In the series, one of the things that I kept thinking about is how the other parent is sort of gaslighted.
Ziering: Yes, not only gaslit, but also groomed. With these kinds of crimes, predators not only groom their prey, but also all the people around them. And so it isn’t like the mother or the siblings are wittingly or unwittingly complicit with these crimes of their own free will. It’s that they are themselves subject to the cognitive dissonance of the conflicting accounts and messages they are continually receiving from the predator. So it’s often very confusing for everyone in the family to understand how to negotiate and accurately interpret events. We had one expert on our podcast explain how insidious and powerful coercive control by a predator within a family can be. So I would just be very careful when people all too often are quick to blame the non-offending parent, because it’s a much more complicated psychological landscape; and they often should be empathic towards the other parent as well because often the whole family has, in a way, been deceived and held hostage.
Meek: Do you envision that there will be any repercussions for Allen or Yale New Haven?
Ziering: I have no idea. I mean, I just do what I do. I’m interested in bigger questions. Honestly, the criminal justice system is its own black hole of horrors. Maybe as a viewer, you want that happy ending or need that Dragnet conclusion, but real life isn’t quite so tidy.
For our part, as investigative filmmakers we are less focused on the adjudication of punishment on a particular individual or handful of individuals, but more interested in provoking cultural shifts hinged on a greater awareness and contextual understanding of cultural givens that are problematic and need to be dismantled. So we hope that those with power in the family courts watch Allen v. Farrow and become more aware that “parental alienation” as a defense has no credible scientific basis. In fact, people have already written saying they’re going to use the series as a teaching tool for judges, and they are hopeful it will be a much needed gamechanger in the space.
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Meek: I thought it was interesting how, in the film, you have film critics who began to rethink Allen’s work after Dylan’s articles. I’m wondering if you have thoughts on the separation or the lack thereof between the art and the artist. What happens to Allen’s work, or should we even be discussing that?
Ziering: I think biography is inextricably an integral part of any artist’s work. I mean, it’s not like works of art just appear ex nihilo. Every work of art has its creator’s signature all over it; everyones’s personal history informs their art in both conscious and unconscious ways.
It’s also true that horrible and wonderful people make great art; and that what you know of their biographies can better enhance, enrich and inform your engagement with it.
However, if I find ever find out something about the private life of an artist that I find objectionable/reprehensible, and I know that by economically supporting their work, I will further empower them by providing them with economic and social capital that confers on them privileges which may allow them to act with impunity and continue to perpetrate their crimes, I, as a consumer, might want to choose not to continue to economically support them. I mean, that’s where I will draw the line. But aside from that, I don’t think we should abandon the art.
For me, it’s not all that complicated. I owe a lot of the intellectual basis for my work to Martin Heidegger who supported the Nazis. Now my dad spent his teenage years in concentration camps. I mean, I’m glad Heidegger is dead, and by reading him I am not economically supporting him, but my work, my life would have been much more impoverished if I hadn’t read his work, and his books are still on my nightstand. So it’s interesting and important for me to know about his history as I read his work. It’s not about just erasing that fact—it’s about learning from it. Life’s uncomfortable. Embrace the discomfort, and don’t shy away from it.
Meek: Does it feel overwhelming as someone who’s been advocating for changes in these kinds of arenas to feel like there’s so much to be done and not enough time to make films on all of these areas that need massive change?
Ziering: I mean, the good news is, I never thought I’d see #MeToo in my lifetime—2010 does not look like 2021 at all. I think I said to a reporter who called me right when #MeToo happened that I didn’t know if I was reading The Onion or The New York Times. I was like, what? Matt Lauer accused of assault—Matt Lauer loses his job. That just didn’t not happen in my universe prior to #MeToo. So, there’s a lot of work still to be done, but thank god the culture is shifting. So, on sexual abuse, at least in the U.S., I’m feeling more optimistic. On the rest of the planet, not so much.
Meek: Absolutely, #MeToo marked a significant shift—one you helped inspire. Has that also transformed the reception to your work?
Ziering: When we initially went out pitching ‘Invisible War‘ in 2008, we heard: no one wants to see films about women. No one wants to see films about women being raped. And no one certainly wants to see films about women raped in the military. So Kirby and I went on our own dime—Kirby did camera, I did the interviews, with no crew and we made Invisible War and that’s the truth. And that’s 2010. And at that point in our careers, we were established filmmakers—we had been nominated for Emmys, produced things for HBO. But we could not get funding for a film about sexual assault in the military, a film which went on to get an Oscar nomination.
And right now, how many films are there out there about women being assaulted—I can’t even honestly count them. Both fiction and nonfiction. I mean, oh my god. We’re talking a big difference. So I think we’ve come a really long way, and we should be glad for that, you know?
Meek: So are you feeling hopeful about what could the next 10 years possibly bring, like maybe this whole thing is really going to break open?
Ziering: I hope so. I mean, obviously with great change comes great pushback and, the Blasey Ford thing was—I couldn’t even watch it. It was so, so devastating. And obviously Trump was so devastating—53% of white women voted for Trump. So, you know, white women pretty much are the worst. But again, as a weak defense, I will say, quoting bell hooks that the patriarchy knows no gender. If all you’re given is poison to drink, you don’t recognize it as poison.
But the fact that there is a #MeToo movement, the fact that people are calling me and asking me to talk about this, the fact that there is funding for these kinds of films, the fact that survivors are feeling safe with coming forward, that’s a big change. One we shouldn’t underestimate but also shouldn’t take for granted. We need to all keep at it—to ensure that these changes are lasting and meaningful and real.
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