Allen v. Farrow: Difficulty Seeing the Truth
The lives of Woody Allen and Mia Farrow have been forever changed. They have lived through years of pain and accusation. Most of this torment has been from their adopted child now 35. Dylan Farrow has claimed in Nickolas Kristof’s New York Times blog that in August 1992 her father sexually abused her when she was seven years old. The abuse took place in the attic of Mia Farrow’s Connecticut vacation home.
Through public allegations and counter-allegations, the entire world has been exposed to their stories. A recent documentary, Allen v. Farrow, is part confusion and part contradiction as it attempts to denounce Allen’s claims. Sadly, those attempts lead to more confusion and challenge the authenticity of the accusations that, if true, are damaged by this heavy-handed, unbalanced production.
What kicked off this latest exchange was the release of Allen’s memoir, Apropos of Nothing, in the fall of 2020. The book was followed by Allen v. Farrow, a four-part HBO documentary, shown during February and March of this year (2021). Allen’s book gives his side of the story, and the documentary is woven around Farrow’s story, but clearly layered with the directors’ (Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick) vision. They see the events as encapsulating their theory: powerful men always defeat women.
The documentary’s title is misleading. Allen v. Farrow implies that the audience is watching a kind of trial despite there not being enough evidence to make a point more or less true. But the documentary implies evidence exists for an actual trial to take place. In this proxy trial, only the prosecution’s side is presented. Allen’s defense is wholly absent, leading some critics to judge the film a hatchet job.
Proceeding step by step towards the directors’ intended conclusion, Mia’s close friend of many years, Casey Pascal, recalls an incident at Mia’s Connecticut country home. She claims that Woody put sunscreen on his baby daughter and spent extra time with his hand on her bottom. She claimed to see exactly where his hands lingered. There was a home movie of this event. She was recalling a memory from almost 30 years ago, not of a momentous event but one of a father applying sunscreen to his child during a nude lake swim session with a group of kids.
Memory experts now believe that what you remember is not an original event, but the memory’s latest recollection. For example, the child’s game of “telephone” is played by passing a message to one child in a circle and examining the message as it comes back to that same child. As it winds its way completely around the circle, it is no longer the same message. In this light, the documentary is raised to a sordid game of telephone.
Aside from Mia, the witnesses are Casey Pascal and a family friend, Priscilla Gilman. Although the children are interviewed, they clearly take their ques from Farrow who positions them to speak in her favor. Some of the children have expressed love for Allen, Moses in particular. But Farrow sorts the children into two group those who support her (good) and those who support Allen (bad).
Farrow casts Allen as a father figure although they were never married nor lived together. She makes a point to explain that Allen regularly stayed at her vacation house with her and the children. In fact, the August 1992 incest allocation revolves around what happed in the attic of that house. What Allen did with his, or to his daughter as Farrow insists, takes place in the attic. The documentary keeps drawing our attention back to the attic, the scene of the alleged crime.
Dr. Elizabeth Loftus a Distinguished Professor of Psychology, Criminology, and Law at the University of California has served as an expert witness and consultant in hundreds of cases, including the McMartin preschool molestation case of the 1980s. In response to my email, Professor Loftus wrote “The film was completely one sided....and my views haven't changed.” She referred me to her op-ed published in the National Law Journal in February 2014 titled, “Unknown: What Happened in the Attic; Known: Memory is Malleable.” Loftus makes the point that Woody Allen's family battle as played out in the press is a reminder of recall's fallibility.
She goes on to state:
"Memory, of course, is at the heart of the Dylan-Woody matter, since there apparently were no witnesses nor any other form of corroboration to support Farrow's allegations that Allen told her to lie on her stomach in that attic and to play with an electric train set while he assaulted her. Without corroboration, it is virtually impossible to know whether we are dealing with a true memory or a product of imagination, inference or some other process. I've learned this through many decades of scientific research in which my scientific collaborators and I have changed people's memories of their past (author’s italics)."
Allen maintains that Farrow, an accomplished actress, taught Dylan to memorize falsehoods and claim them as her own. Farrow was such an extraordinary acting coach that she got Dylan to accept false memories, not unlike Loftus did in her experiments. In the documentary, Farrow fired questions at a nude Dylan as she sat on a bed. The length of the period of questioning seemed substantial and may have gone on for several days. Without conclusive evidence, the filmmakers and Farrow testify that a crime took place in the attic of the vacation home. In fact, a Yale Hospital study and the New York Department of Child Welfare found no evidence of abuse.
The central focus is always on Allen’s illicit behavior. But there was no trial pursuing charges against Allen so the allegations just hang out there like dirty laundry flapping in the wind. Anything that shows his innocence is denigrated. Anything that supports Dylan’s and Mia’s claims goes unexamined for context and plain veracity. For example, the Yale Hospital Child Abuse Department examined Dylan and interviewed her four times. But Mia’s experts declared that interviewing a child four times is too many and does not lead to an accurate conclusion.
The New York child welfare department cleared Allen of abuse. But the documentary claims the clearance was forced by higher ups in New York state government. Also included in the film is Allen’s New York family court request for custody of Dylan and Moses. The documentary casts Allen as falling on his face and having his custody case denied which ironically refutes their big-man power law theory.
In the documentary, Farrow said that he (Allen) wanted a little blond girl. So allegedly, Allen ordered a child as one would order a doll out of a catalogue and Mia claimed this in public which makes Allen appear as wanting a blond-girl sexual toy. But at the time, Farrow was not alarmed.
The abuse allocations were released only after Allen was in a romantic relationship with Soon Yi Previn, Farrow’s daughter adopted with her husband Andre Previn. The timing of the allegations lends credence to Allen’s claim that the sordid pleas was Mia’s revenge for Allen’s affair with Soon Yi.
The directors showed their hand early on by stating their agenda concerning “Powerful men”. But all it seems to do is consistently contradict itself. It is Allen who comes across as the powerless one, in this celebrity struggle. In the real world, well-known actors and actresses appear to be elbowing their way to the front of the line to signal their virtue by resolutely stating, “I believe you, Dylan”. Also, many who have worked with Allen claim to have donated their acting fee to a relevant cause. As for the documentarians themselves, well, so much for the unobtrusive “fly on the wall” approach to documenting events.
The film seems designed to crush Allen’s position on the alleged event. But after seeing the documentary and subsequently reading interviews with Ziering and Dick, one gets a sense of the two filmmakers trying to secure seats at the “#MeToo movement” popular table. In many of the interviews they defend themselves against accusations of one-sidedness; but by pontificating with the gravitas of those on a righteous crusade, their whole premise of taking on powerful men begins feeling more like agitprop. Sadly, helping to corrupt an otherwise important movement.
Maybe one day a truly brave documentarian will take on the case in a more even-handed and nuanced manner. “Brave” because in today’s climate, being even-handed and nuanced takes bravery. But I fear that a nuanced approach would fail to gain the kind of attention that this salacious approach did to attract HBO. Johnathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, stated in 1710, … “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it….”