Last week, I was lucky enough to see one of the previews of the new Harvey Weinstein documentary, Untouchable, with the co-founder of Houselights, Rachel Vogler, as part of UK Jewish Film Festival. Houselights is a new foundation which works towards stamping out sexual assault and harassment in the entertainment industry. If you are interested in supporting their campaigns, please check out their links which I will post below!
Untouchable, the documentary about the Harvey Weinstein scandal, is almost out. The documentary reads like a long list of victim testimonies and does exactly what it sets out to do – expose Weinstein for all his disgusting crimes – but does not take the issue any further. The problem that Rachel and I had with this documentary was that it did nothing to contextualise the issue within the wider societal problem of gender inequality. We need more than just a mere exposure of this story – awful and repeated as it was. We as creators of art have a great obligation to expose the power structures which oppress and victimise women the world over, not just in white Hollywood.
The documentary, in its purest form, is heartbreaking. There are more than enough testimonies to understand the true weight and breadth of this disgusting period of Hollywood history. With each photo of Weinstein that appears before our eyes, his gluttony, as described by one of his colleagues, is made abundantly clear. His physicality, the women he surrounded himself with, the parties, the tuxedos, the alcohol all add up to create an image of a man who believed that “‘If I get what I want, it was consensual’” (survivor Hope D’Amor predicting Weinstein’s thought patterns through teary eyes). The testimonies come thick and fast throughout the feature-length documentary, and we see the lasting impacts that his acts of rape had on these women. What is also horrific is that we get a true sense of just how long this was allowed to carry on for, how scared these women were to speak up for themselves, how the problem persisted. Even when they began to come forward to investigative journalist Ronan Farrow, he tells the viewers how he was continually told that he needed “more women” and “more credible women” – we don’t believe victims and here is the perfect example of it. Why don’t we believe survivors?
The Weinstein scandal is not the problem. It is one tiny symptom…
This is, similarly, where the documentary falls short. The Weinstein scandal is not the problem. It is one tiny symptom of a problem so vast and impenetrable that most of the time we aren’t even aware of it. One of Weinstein’s receptionists who saw the scandal unfold and was legally bound from saying anything about it commented during the documentary that “the most sinister aspect… is that the system enabled it to happen.” This is pretty much the only time in the documentary that reference is made to this issue being larger than just one man in Hollywood. This fact does not take away from how awful it was or how much trauma the survivors have gone through or how brave they are. It simply means that, unfortunately, they are not alone. ‘Why don’t we believe survivors?’ is a question which we have really only just begun to answer, but there are plenty more questions we have yet to ask.
Aside from the obvious questions about male entitlement in the wider world, I want to discuss this issue from a Jewish perspective. It’s a touchy subject, particularly in an age where antisemitism abounds in the very political parties we vote for, but hey, one discrimination doesn’t excuse another. And there’s a pattern. Joseph Epstein, Steven M. Cohen, Leon Wieseltier, Dustin Hoffman, Woody Allen – even alleged accusations against Lord Janner, a barrister and MP local to my neighbourhood. There are more.
It needs to be Jewish communities who have this discussion.
Is this a Jewish issue? Rabbi Daniel Brenner certainly seems to think that there is some legitimacy in this connection, arguing that sexual dominance is a way of rebelling against the “book-ish, feminine persona” of the typical Jewish male 1 I would also argue that this string of perpetrators cannot be ignored. It may be white privilege, the Jewish underdog mentality, toxic masculinity, pressure to be successful, more traditional gender roles or a combination of all of these aspects which creates monsters out of men in the Jewish community, but I think it’s becoming undeniable that it is happening. We need to talk about what it is in our communities which breeds entitlement and arrogance in our men. And, crucially, it needs to be Jewish communities who have this discussion.
I immediately saw a direct correlation between this idea and real life in the Q and A session which took place once the screening was over. Producer Simon Chinn took most of the screen time away from Director Ursula MacFarlane and discussed Harvey Weinstein with a worryingly sympathetic attitude towards Weinstein in response to some of the questions. And the QUESTIONS. There was almost no discussion of survivors whatsoever; instead, the audience seemed to favour questions regarding the separation of art from artist in a way which humanised Weinstein far more than he deserved. The discussion of this separation is an interesting one but surely the magnitude of his crimes outweighs the average-at-best Shakespeare in Love (which he produced) in this case? Why did we as an audience end up defending him? Was it because he is Jewish? Because he is a man? Because his victims were all women and we discredit their voices? Regardless of the reason, the Q and A was spent mostly discussing his genius.
Apart from one question, which came from a woman, about whether the release of this documentary would prevent Weinstein from getting a fair trial. This internalised misogyny was really painful to watch and shows that the problem is still rampant. Thankfully, MacFarlane piped up at this point with the most useful comment of the whole debate: “I care more about the survivors being heard”. Which was the only time that survivors were mentioned. I really felt that this Q and A was a real-life example of how the system has failed us – ironic considering we had all just watched a film which should have opened our eyes to this fact, but unfortunately for me, it really fell short. Why was there no discussion of recovery? No comment at the end of the documentary validating the multitude of survivor stories and strength from around the world? This goes so much further than white women in Hollywood. And extending it to cover so many wider issues doesn’t detract from their experiences so what have we got to lose?
Let’s create new art…
There was one question at the end, from Rachel Vogler herself, who asked how we can best use this film to move forward and educate. This is exactly the sort of question which I expected the documentary to answer. I’m going to try to answer it now. In the words of a troll I was arguing with on the internet recently, “enough bitching, let’s be productive”. This film needs to be screened in more inclusive settings. Not previews which cost £20. Screen it in Jewish spaces. It was amazing for UKJFF to screen it but then we need a proper and nuanced discussion of Jewishness and the part it plays in sexual assault as PART OF THE SCREENINGS. Let’s not brush over it and compare it to the Catholic Church. This is our problem and we need to address it properly. Screen it with rape crisis support! I honestly don’t understand why there wasn’t any at the preview. It’s such an important story for survivors to hear and watch so that they can see real-life examples of the strength of speaking out and even just in existing after assault. Screen it with a trigger warning and with a discussion and debrief afterwards.
In conclusion, and without mincing words, this documentary is the tip of the fucking iceberg. There is still so much work to do in the ways we expose these stories. The focus needs to be on the structures in our society which lead men to think that this is acceptable, and on the strength of the survivors. It is my hope that future documentaries will approach issues like this from this angle, and draw the experiences of survivors around the world together, instead of pandering to the “genius” of the heinous man who committed these crimes. Let’s not mourn the fact that we cannot watch Miramax films without guilt anymore. Let’s mourn the art that was not made by the women whose lives he destroyed. But most importantly, let’s create new art which ensures this never happens again.