Is "Allen v. Farrow" As Groundbreaking As It Wants To Be?

It's credible and well-argued—but it's missing something important

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Stacy Lee Kong

Feb 26 2021

10 mins read

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Content warning: This newsletter contains references to physical abuse, sexual abuse and pedophilia.

 

Everything reviewers are saying about Allen v. Farrow, the HBO docuseries that’s delving into the decades-old allegations of child sexual abuse against director Woody Allen by his daughter, Dylan Farrow, is true. It is “effective,” “exhaustive” and “damning.” It’s definitely a counterpoint to literal decades of Allen’s PR spin. And yes, it probably doessound the death knell” for Allen’s career, such as it is in 2021.

  

But while people keep saying that the four-episode series from documentarians Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering introduces new information about the 29-year-old case, that’s not strictly true. Based on what I've seen so far (the first episode dropped on Sunday) and the reviews I've read, I think it’s more accurate to say it corroborates what we’ve already heard from Dylan in her 2014 open letter in Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times blog, 2017 op-ed for the Los Angeles Times and 2018 TV interview with Gayle King.

 

Don’t get me wrong—that’s very important. Until her NYT open letter, which she wrote in response to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association awarding Allen a lifetime achievement award at that year’s Golden Globes, most of the public’s understanding of this case came from media reports that often framed it as a salacious family drama. (The director, who has always denied these allegations, has claimed for decades that Dylan's mother, his then-partner Mia Farrow, coached her to say he’d assaulted her in retaliation for his sexual relationship with another of Mia's daughters, his now-wife Soon-Yi Previn.) And that made it possible for Allen to continue on pretty much as normal, even though this case was exhaustively covered at the time. He continued making movies that garnered critical acclaim and commercial success, actors uncritically continued working with him and, as evidenced by the Golden Globe award, he continued to receive professional accolades.

It’s only when Dylan began speaking out, telling the world—and, pointedly, Hollywood—what was done to her that the narrative began to shift. Dylan’s bravery, combined with a PR push from the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, finally thrust his career into “freefall,” as the Independent puts it. “Top-tier actors and Hollywood elite distanced themselves... His 2020 memoir, Apropos of Nothing, was dropped by its [first] publisher. [And he] has been blacklisted by Hollywood.”

 

But the series firmly pulls this story back into family drama territory. Even though its meant to highlight Dylan’s perspective—which it does, to some extent—it’s framed around the battle between Allen and Mia, which not only feels regressive but also undermines its own argument.

 

Dylan Farrow is the most compelling part of Allen v. Farrow


Allen v. Farrow is at its strongest when it allows Dylan to detail what she remembers of her father’s behaviour, and validates those memories with testimony from her siblings, other relatives and family friends. Dylan remembers Allen cuddling with her in his bed, both dressed only in their underwear, him “intimately” wrapping his body around hers. Once, he “directed” her on how to suck his thumb, including "telling [her] what to do with [her] tongue.” His attention was so constant and stifling that Dylan remembers feeling “hunted” whenever they were in the same room.

 

But while this information hasn’t been compiled into one cohesive package before—and the public definitely never heard Dylan say it in such an unflinching, even matter-of-fact manner—most of it is not new. Even though some evidence hadn't been publicly accessible before, like a videotape of Dylan explaining to her mother that her father touched her “privates,” or audio of conversations between Mia and Allen, they had been submitted to the court during the former couple’s 1993 custody battle, which meant people knew about them.

 

To be fair, the tape was controversial—Allen maintains that it proves Mia coerced Dylan into accusing him of sexual assault. Since the public hadn't actually seen it, it was easier for some people to believe him. Dick and Ziering address that claim by bringing in three child psychologists who hadn’t treated or assessed Dylan and they all “attest[ed] to its consistency with their experience with children reporting sexual abuse,” according to the Guardian.

 

The information isn’t new, but the sense that it has been definitively confirmed is

 

Clearly, it’s the corroboration that makes the series so powerful. Priscilla Gilman, a Farrow family friend, confirmed seeing Allen cuddling Dylan, both in their underwear. She also saw Dylan suck Allen’s thumb (she says he told her it was meant to “soothe” Dylan) and remembers Dylan asking to be hidden whenever Allen arrived at the Farrow home.

Family members and long-time friends described seeing a change in Dylan; where once she was “effervescent” and “outgoing,” she became withdrawn. Eventually, she began seeing a therapist, who she told she had a "secret." Allen also began seeing a psychologist who, according to Mia, told him he was being "inappropriately intense" with Dylan, but that it "wasn't sexual"—though other people, and even Dylan herself, may have interpreted it that way. (Which… what?!)

 

And those independent experts, as well as interviews with Connecticut prosecutor Frank Maco, go a long way toward disproving Allen’s claims, both about the video and his go-to defense: a six-month criminal investigation by the Child Sexual Abuse Clinic of Yale-New Haven Hospital, which in 1993 concluded that Dylan had not been sexually assaulted. As The Cut explains, “under the leadership of clinic director Dr. John Levanthal, social workers Dr. Julia Hamilton and Jennifer Sawyer interviewed Dylan nine times about her experience with Allen in the attic—a number the documentary’s three independent experts in child psychology consider ludicrously high. Upon reviewing the report, all of them… found her description of events to be consistent and credible.

 

“Unfortunately, the clinic destroyed the social workers’ notes on the interviews instead of turning them over to investigators—a practice that the documentary’s experts uniformly described as tantamount to destroying evidence.” It's difficult to believe any credible institution would destroy evidence in a child sex assault case, so forgive me for wondering but, what the hell was going on there??

 

It’s what gets left out that’s the problem

 

Allen v. Farrow is just the latest in a long line of pop culture documentaries that seek to reframe what we thought we knew about particular celebrities. Leaving Neverland, Surviving R. Kelly, Framing Britney Spears and On the Record, Dick and Ziering’s 2020 documentary about the sexual assault allegations against hip-hop icon Russell Simmons, have a similar purpose: to excavate past coverage of these celebrities, re-evaluate what we know about them and, as CNN argues, “mete out what some may say is long overdue justice.”

  

I’m very here for “consequence culture” and I unequivocally believe Dylan, so I'm obviously not at all worried about Allen getting unfairly cancelled. But, I do think viewers need to remember that documentaries and docuseries are basically video op-eds. Directors make decisions about perspective, flow, what to include and what to skip—and sometimes those decisions can undermine the argument they’re to make, or muddy the narrative entirely, even as viewers hold it up as "truth."

Take Framing Britney Spears. The 75-minute movie could never have told the whole of Spears’ story, but what it missed feels important; it barely touched on Kevin Federline or explained how Spears, who it argues is living a tightly controlled life, meets her boyfriends—or even flicks at the implications of that question. As Dazed points out, “the major players [in Spears’ conservatorship], characters like Larry Rudolph, Britney's career-long manager, or Andrew Wallet, the lawyer who described the conservatorship as a ‘hybrid-business model’, are brought up only in passing. Lou Taylor, the highly litigious CEO of TriStar Entertainment who was instrumental in helping Jamie Spears put the conservatorship in place to begin with, is not mentioned at all.” And it gave uncritical airtime to the founders of the Free Britney movement, which claims the star is sending her fans coded messages through her Instagram posts. As a result of these decisions, viewers who weren't familiar with Spears' situation before come away with a superficial understanding on her background and current circumstances.

 

And something similar happens with Allen v. Farrow.

 

While most of the Farrow children appear in the series—and confirm Dylan’s story—her sister Soon-Yi and brother Moses are conspicuously absent. They (alongside Allen) declined Dick and Ziering’s interview requests, though they’ve both spoken out against Mia in the past, Soon-Yi in a 2018 New York magazine profile written by Daphne Merkin, a loyal friend of Allen’s, and Moses in a heart wrenching blog post that same year. But while the first episode couldn’t include their current feelings, it should have referenced their previous statements. They say their mother was the abusive one, neglecting her adopted children for her biological ones, manipulating, intimidating and physically abusing them, once even throwing a porcelain centrepiece at Soon-Yi and beating her with a telephone receiver. That’s a stark contrast to the childhood Dylan and Ronan describe as happy, close and “idyllic” in the series—and it ends up casting a shadow over the entire thing.

 

It didn't have to be this way, though

 

Which is unfortunate, because it's actually deeply reported; Dick and Ziering have not only spoken extensively about their investigative process, they’re also known for scrupulously fact-checking their projects. (In addition to On The Record, their previous projects include The Hunting Ground, about sexual assault on college campuses, and The Invisible War, about sexual assault in the U.S. military.) But relying so heavily on the Farrows and declining to even mention Soon-Yi and Moses’ abuse allegations make it feel like that’s not the case—which opens the door for Allen’s supporters to argue it’s biased.

 

Worse, it didn’t need to be that way. None of what Soon-Yi or Moses have said about Mia in the past actually impacts the series’ central argument—that regardless of what anyone thinks of Mia's character, the evidence, including Dylan's unwavering story, overwhelmingly indicates Allen did molest Dylan.

It’s clear that the filmmakers were trying to end any debate about Dylan’s accusations, and I hope that the next three episodes will be nuanced and comprehensive—and delve into how his whiteness, maleness and "genius" has protected him for three decades. But not including key contextual information in the first episode, not to mention making the decision to frame the series around her parents’ acrimony, does a disservice to both Dylan and the series as a whole.

If you believed her before, which makes sense because she's always been credible, you'll still believe Dylan. But if you were unconvinced, I don't think Allen v. Farrow will be the thing that changes your mind, because you've heard all of this before and didn't matter. And that's the latest tragedy of this case.

And Did You Hear About…

 

The smart and thoughtful essays Mara Wilson and Tavi Gevinson wrote this week about Britney Spears—and how much control young women in the public eye really have.

 

Reply All’s decision not to release the last two issues of The Test Kitchen.

 

The L.A. Times’ investigation into corruption at the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, including the organization’s admission that it has zero Black voters, and allegations that the network behind Emily in Paris invited HFPA members on a luxe Parisian vacation. (Maybe those two Golden Globe nominations aren’t so shocking after all…)

 

The internet’s newfound obsession with WandaVision actor Kathryn Hahn. There have been a lot of appreciation posts.

 

Vox’s empathetic profile of costumed performers in Times Square, and how they’re doing during the pandemic.

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Woody Allen
Mia Farrow
Dylan Farrow