Cannes: Sexual Harassment Hotline Is Too Little, Too Late (Guest Column)

Sarah Doyle - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of subject

Why film festivals must step up and address the culture of enabling predators.

Cannes is often touted as the world’s most prestigious film festival, a spectacle of the industry at work and play, bringing together both the scions of industry and those desperate to see their first light: the young, the aspiring, the vulnerable. This potent mix has led to a legendary party scene, where countless young women have left irrevocably changed for the worse. Many of the Harvey Weinstein accusers claim their attacks happened at film festivals. Asia Argento at Cannes, Rose McGowan at Sundance, Mira Sorvino at Toronto.

I know what it is like to be a bright-eyed and hopeful 22-year-old in a foreign city trying to “make it.” I had first-hand experience of a predator’s grooming process in 2003 when I moved from Sydney to New York City to intern at New Dramatists, a playwrights’ company. Three weeks later a man named James Toback approached me on the corner of 44th Street and 9th Avenue. He told me he was a director and showed me an article in a newspaper about his film Black and White. He asked if I was an actor, then told me he wanted to put me in his film. I said, “I think you are full of shit and are just trying to have sex with me.” But he said that was how he casts people. He had the perfect role for me, he gave me his card and asked me to call him.

At New Dramatists, I told the other interns and playwrights what had happened, so we Googled him, and sure enough, he was a legit director. Everyone was excited for me. So I called Toback and we met for lunch. Then, he took me to an editing suite, introduced me to his editor and asked me for some creative input on the take of a scene in a film. A day later he bought me a train ticket to Philadelphia for a meeting with a financier. In the hotel room, he told me he needed to get to know me better in order to direct me in the film. Before I knew what was happening, he descended on me. 

It took me 14 years to report the assault to the police, and that was only because 38 women went on record in the Los Angeles Times to accuse Toback of painfully similar offenses. Since that article, at least 395 women have come forward to similarly accuse Toback. [Editors note: Toback, who has earlier denied similar allegations, did not respond to a request for comment.]

Toback was a regular at Cannes. He appeared in 2008 with his documentary Tyson, and was welcomed back as a quirky indie director in 2012 to shoot Seduced and Abandoned with Alec Baldwin, a documentary in which the two buddies have meetings in and around the film festival in efforts to get a lackluster film financed. The finished film opens with a Woody Allen quote, and features some happy hangouts with accused predator Brett Ratner and child rapist Roman Polanski. Toback was also welcomed last year to the Venice Film Festival to premiere his film The Private Life of a Modern Woman, starring Sienna Miller.

This year, several panels planned at Cannes will discuss issues of gender and equality in the industry. Good intentions aside, a panel at a film festival is an echo chamber, because talking about the problem again and again won't solve it. Action is needed. Those responsible for stopping the systemic abuse of women in the film industry are the abusers themselves, those who protect them and the industry bodies that profit.

Recently, Time’s Up hosted a panel at Tribeca, made up of powerful industry women. They included Julianne Moore, who last year spoke publicly about her harassment by Toback, and Miller, who notably failed to condemn Toback since his salacious on-the-record denial to Rolling Stone, during which at one point Toback handed Miller the phone to vouch for his character. (In response to this story, Miller sent a statement via her publicist saying that she "was shocked and deeply saddened to read the allegations against James Toback, who has for years been a family friend and work colleague," and that she stands "in solidarity with the victims of abuse whose voices must be heard and who must have justice.")

I don’t expect women to always agree with one another, but such mixed messaging was not only acutely triggering for Toback’s victims, it discourages other victims from stepping forward. And given that the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office recently dropped five cases against Toback because of the appallingly brief one-year statute of limitations for sexual assault and battery, the motivation and encouragement for women to stand together and hold these men accountable dwindles.

French gender equality minister Marlène Schiappa announced an in-house phone number that has been set up for victims and witnesses of sexual assault during the Cannes Film Festival. There is an accompanying website, and France’s sexual harassment laws have been distributed on fliers. But in reporting sexual assault, the fear of coming forward is huge, weighed down with the baggage of shame and pain.

If my assault had happened at Cannes this year, I doubt I would have called a hotline. There was so much shock in digesting what had happened that the last thing I wanted to do was to immediately tell someone about it. I blocked it out and promptly decided to never tell a soul because it felt so humiliating and so disgusting. I was a street-wise, worldly, educated young woman, and yet I’d been duped.

And if a victim does take the brave step to report sexual assault at Cannes, the onus is then on the French police to investigate the crimes — some of which may be impossible to legally prosecute, but are powerful enough to ruin lives, shatter dreams and destroy careers.

So, what is the elusive solution to the problem of industry predators?

A hotline will not fix the incessant objectification of women in the films and by the filmmakers Cannes has a rich history of supporting. Nor will it combat Cannes’ notorious history of sexism, from denying entry to women not wearing high heels to festival director Thierry Fremaux’s continuing insistence that their lack of films directed by women is not his responsibility. Venice Film Festival director Alberto Barbera agrees that their lack of female-helmed films is not his problem, either. On the other hand, the Toronto International Film Festival’s programming team is made up of 13 women and nine men, which is a move in the right direction.

In an ideal world, film festivals would not need a hotline. Women would have gender parity as producers and directors. There would be safe networking environments, and female stories and characters that portray the diversity of women respectfully. If there are reports of someone behaving in a predatory manner, that person would immediately be investigated by the institutions they work for.

Cannes, given its power, needs to hold people associated with abuse accountable by not inviting them, nor supporting their films. Any person walking that red carpet at Cannes must be under scrutiny regarding who they do business with. If they do business with people who profit from and build power through channels of abuse, Cannes has revealed its true duplicitous nature. If Cannes is willing to rethink its curating process for the sake of Netflix, it should also extend the same courtesy to rape victims.

Changing the industry will take a lot longer than a year. Longer than a decade. However, the culture will flip if we keep working at prosecuting sexual predators and removing them from positions of power. Although it is hard, victims need to continue to come forward, and the community needs to strengthen their support. Free legal resources need to be readily available and the privacy of accusers must be maintained. Time’s up. But not quite.

Sarah Doyle, @sarlaughalot, is an award-winning Australian playwright and filmmaker based in Los Angeles whose work includes You Me & Her, Anaconda and Forest Blue.