The Seattle International Film Festival just opened last night (May 19th) with its annual gala, nominally a bit of a star-studded event featuring a populist North American Premiere. In 2015, SIFF premiered Spy, pulling in director Paul Feig to present the film. In 2014, Jimi: All Is By My Side was introduced by John Ridley. In 2013, Joss Whedon, Alexis Denishof, Amy Acker, and Clark Gregg opened the festival with their latest collaboration, Much Ado About Nothing. Well, you get the picture…
This year, SIFF scored a new sponsor, Amazon Studios. As a refresher course, Amazon is based out of Seattle (giving the sponsor hometown connections) and just released their first film, Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, back in December. Since then, they have been aggressive in their productions, acquisitions and releases, picking up many films from independent filmmakers and modern auteurs alike, including Nicholas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon and Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By The Sea.
Along with their sponsorship, Amazon Studios is showing at least 3 of their films at SIFF: Todd Solondz’ Weiner-Dog (premiered at Sundance), Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship (already in release in some parts of the US), and the opening night film, Woody Allen’s Cafe Society (premiered at Cannes earlier this month). And, it is that opening night film that has stirred a controversy that was dealt with in a way that felt Oh So Seattle.
When SIFF announced that they were opening with a Woody Allen film, the city’s reaction was a mixed “Ho Hum.” It seemed that the collective consciousness had decided that Woody Allen was a commercially controversial decision, intended to provoke outrage as a way to get people to go to the premiere. The modern figure of Woody Allen is just populist enough to snag people from outside the film society, just controversial enough to provoke click-bait articles, auteur enough to not alienate their core base, and talented enough to be somewhat defensible. For the most part, I hadn’t seen much being written about Woody Allen nor SIFF’s choosing his film as their opening salvo.
That changed on Tuesday, when Nicole Brodeur wrote the Seattle Times article, “Why Siff should not be celebrating Woody Allen’s Cafe Society.” In the article, Nicole writes about Dylan Farrow’s renewed molestation allegations, and the media response to those allegations. Brodeur isn’t the first to find renewed energy in dealing with Allen’s private life and how they relate to his filmography. The renewed consciousness of Allen’s past seemed to be generated by a May 11th article in The Hollywood Reporter by Allen’s son, Ronan Farrow to coincide with the Cannes premiere. In the article, Ronan writes:
Tonight, the Cannes Film Festival kicks off with a new Woody Allen film. There will be press conferences and a red-carpet walk by my father and his wife (my sister). He’ll have his stars at his side — Kristen Stewart, Blake Lively, Steve Carell, Jesse Eisenberg. They can trust that the press won’t ask them the tough questions. It’s not the time, it’s not the place, it’s just not done.
That kind of silence isn’t just wrong. It’s dangerous. It sends a message to victims that it’s not worth the anguish of coming forward. It sends a message about who we are as a society, what we’ll overlook, who we’ll ignore, who matters and who doesn’t.
Since then, Matt Zoller Seitz has written I Believe Dylan Farrow, and Alyssa Rosenberg wrote No Woody Allen Boycotts; We Need to Confront The Passes We Used to Give Him. In it, both film critics have written about believing Dylan Farrow’s story, and what to do with that information that an artist they revered is now also defined as a child rapist. How does that change their relation to Allen, and how they deal with that information and his continued releases. In a way, they’re wrestling with Allen in a way that film critics wrestled with Roman Polanski a decade earlier.
Brodeur’s piece was much more hard line than either Seitz or Rosenberg, and she kicked off a chain of events, culminating in a live broadcast about Rape Culture starting at 4pm. In Brodeur’s piece, she talked to Reel Grrrls, an after school program aimed at girls and students of non-conforming genders, about constructing a forum for people to come together and talk about their feelings towards the rape allegations, and what it means for how patrons should consume media with a conscience. Today, Reel Grrls’ Executive Director wrote an open letter about the insensitivity of choosing Woody Allen as the opening piece, tying it in to the diversity problem in Hollywood. This launched into a 4pm broadcast from the Northwest Film Forum about gender and rape culture, with the Twitter Hashtag #WhoAreWeCelebrating
SIFF’s main response to the controversy seems to lie in Brodeur’s article:
“SIFF has always approached the art and experience of cinema on each film’s own terms,” [SIFF Representative Sara] Huey said. “Our job is not to take on political, social, or others’ personal issues. Rather, it is up to audiences to decide what they want to see and to form their own opinions.”
Which brings us back to the main question I have: why Cafe Society? Woody Allen and all of the actors and actresses were probably still at Cannes (which runs through Sunday). All of the talent in the pre-show had nothing to do with the actual film. Why was this film chosen as an opening night film for SIFF? I think Amazon Studios may certainly be part of that decision. Despite their being relatively low on the sponsor list, they were an obvious sponsor of tonight’s gala (their logo was posted as part of changing screens at the party), they are local (Amazon offices are mere blocks away from multiple venues), and they are new to the party.
But, I think there is a bit to be said about my earlier speculation for being “just controversial enough.” Events create controversy, which turn into articles (think pieces like this article), the proliferation of which creates awareness about the festival and about the film itself. In effect, being “just controversial enough” creates its own advertisement just by mere existence, to which this article is, in its own small way, further contributing (See also: local alt weekly’s The Stranger‘s reposting of Reel Grrls’ open letter). The articles listed above (including the Hollywood Reporter puff piece that provoked Ronan’s response) do the job of informing that Woody Allen has a new film, even as they’re dealing with the renewed awareness of Allen’s child molestation allegations.
How best to approach that type of double edged sword? This is a situation where not talking about it can give a tacit free pass for criminal behavior but talking about it can also serve as an advertisement for the product. I haven’t figured that out yet.
Ed’s Note: I wrote this in an attempt at creating an open dialogue. Not all language used above is perfect. i apologize for any mistakes made in the attempt.