#MeToo on screen: How documentaries like Athlete A, Leaving Neverland have foregrounded survivors' narratives

The #MeToo and Time's Up movements sparked a paradigm shift, bringing some hope to the stories of survivors. In this two-part series, we look at documentary and fiction films which foregrounded the narratives of survivors while raising questions about the pervasive complicity machines that protected the Weinsteins of the world.

Prahlad Srihari August 04, 2020 17:44:44 IST
#MeToo on screen: How documentaries like Athlete A, Leaving Neverland have foregrounded survivors' narratives

It's been nearly three years since the Pandora's box opened on Harvey Weinstein, and his downfall fuelled a worldwide reckoning on sexual violence against women. The #MeToo and Time's Up movements sparked a paradigm shift, bringing some hope to the stories of survivors. In this two-part series, we look at documentary and fiction films which foregrounded the narratives of survivors while raising questions about the pervasive complicity machines that protected the Weinsteins of the world.

In part 1: From Bombshell to The Assistant, Hollywood's fictional examinations of the #MeToo movement

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In December 2017, a couple of months after the Weinstein scandal, Drew Dixon buys a copy of the New York Times at a Brooklyn coffee shop. Right on the front page is her story of surviving sexual assault — "Three Allege Music Mogul Raped Them" — and the black-and-white photo of the man responsible for it. She breaks down in tears but for the first time, it feels like she has finally reclaimed her narrative — a narrative that, for two decades, was buried. We see this moment two-thirds into On The Record, Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering's recent documentary on the sexual assault allegations against music mogul Russell Simmons. In their 2015 documentary The Hunting Ground, Dick and Ziering brought to light the culture of sexual assault on American college campuses. Now, they take aim at another institution which allowed sexual violence to reach epidemic proportions.

#MeToo is after all an intersectional, intergenerational and international movement — and 2017 was a watershed year for many survivors of sexual violence.

If fiction filmmakers craft a narrative into a convincing representation of reality, documentary filmmakers work the opposite way: they craft reality into a compelling narrative. Recognising the documentary's social currency in these times, Athlete A directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk don't just build a powerful narrative around the Larry Nassar scandal, but take into account the system, the gatekeepers, the power dynamics and all the factors that played a part in the decades-long cover-up. It then attempts to decipher the mechanisms that allowed the USA Gymnastics (USAG) doctor to enjoy impunity for decades, before finally being sentenced to 60 years in prison in 2017.

The first complaint against Nassar was made two decades earlier in 1997. By the time he stood trial, 125 survivors came forward to testify and over 500 girls and women accused him of sexual abuse. Their testimonies reveal how their Olympic dream became a nightmare, how a competitive culture turned into an exploitative one. The young gymnasts were trained in controlled conditions at the Karolyi Ranch in Texas. Cut off from the rest of the world (away from their parents and phones), they were at the mercy of their coaches, Béla and Márta Károlyi. Notorious for their militaristic methods meant to harden and push these athletes to the limits, the Károlyis fostered a 'win-at-all-costs' ethos to build their assembly line of little Nadia Comănecis.

MeToo on screen How documentaries like Athlete A Leaving Neverland have foregrounded survivors narratives

Still from Athlete A

In these trying conditions, the gymnasts began to see Nassar as their only friend, the sole adult figure who treated them kindly and offered emotional support. Jamie Dantzscher, one of the gymnasts, even describes him as “the only nice adult”. Nassar used his sweet-talk to build a relationship of trust, taking advantage of the isolation and vulnerabilities of his young charges. Speaking out meant their Olympic dreams — what they had toiled and suffered for — were under threat. We see this in the case of Olympic hopeful Maggie Nicols, who informed USAG about Nassar only for USAG president Steve Penny to bury the report and deny her dream. This was hardly a one-off; the  Indianapolis Star's investigation revealed that USAG had repeatedly suppressed complaints of systemic abuse.

Surviving R Kelly offers insight into another notorious serial predator’s MO. The R&B musician targeted young women (often minors) during concerts, promised to help them with their music careers, gradually separated them from their families, before brainwashing them to be a part of his harem. In six episodes, we hear accounts of decades of abuse in a chronological manner. Testimonies are collected from survivors, family members, former producers and peers. But Nigel Bellis and Astral Finnie also bring in activists like #MeToo founder Tarana Burke (who highlights how women of colour are at a higher risk of being abused and silenced), music critics like Ann Powers (who gives us a history of how sexual predation in popular music is not a fresh epidemic), clinical psychologists (who offer insight into the physical and psychological effects of abuse), and culture writers (who expose the framework that allows powerful men to victimise young women).

In its deep dive into the sexual assault allegations against Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons, On The Record goes one step further to put the myth of the “sexually aggressive Black man” on trial. Here, Civil rights advocate Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw and music journalist Kierna Mayo provide a larger social context. They describe the Black community's reluctance to ruin the reputation of a powerful and beloved symbol of their culture out of some misplaced sense of solidarity — even if it comes at the cost of their girls and women's well-being. "For 22 years, I took it for the team. Russell Simmons is the king of hip-hop, and I was proud of him for that," Dixon, a former music executive who accused Simmons of rape, says in the documentary. "I didn't want to let the culture down."

MeToo on screen How documentaries like Athlete A Leaving Neverland have foregrounded survivors narratives

Still from On The Record

Leaving Neverland deconstructs the mythology and paints a true picture of another beloved Black icon: Michael Jackson. Dan Reed gives the floor to two men who accuse Jackson of sexually abusing them as boys. Wade Robson suffered two nervous breakdowns, before he decided to break his silence to help other survivors. James Safechuck confesses, as a child, he was even ready to marry Jackson in a mock wedding, and still suffers from PTSD. They talk about their first meeting with Jackson, the pivotal moment the singer allegedly introduced them to masturbation before progressing to blowjobs and other sex acts while staying at his home, the Neverland Ranch. Jackson even had an emotional and financial grip on their families, who also offer testimonies in the film. They talk about the fear, shame and eventual cover-up. As the title of the documentary suggests, Robson and Safechuck "leave Neverland", a fantasy world of childish innocence but one seemingly hiding a monster in its shadows. But what they say happened at Neverland never leaves them.

After Robson told his wife Amanda about being sexually abused as a child, she recollects how she asked him if there was any ambiguity in the affection he showed towards his own son. This reflects a commonly held notion that victims of child sexual abuse go on to perpetuate the abuse as adults. Victimisation and perpetration have often been linked to contextualise the abuse in Jackson's case. It is widely believed, as Daniel Engber notes in a Slate article, that Jackson's childish obsessions — from having his own amusement park and petting zoo to inviting boys to slumber parties at his Neverland ranch — were manifestations of his own lost childhood. He was known to have suffered physical and psychological abuse at the hands of his father, Joe Jackson.

Similarly, Surviving R. Kelly also wonders if the answers to the musician's pathology lie in his own abuse as a child by a family member — which he recounts in a 2012 interview. But the science behind abuse being passed down from generation to generation is anything but clear. As Engber states, "Maybe it feels safer to assume that cruelty is predictable, and that something so disturbing as the mistreatment of a child could be circumscribed and contained, drawn into and kept inside a pattern. But the science is filled with too many nuances and caveats to allow such a clear-cut explanation."

MeToo on screen How documentaries like Athlete A Leaving Neverland have foregrounded survivors narratives

Still from Surviving R Kelly

Untouchable, like Athlete A, shadows the work of journalists who brought down Harvey Weinstein. It doesn't really dig deeper to present any major revelations that weren't already known from reading news reports, nor does it shed any new light on the careful and diabolical industry-wide efforts that went into hiding his history of abuse. What it does is it gives voice to the lesser-known survivors (like Hope d'Amore), because Weinstein didn't just prey on the stars.

The #MeToo movement gained momentum only when prominent white celebrities began to share their experiences of sexual harassment. What people forget is before it became a trending hashtag, it was a MySpace page set up 11 years earlier by Tarana Burke, who hoped to provide emotional support to women of colour from marginalised communities at a higher risk of being abused than their white counterparts. Only this didn't attract the attention of mainstream media.

This is why documentaries are so important as a tool of social change. Surviving R Kelly built up a level of cultural cachet, enough to cause real-world ripples. It didn't just stop at raising awareness, but helped mobilise public opinion against Kelly. Then, social media took care of the rest. After decades of screaming into a vacuum, the survivors were finally heard. Six months after the documentary aired, Kelly was arrested and charged on 13 counts of sexual abuse in multiple jurisdictions. Furthermore, the #MuteRKelly movement spurred Sony to drop him from the RCA label, Apple Music and Spotify to remove his music from their platforms, and former collaborators (from Lady Gaga to Chance the Rapper) to publicly denounce him.

MeToo on screen How documentaries like Athlete A Leaving Neverland have foregrounded survivors narratives

Poster for Untouchable

With so many forces trying to obscure and bury the truth, clarity in the testimonies become all the more important to hold the powerful accountable. After having survived a traumatic event, expressing it openly can be a cathartic and empowering act. But when these documentaries go into the lurid details of their ordeal, there's a point where it begins to feel more exploitative than empowering. The emotional fallout is visible as they give their testimonies. Safechuck's hands tremble as he opens a box containing rings and other rewards Jackson reportedly gave him in exchange for sexual favours. Robson suffers from crippling anguish at having been manipulated by someone he trusted, and whom the whole world cherished. Jerhonda Pace was 16, and Lisa Van Allen just 14, when they were abused by Kelly — and as they remember their ordeal, they begin to have crying spells. It is harrowing to hear the testimony of the gymnasts at the Nassar trial. Listen to what Drew Dixon says in On The Record: "That’s one thing about being a victim of sexual abuse: the words are on your mouth. You’re the one that has to disgust the world by telling them what happened to you. So you, then, become associated with this vile, vile act." It also reflects why some survivors refuse to come forward.

Herein also lies the reasoning behind why the gymnasts in Athlete A prefer the term, "survivor", because it reclaims their agency. (Of course, there are those who believe the term "victim" needs to be reclaimed.) In a Harper's Bazaar column, Danielle Campoamor writes: "A rape culture that perpetuates victim-blaming has made the term more of an insult than an accurate identifier that indicates one person has endured a trauma at the hands of another person." Perhaps all this teaches us that there is no singular form, medium or language to discuss the pervasiveness of sexual violence.

If HBO's Paradise Lost inspired the campaign that helped free three innocent young men, documentaries like Surviving R Kelly led to the conviction of a serial predator. If An Inconvenient Truth helped start the conversation about climate change, documentaries like On The Record and Athlete A have helped continue our conversation about the pervasiveness of sexual violence. These documentaries are part of a larger cultural record, and drive the momentum of a movement that has collective implications larger than form, medium and language. Documenting the epidemic is essential but only the first step. Now, it is time to treat the cause, not the symptoms.

— Featured image: Still from Leaving Neverland

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