Leading members of the international film community have had a fine time shooting themselves in the foot this week.
If the claims of many of filmmakers are to be believed, Polish-French film director Roman Polanski was not arrested in Zurich at the weekend because he was a long-term fugitive from US law on the grounds of having had sex with a minor in 1977.
No, it would appear he was shown the back of the police van because he’s a revered international film director being persecuted by philistine Americans. Because he’s an Artist with a capital ‘A’ and thus apparently a Nietzschean supermensch — above the regular moral and legal prescriptions that govern the rest of mankind. And also, because such little things as the workings of the justice system must never be allowed to get in the way of a cultural event — in this case the Zurich Film Festival, which inadvertently triggered the arrest by holding a retrospective of the director’s work and inviting him to attend.
Polanski could easily have prevented the festival from finding itself in such a quandary had he at some point faced up to his past in an honourable fashion. It’s been 28 years since he fled from the US while on bail to live in France (which does not have a close extradition agreement with the US). At any point he could have voluntarily returned to face the American justice system. He could have paid his moral debt, wiped the slate clean and opened up the eventual way to free international travel and film festival invitations galore.
He chose not to follow that path. His decision.
Within hours of the arrest at the weekend, Cannes Film Festival president Thierry Fremaux was working the best contact book in the business to get together a petition protesting the action by Swiss police, who were acting at the request of US prosecutors.
With impressive swiftness he managed to get nearly 100 of the best filmmakers alive, plus a handful of actors, to express their outrage, including: Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann, Pedro Almodovar, David Lynch, Wong Kar-wai, Tom Tykwer, Bertrand Tavernier, Giuseppe Tornatore, Jeanne Moreau, Alexander Payne, Tilda Swinton, Wim Wenders, John Landis, Costa Gavras, Terry Gilliam, Emir Kusturica and — perhaps unhelpfully — Woody Allen (yes, the guy who married his own stepdaughter).
"Filmmakers in France, in Europe, in the United States and around the world are dismayed by this decision," foamed Fremaux in the petition’s covering letter with unearned self-righteousness. "It seems inadmissible to them that an international cultural event, paying homage to one of the greatest contemporary filmmakers, is used by the police to apprehend him." Whoopi Goldberg — not a signatory — even defended Polanski by inventing a bold new legal concept, bizarrely claiming his offence had been "not a rape rape".
Many of Polanski’s high profile defenders appear to have been bolstered by a campaigning 2008 documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, which raised serious questions over the behaviour of the original Los Angeles judge in the case, Laurence J Rittenband, as well as that of the girl’s mother. Besides, so the argument goes, the director was persecuted by the Nazis as a child in Poland; had suffered the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, by the Charles Manson gang; and the girl involved, now a grown woman, had since gone public asking for charges to be dropped.
And if those didn’t convince, well, hey, his offence was committed such a long time ago so give the guy a break. As the "dumbfounded" French culture minister, Frederic Mitterrand, put it, Polanski was being "thrown to the lions for an ancient story, imprisoned while travelling to an event that was intending to honour him: caught, in short, in a trap". Linger, for a moment, on that strange and rather offensive image — the admitted sexual predator of a minor, recast as an innocent tossed to the savage beasts.
None of the above arguments change a simple fact: Polanski long ago pleaded guilty to the sexual abuse of a 13-year-old girl. The only person who should be allowed to take any of the above into consideration as mitigating factors is the US judge who finally decides upon his sentence.
So what, exactly, was Polanski’s offence? Many web commentators have referred to it as "rape". The legal story is more complex. He was initially charged with rape by use of drugs, perversion, sodomy, a lewd and lascivious act upon a child under 14, along with furnishing a controlled substance (methaqualone, better known as Quaaludes) to a minor. Offered a plea bargain that swapped these charges with the lesser one of engaging in unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, Polanski pleaded guilty. But he fled the country before he could be sentenced for the crime.
However, on record is a lengthy transcript — available at thesmokinggun.com — of the grand jury minutes featuring the 13-year-old victim’s testimony. Normally I might consider this to contain too much sordid detail to be worth publishing. But given the torrent of high-level support for Polanski and the apparent ignorance of his supporters of the seriousness of his crime, it’s mandatory reading. Warning: you may find the following disturbing.
In a crucial passage of the transcript the girl describes how the then 43-year-old, having photographed her, took her back to Jack Nicholson’s empty house, drugged her with a Quaalude and alcohol and bathed naked with her in the spa before taking her to bed – all the while ignoring her protests.
At one point in the hearing the victim says: "He (Polanski) goes, ‘would you want me to go in through the back?’ And I went , ‘no’."
"What happened then?" asked her interlocutor.
After stammering through incomplete sentences, the girl expressed herself with shocking clarity: "Then he lifted my legs further and he went in through my anus."
Q: "When you say he went in through your anus, what do you mean by that?"
A: "He put his penis in my butt."
Q: "Did he say anything at that time?"
Q: "Did you resist at that that time?"
A: "A little bit, but not really because (pause)
Q: "Because what?"
A: "Because I was afraid of him."
If you didn’t know any better you could be excused for assuming the above was from the trial of a notorious pedophile like Dennis Ferguson, who has just been hounded from his home in NSW after being released from jail.
Let the petitioners and other apologists read the above before they continue with their offensive and ignorant campaign. Then let them ask a basic question: how would you feel if your 13-year-old daughter had gone through the ordeal described above — and the offender looked as if he might escape justice because of his artistic talent?
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