The Straw Man
The internet has sold us the dream of the end of ignorance. The unprecedented access to world information has changed our daily routine and the way we interact with each other. Today is common settling any argument just by googling. But the dark side of it is that it has introduced us into the post-truth era. Nowadays, the reader must do an extra effort to separate the wheat from the chaff in a web where the hard thing is not to be informed but to choose who you listen to. This, far from developing an informed opinion, has allowed many to stay comfortable in the reality they choose to believe. Realities that validate their points of view and that they do not bother to corroborate. The impact of Leaving Neverland (Dan Reed, 2019) is based on this context.
The movie gives voice to Wade Robson and James Safechuck, two men that during their childhood had a close relationship with Michael Jackson and, according to them, were sexually abused by him. It is not the intention of this article to analyze the technical aspects and aesthetics of the film. For that we already have the review by Aarón Rodriguez in Cine Divergente, who wittily examines its visual treatment and moral repercussions (in Spanish). This article is focused on questioning the ethics behind the screen and the usefulness of its intention.
Dan Reed’s approach is unilateral, focusing just on the testimonies of the two alleged victims and their families. It presents both stories with apparent honesty, accompanied also with plenty of archival footage. Both Robson and Safechuck make pedagogic observations about child abuse, especially about taboos and the victimization of the abused. Then, when the film has summoned itself up with respectability, it brings out the big guns. The atrocious stories sound credible, the narrative is convincing and, foremost, doesn’t allow a single deviation from its truth. Everything sounds argumentative, logical and plausible and the HBO seal gives it an extra kick of veracity. But the testimonies have two problems. The first one is that they sound prefabricated. The narrative is too convenient, well rounded and structured. It doesn’t have a single touch of spontaneity or imperfection, present in almost any documentary. The statements flow smoothly, the silences are too dramatic, the stories too much alike and their reactions extraordinarily similar. Robson and Safechuck don’t sound as victims. They sound directed. They have a control of their emotions worthy of study and expose their trauma with model articulation and fluency. But, of course, that might be caused by the skepticism of the one who looks. But that’s when the second problem comes, the inconsistencies that the movie doesn’t show.
Naturally, this is not about believing that the singer is innocent because his family and fans say so. The truth is nobody knows if the abuse ever happened. But if we want to stick to the facts, too much smells burned in this production. The plaintiffs’ background is really suspicious: Robson and Safechuck say that they don’t have economic motivations… but meanwhile they are waiting for the last appeal on a civil lawsuit against the Michael Jackson Estate for hundreds of millions of dollars; during the lawsuit they committed perjury and it was revealed that they had been studying cases of abuse for years and the previous accusations to Michael Jackson; compromising data reveals that they hold a grudge against the Estate for professional reasons; and, if that was not enough, evidence has appeared showing that they knew each other since years before the documentary, which is the opposite of what the director claims (see the end of the interview). That casts a serious doubt about the film’s credibility, which relies mostly on them not meeting before the documentary. None of these details are in the movie. This lack of transparency does the intention of listening to the victims a disservice. Especially because you might start asking yourself who the victim is.
That’s the heart of the matter. Dan Reed claims that the importance of the film is not on Michael Jackson. At the end of a letter sent to The Guardian, he says: “Leaving Neverland is a humble attempt to light a beacon for those who, when the time is right, may wish to break their silence and confront their abuser, alive or dead.” But whether we decide to believe in the accusation or not, the movie boycotts itself. In order to give validation to these voices, the filmmaker must bring that hidden reality into the light; persuade defenders and detractors with intelligence and transparency; make clear that reality has always been buried. But Reed doesn’t seem interested in digging out. There is no investigation or will to search anything but pain. Logically, in plenty of child abuse cases it’s impossible to find solid evidence. But where clever diggers would build a thousand arguments to fill this gap, Reed’s “give voice to the victims” starts to sound more like an excuse than a goal. The value of his message crumbles down under the weight of a material too stubborn to leave the grounds of its own conjecture. Making a documentary is hard precisely because anyone can do this. Here is a confusion between visceral and emotional. The testimonies of the movie don’t give us goosebumps because they bring to light a shocking truth, but because they appeal to the most basic empathy, to the instinct of believing anyone who tells us something so chilling. But Dan Reed denies the opportunity of stimulating the brain and support these men’s words. The story is voluntarily blind, incapable of giving anything despite its insistence on “there is plenty” of evidence. The truth is hard to find in this case and facing an elusive truth the film seems to have taken a shortcut. Its poor arguments and its defense of mob lynching leaves the movie in an immoral and disturbing place. Even if the scandal was revealed to be true, Leaving Neverland would still be a manipulative and hypocrite propaganda piece.
Then there is the problem of bias. In this regard the film shows no intelligence nor transparency. Besides the questionable way he uses archival footage (how much adds to the story a shot of Michael Jackson watching Hitler on TV?), Dan Reed even got to say in an interview with Independent that he faced Leaving Neverland with “all the scepticism and rigour that I would approach a story about a terrorist attack. I didn’t include (the investigation) in the film, because I felt the family accounts had a power all of their own”. This is not only overly-simplistic, it’s an insult to the public and to the theme of “listening to the victims”. How to listen when the narrator doesn’t allow the listener to analyze? How to believe when so much compromising material is omitted? How to trust when the movie doesn’t make any attempt to cast some light over its quack theory?
Leaving Neverland aims to enter the hall of fame of other distinguished documentaries which revealed horrible sexual scandals but tries to do it the easy way; skipping the exhaustive investigative work and the ethical analysis that these stories need. It doesn’t understand the powerful reveal of Deliver Us from Evil (Amy Berg, 2006) and its horrifying consequences. In the doubt in which Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki, 2003) found its strength, this movie shows itself empty of heart and content. Making a Murderer (Moira Demos y Laura Ricciardi, 2015) brought to the surface a tremendous injustice, achieving a narrative that was pure tension. None of these works urge us to distrust the because they are built over corroborated facts and data. And, if faced with the absence of data, the minimum a movie of this kind should have is the ruminations of a good inquiring mind, as in Werner Herzog documentaries. But this sort of “Making a Pedophile” doesn’t reveal or denounce anything. Here, the horror comes from the minds behind the screen, who aspire to sell a piece of truculent reality no matter the risk, no matter if it’s true or not.
Accusations against Jackson has been the talk of the town for thirty years and Dan Reed has not doubted to appeal to the sympathies of #MeToo during the premiere: “There’s going to be a lot of #MeToo after this. We just have to wait and see how quickly that happens”. If the movie provoked an avalanche of accusers without questionable bios, that would close the issue. These reactions are usually fast and much publicized due to the immediacy of the internet and the popularity of the movement. Those were the cases with Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey and other accused. But there has not been a murmur. Recently, Dan Reed was questioned in a program of the French network M6 about this and the rest of compromising data. The director showed to know less about the case than the interviewers and was devoid of arguments and evasive. How does this help to give voice to the victims?
But this punctual inquiry is an anomaly. Just a handful of the media have considered the truthfulness of the matter. This is not a new problem, has been the rule for thirty years. The portrait of the singer in media has always been negative o directly twisted. Again, we can’t know what happened in his dormitory, buy let’s talk about what we know. In the 1993 accusations the media created much of the myths that are still considered real, like the singer paying to avoid to be reported by plenty of families of abused kids or that Jordan Chandler gave an accurate description of Jackson’s genitalia (this proved to be false in his autopsy). More than two thousand journalists covered the 2005 trial and their reports were the antithesis of what really happened in court. This fact is brilliantly brought up in Charles Thompson’s article One of the Most Shameful Episodes In Journalistic History, where he compares the trial transcriptions with the media coverage. This movie is nothing but the new chapter of this tendency. Taking this into account, who can blame the public for a negative perception when that is all that comes from the press? But, at the same time, how is it possible that when the media attacks the star their benefits go up? (Leaving Neverland has been the third-most-watched documentary debut for HBO in the past decade). The crucifixion of the singer has been a rewarding business for thirty years. It doesn’t matter that Jackson went through two police investigations with surprise raids, a plenty of private investigations, a trial where he was acquitted, a public scrutiny without precedent and an investigation of the FBI. That little doubt will never extinguish. The story of this eccentric and childish millionaire can’t end in any other way that in tragedy. It’s what the public demands and, consequently, it’s what the media gives. In an interview with Newsweek, former CNN boss Jonathan Klein recalled watching the not guilty verdicts come in and then telling his deputies, “We have a less interesting story now.”
Any inquisitive mind has the right to dig in causes where they consider there are unanswered questions, but Leaving Neverland is the crystal-clear example of how not to do it. From mob justice based on prejudice; from the greatest shamelessness and lack of ethics. And instead of concern for the victim voices, I feel deeply worried about the media which, ultimately, have not evolved so much despite the miracle of the web.
Leaving Neverland left Sundance as the twist the world had been expecting for years. The unmasking of the monster; the demise of the myth; an out of proportion and brutal drama; a hell of a picture. Is that this picture? No, but we want to be convinced. It’s irrelevant if arguments are dubious because nothing is going to deprive us of watching the movie we want to. We need reality to be stranger than fiction. And if reality doesn’t cooperate many seem willing to bend it until the only thing that matters is the movie.
Leaving Neverland (USA, UK, 2019)
Direction: Dan Reed / Production: Owen Phillips y Dan Reed para Amos Pictures / Music: Chad Hobson / Cinematography: Dan Reed / Editing: Jules Cornell