Adéle Haenel and wrestling with guilt…mine, and Polanski’s

adeleAlongside Al, who built Esoteric Fish in the first place, and everyone who has contributed over the years, I have worked hard to keep the tone of this place fun. Most definitely esoteric, but always fun. When we have looked critically upon a film, show or game I like to think we have never indulged in piling abuse for the sake of entertainment. Obviously the luxury we have had on this platform  is that – beholden to none but ourselves – we get to talk about literally anything we want. In light of all of that, what follows will likely seem an odd contribution, but it is a subject that hits very close to home for me. I have recently been challenged about whether my silence on certain controversial topics is wisely not becoming involved in pointless debate, or complacency that belies my personal convictions. This may be a little raw folks, but I pray it will make you reflect a little.

I like movies. I am reasonably certain that is not a surprising revelation.

In another life I may well have become a cinephile. In this one I have to admit that I do not have the time to devote to the devouring of film from around the world in all their many and varied forms. Neither am I particularly motivated to keep abreast of the full scope of industry news. You can be sure I won’t miss the next piece that drops about a superhero film, and there are certain directors whose careers I actively follow…along with Keanu Reeves. That guy is the best.
But do you know how many organisations and societies and guilds exist to govern and champion film? More than a couple, and they have awards ceremonies all the time. Not being a cinephile, I was unaware that perhaps the most prestigious awards ceremony next to the Oscars was held last Friday: the César Awards, from France. As a sign of how little I am invested, today is the first I have heard any news about it at all. It is what I have heard that has me rattled, and moved enough to finally say something.

The articles commenting on the awards ceremony are all focused on one particular occurrence – the award for Best Director, which went to Roman Polanski.

Upon the announcement, Céline Sciamma and Adèle Haenel – director and star of French film Portrait of a Lady on Fire – promptly walked out of the ceremony.

Any true cinephile reading this will already know more than myself about the whole situation. I imagine quite a few of you understand well enough what was going on. For those of you trying to figure out what the big deal is, I will try to keep it brief…and tasteful.

Roman Polanski is a filmmaker. He has been directing movies since 1955, and a lot of people like them. His personal story is a terribly heart-wrenching series of tragedies. Of Polish-Jewish heritage, Polanski’s mother was murdered at Auschwitz, while he barely survived a brutal assault. Though he was building a promising career in Hollywood, he became most well-known to the public when his second wife, actress Sharon Tate, was murdered by members of the Charles Manson “Family”. Truly, life was turmoil for the younger Polanksi.
But then in 1977 Polanski was arrested and charged with sexual crimes against a 13 year old girl, whom he was directing in a photo shoot. While initially offered a plea deal that would not include prison time, Polanski learned that the judge planned to alter the sentence, and subsequently the director fled the country, and has remained out of reach of United States criminal authorities ever since.

Many…so tragically, very many actors, producers, directors and fans of film around the world have supported Polanski in his “exile”. When pressed for their opinion on the crimes of which he was accused, the response always seems to boil down to this: they were not that big a deal; Roman Polanski is too important to Film to allow him to face the courts.

There is more, so much more to all of this, and I confess I am only familiar with a fraction of it all. I became aware of this whole story through a documentary I watched some years ago, in which Polanski’s victim agreed to appear, hopefully for the final time. Her sentiment about the whole situation was brief and simple: there was never any hope of justice for her, she had to make herself okay in living her life without it; she had achieved that with her family, and no longer wanted to be dragged into the midst of this decades long debate, which ultimately reduced her to a piece of evidence in the eyes of the world. It is out of respect for her desire to move on that I won’t name her, or any of the details about her life.

She has made a choice to move on and leave it behind. I applaud her for making that choice for herself.

Of course, that does not resolve the issue in the minds of people around the world. U.S. authorities hold simply that he confessed to a crime, then ran from the lawful consequences, and he should always be held to account for that. Supporters have used various excuses over the years from essentially blaming the victim for what happened, accusing her of deceit – lying about the event, and then lying about her age – to suggesting that now, after decades, the whole case should just be dropped and the world should leave the poor old man in peace.

The political atmosphere surrounding the César Awards is far more dense and complex than the life story of Roman Polanski. This has taken place in a world in which the ground has begun to shift, and many victims of abuse are finally feeling empowered to share their stories in the hope of seeing not just justice, but change. The César’s are facing issues of discrimination against minorities as well, and while as a follower of Jesus I quite strongly hold to the conviction that all are equally created and cherished by God, and deserve equal treatment and opportunity from one another, I have not very often weighed in on these issues on social media.

Perhaps this is the start of a change within myself.

Actress Adèle Haenel, as I have come to understand, is herself the survivor of sexual assault. As I am becoming increasingly and painfully aware, she was abused by a director – an older white man with authority and intimidation who never faced consequences for his actions.
I am delighted that Haenel has felt that she can make a bold statement as she did at the ceremony, and that much of the coverage has focused on her, the movement of which she is a part, and is forcing people to come to grips with these issues.

Shortly after first watching that documentary and learning of the Polanski story, I had a conversation with a friend who works in film, and is far more well read and understanding of the world stage than I am. The conversation drifted into the territory of “separating the art from the artist”, and I carelessly suggested that I saw why this could be a difficult issue for people. After all, I think Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown are magnificent films, and I don’t want to deny myself the enjoyment of watching them on the basis of one man’s missteps.

My friend’s reply was simple. One word.


He did not berate me, or abuse me for not conforming to his worldview. He simply challenged my assumption that my own view was self-evident, and that I was excused from having an opinion about the injustice at the heart of this because I was removed from the whole situation. He revealed to me in that conversation that he had chosen to never watch one of the man’s films because of his history. He would not put this on anybody else, and he wasn’t judging me for having watched them. This was, in his own way, like Haenel’s walkout. Drawing a line in the sand at which people would be forced to confront the ugliness that they desperately don’t want to think about.

My own attitude still took some time to change, and it did not do so until I myself faced the reality of consequence of my poor choices. The circumstances I was in was very different, as were the consequences I faced, but what was exactly the same was that I had caused harm to someone that I should have been protecting. I was arrested, and charged, and subsequently had to face the dismantling of my entire life, because what I had done would directly impact people’s ability to trust me – an essential part of my vocation at that time.
A marked difference in people’s responses to Polanski and myself? From day one, I was surrounded with people willing to stay with me while I went through what I had to go through, and support while I worked to become mentally and spiritually healthy.

The difference between Polanski and me? I was guilty, and I didn’t run from it.

I am most certainly not saying that I deserve any accolades for that. No, indeed, I committed a crime and hurt someone badly, and I deserved whatever sentence the magistrate chose to declare. Moreso, I deserved to be abandoned by the people I had hurt and betrayed, and nothing I have ever done or could ever do excuses or erases my crime.

Bu I didn’t run. I owned it; I faced it; I served my time, and have sought to get on with my life. Four years on and in some ways I am still picking up the pieces.

This is what draws me into the whole story with Polanski, and this is what I have such a hard time seeing now. It is a perverse inversion of true justice that goes on in my head, because I am not angered as much by the harm inflicted on others as I am the fact that he has never faced the consequences of that…and I DID! This is why I am still an imperfect and selfish person, that I cling to this as a great injustice. I did the “right thing” under the circumstances, and still my life will never be the same. Yet, upon running from rightfully facing what he has done, Polanski – and dozens, HUNDREDS more like him – have gone on making movies and being beloved by their people.
I do, however, want to be a better man. I am trying to be a better man.

More and more my anger is rising at the stories of those who are survivors. My anger is for them, though I feel it is an impotent anger, because what can I possibly do to help? Do I even have a right, given my own history? That’s another trap I cannot allow myself to fall into – that my self-loathing keeps me from siding against injustice.
It is fitting that my friend who earlier challenged my complacency about these issues works in Sound. His entire job is to ensure that people hear what they must hear, when they see a work of film or television. In this, he helped me not just to hear what I needed to hear, but also to understand that I must at the same time say what must be said. We all have voices, and just because we might feel alone or isolated or even powerless does not excuse us from saying what is right. When I tore my own world apart he was there for me and helped me to see that I still have a voice.

The best thing I can do now, especially given my history, is to give voice to those who are still waiting to be heard – and until I can do that, I can echo the voices of those who are saying what needs to be said. I have no right to a platform, but if I can help propel a good message out to one more person, then it is worth something.

So, Ms. Haenel, I do not know you, and I can’t pretend to understand what you have been through, but bravo. You have been heard.

How else can I help?



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