Roman Polanski Withdraws From Locarno Festival Amid Protests

Roman Polanski in Poland Low Res -H 2014
PISF Polish Film Institute

Roman Polanski in Poland Low Res -H 2014

The Oscar winner was scheduled to receive a lifetime achievement honor and screen his latest film at the Swiss festival

Roman Polanski has pulled out of the Locarno Film Festival after the announcement that he would receive a lifetime achievement honor sparked protests.

In a statement released by the Locarno festival, Polanski said: "Dear Friends, I am sorry to inform you that having considered the extent to which my planned appearance at the Locarno Festival provokes tensions and controversies among those opposed to my visit, even as I respect their opinions, it is with a heavy heart that I must cancel my visit. I am deeply saddened to disappoint you."

The 80-year-old director of such classics as Chinatown and The Pianist is still wanted in the United States on 40-year-old statutory rape charges. When the Swiss festival said it would give Polanski a special lifetime achievement award this year, it triggered a backlash among those who believe he should be sent back the U.S. to face trial. 

Polanski was also scheduled to introduce his most recent film, Venus in Fur, at an outdoor screening in Locarno's Piazza Grande on Thursday, accompanied by the film’s star, Polanski’s wife, Emmanuelle Seigner. On Friday, he was scheduled to give a filmmaking master class for festivalgoers and young filmmakers attending the Locarno Summer Academy.

The Locarno Festival called the opposition to Polanski's visit "unacceptable interference of some in the artistic liberty of the festival." It added: "We are greatly saddened that the public will thereby be deprived of an important opportunity for cultural enrichment."

Locarno added that it "continues to affirm its commitment to the principle of free and unfettered artistic expression."

Local Swiss politicians and many in the Swiss media criticized the decision to honor Polanski and opposed his appearance at Locarno.

Polanski fled the U.S. in 1978 after pleading guilty to charges of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor in a plea bargain.

“I’m sad because I think festival goers are losing a big opportunity to have him here,” Carlo Chatrian, artistic director of the Locarno Film Festival told The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s sad when an artist cannot express himself. I understand his decision and I respect it. At the same time, I hope that this will be for the festival a chance to renew the fact that festivals are a meeting point and a place of freedom.”

Chatrian said the festival asked Polanski to reconsider his decision but, in the end, decided to “respect his word.”

The opposition to Polanski's visit came mainly from local Swiss politicians and the media, who called the Oscar-winning director a pedophile.

Switzerland's Democratic Party released a strong statement urging its members not to participate in any award ceremony recognizing  Polanski. It said this was not to dispute any of his artistic merits, but that an institution largely supported by the public should not honor any man convicted of such a crime.

“Of course, when you use words like pedophile, you cannot say anything against that. But Polanski’s not a pedophile,” said Chatrian. Locarno's festival director said it still may be possible to set up a remote masterclass with Polanski.

“We’ll see. It’s too soon to say,” he said. “Now we have to digest this and see how we will go on. We will go on. And I always said that Polanski is not the only guest we have.”

Polanski was previously arrested in Switzerland in 2009 while attending the Zurich Film Festival. Polanski was held under house arrest, but Swiss authorities ruled not to extradite him to the U.S. to face trial, citing irregularities in the case and allegations of misconduct by the Los Angeles Superior Court judge at the time, Laurence A. Rittenband, who died in 1993.

Polanski's alleged victim, Samantha Geimer, broke decades of silence in her tell-all memoir "The Girl: A Life in the Shadow of Roman Polanski."

Had he attended Locarno, Polanski would have been safe from extradition. The director can safely travel within France (which does not extradite its own citizens), Switzerland and his birthplace of Poland, which has said it will not arrest him. Last year, Polanski attended Poland's Gdynia film festival and gave a closed-door masterclass, but refused to answer questions about the rape charge and his legal battles.

In 2011, he returned to the Zurich Film Festival to receive a lifetime achievement award and was greeted by cheering crowds and given a standing ovation.

Despite remaining a fugitive from U.S. justice, Polanski has remained active, directing the Oscar-winning The Pianist and features including Carnage and the recent Venus in Fur. He has also been linked to a feature based on the infamous Dreyfus Affair, a film that would reunite him with The Ghost Writer screenwriter Robert Harris and long-time producers Robert Benmussa and Alain Sarde.

Ariston Anderson in Locarno contributed to this report.