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The producers of Roman Polanski’s latest film, An Officer and a Spy, threatened to pull the movie before its world premiere Friday at the Venice International Film Festival in outrage over comments by Venice jury president Lucrezia Martel in which she appeared to criticize the polemical director.
On Wednesday, in her opening press conference as jury president, Martel, an Argentine director, said she supported the decision to include Polanski’s film in competition at Venice but did not buy the argument, presented by the festival and Polanski supporters, that the films of the Oscar-winning helmer should be judged apart from discussion of his arrest in 1977 for drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl.
”I do not divide the artists from their works of art. I think that important aspects about the work of art emerge from the man,” Martel said. She added she would watch An Officer and a Spy but would not attend the film’s gala on Friday night, as she did not want to “congratulate” Polanski or offend victims of sexual assault. A dinner planned by the film’s producers celebrating Polanski is planned after its red carpet premiere.
Luca Barbareschi, an Italian producer on An Officer and a Spy, took offense at Martel’s remarks and threatened to pull the film from the festival unless she “apologized.” In response, on Thursday, Martel issued a statement clarifying her comments, noting that in some media reports, “my words were deeply misunderstood.” Some Spanish and Italian reports falsely claimed that she would not view the film at all. In her statement, Martel reiterated that she does not separate the work from the author but she believes it is right that Polanski’s film is in competition.
As Martel explained at the presser, she has “recognized a lot of humanity in Polanski’s previous films.” Furthermore, she added it’s important to include Polanski in competition because “this is the best possible place to go deep on this type of discussion,” saying it’s important for festivals to pose these types of questions.
In her statement, Martel said she would treat An Officer and a Spy like any other film in competition. “If I had any prejudice [toward the film], I would have resigned my duty as the president of the jury.”
Calling Martel’s clarification an “apology,” the film’s producers on Thursday announced that An Officer and a Spy would stay in competition. The film will premiere Friday.
An Officer and a Spy tells the story of the notorious anti-semitic Dreyfus Affair in France in 1894, when a Jewish French officer was wrongfully convicted of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Polanski himself, who remains a fugitive from U.S. justice, will not travel to Venice for the film’s premiere. But the director did give a remarkably candid interview for the film’s press notes.
Talking to controversial French writer Pascal Bruckner — author of the novel Bitter Moon, which Polanski adapted for the screen in 1992 — the 86-year-old filmmaker discussed his sense of “persecution” by the press, his motivation for making An Officer and a Spy and his experience in the #MeToo era.
After his arrest in 1977, Polanski pled guilty to the lesser offense of unlawful sex with a minor and served 42 days behind bars. Before his final sentencing, however, he fled the country, having learned that a judge planned to give him a long jail sentence. Polanski has remained a fugitive from the U.S. ever since. His victim, Samantha Geimer, has subsequently said publicly she has forgiven Polanski and has asked for the case to be dropped.
The #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, which shone a light on widespread sexual harassment in the film industry, reignited interest in the Polanski case and led to the filmmaker being expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences last year.
Bruckner has clearly picked a side in the debate. At one point in the interview, he asks Polanski: “As a Jew who was hunted during the war and a filmmaker persecuted by the Stalinists in Poland, will you survive the present-day neo-feminist McCarthyism which, as well as chasing you all over the world and trying to prevent the screening of your films, among other vexations got you expelled from the Oscars Academy?”
Polanski responds: “Working, making a film like this helps me a lot. In the story, I sometimes find moments I have experienced myself, I can see the same determination to deny the facts and condemn me for things I have not done. Most of the people who harass me do not know me and know nothing about the case. …. I must admit that I am familiar with many of the workings of the apparatus of persecution shown in the film, and that has clearly inspired me.”
In the interview, Polanski calls the Dreyfus affair “an exceptional story” that had a current edge, given the “upsurge in anti-Semitism.” He notes that a similar case could happen today: “All the ingredients are there for it to happen: false accusations, lousy court proceedings, corrupt judges, and above all ‘social media’ that convict and condemn without a fair trial or a right of appeal.”
When speaking of his own “persecution,” Polanski goes back to how the media handled the brutal murder of his wife, actress Sharon Tate, by the Manson Family in 1969: “The way people see me, my ‘image,’ did indeed start to form with Sharon Tate’s death. When it happened, even though I was already going through a terrible time, the press got hold of the tragedy and, unsure of how to deal with it, covered it in the most despicable way, implying, among other things, that I was one of the people responsible for her murder, against a background of satanism. For them, my film Rosemary’s Baby proved that I was in league with the devil! It lasted several months, until the police finally found the real killers, Charles Manson and his ‘family.’
“All this still haunts me today. Anything and everything. It is like a snowball, each season adds another layer. Absurd stories by women I have never seen before in my life who accuse me of things which supposedly happened more than half a century ago.”
Fighting back against this press image, Polanski noted, would be “like tilting at windmills.”
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