Interview: Directors of Allen v. Farrow on the Power of Film to Spark Important Conversations

Films and television have the power to create lasting societal change. For the past nine years, filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering have been at the forefront of changing the narrative on sexual assault. Their first film in 2012, The Invisible War, chronicled sexual assault within the U.S. military and led to policy changes, while their follow up film, The Hunting Ground, documented student activists pushing for changes to Title IX, opening up more avenues for justice on college campuses. With 2020’s On the Record, they centered the voices of Black women calling out sexism within the music industry. In their latest docuseries, Allen v. Farrow, Dick and Ziering are looking to give a voice to survivors of child sexual abuse by a family member, also known as incest, through the lens of a widely talked about case: Dylan Farrow’s 1992 report of sexual abuse by her father, Woody Allen. RAINN sat down with the filmmakers for a conversation about the filming and reaction to the docuseries. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve created several important films on sexual assault. What led you to this issue? How has your understanding of sexual violence grown and changed with each piece?

Amy Ziering: We came to it not from any first degree experience. An article sparked our interest about women in the military who had no legal recourse to an impartial system of justice if sexually assaulted. For The Invisible War, we did an extensive outreach campaign and every time we screened the movie, students said, “This happens on our campus.”

We ended up making The Hunting Ground, which chronicled the epidemic of rapes on campuses and also chronicled the rise of the student movement. Then, when we finished that project, incest survivors would come up to us and ask us to do something about what goes on in the home. They would say, “We can’t speak because if we do, people can do the math and figure out who our assailant is. They’ll know it's a parent and then we're liable.” I didn’t even know or realize this. It flashed back to the military where I was finding out that people can’t speak publicly because people would find out who your perpetrator was. That piqued our interest.

You see how much the value of connection and communication is. The movies were made by survivors coming to us.

Talking about personal and traumatic experiences like child sexual abuse can be an extremely difficult experience to say out loud to anyone, and even more so when it’s being said in front of people you might be meeting for the first time. Not only for survivors like Dylan Farrow but for family members who have been affected by the events, like Mia Farrow and Ronan Farrow. How do you create an environment where people feel comfortable sharing in that space?

Kirby Dick: Part of Amy’s incredible skill and compassion is that she is able to create that space where someone feels comfortable speaking about something so traumatic to them. As a crew and production company, we’re extremely sensitive. She's able to do it in a way that they walk through this painful experience and you can see it's painful to recount this but, when it's done, they're glad they were able to speak.

Amy Ziering: I hope it is. I don't ever speak in the place of a survivor. We come completely informed that this is an incredibly difficult thing to do. We make sure our crew is tiny, we make a room feel cozy, safe, closed walls, minimal people around. When I sit with the survivor I say, “I don't want anything we do to cause pain. This is a safe space. I am going to ask questions. If at any point you want to stop? Fine. If at any point you want to leave? Fine. There is no pressure or obligation, we’re just happy to see you. You’re in control, I don't want to lose sleep tonight thinking this hurt you, and we mean it. If you don’t want to answer something, say pass or don't say anything.”

And then we have to actually walk the walk. We’ve had people stop the interview, leave, take long, long breaks and we just wait. And that's it. I always say “We can make the movie with or without you, there's no pressure, the burden is not on you. It’s just about a moment, and you can pursue it as you will.”

With the coronavirus pandemic, family members may be forced to stay in or spend more time in abusive situations at home with limited or no access to their typical resources. On the National Sexual Assault Hotline, we’ve seen an increase in demand, with more minors reaching out to us than ever before. They’ve lost their safe places. In the series, Dylan talks about how difficult it was to come forward and all of the obstacles and negative reactions she faced while sharing her story, and yet she ends with such hope. What struck you most about working with Dylan and what do you think survivors watching her will take away from her story?

Kirby Dick: I think what strikes me the most is her courage. Obviously, it's very difficult to speak about this as a child and an adult. This incredible machine is coming after her, and she still took a stand to speak out. That’s one of the reasons we wanted to make this. It’s so important to speak out if possible because the more people speak out, the more we’re going to become aware of it.

Amy Ziering: It's important to speak out if you feel safe. And if you can't, we hope that Dylan’s message is of comfort, you can recognize yourself and feel comfort that she spoke out even if you don’t have that power.

For me, it was an interesting case in what goes on with that person, but also how society is responsible and how to respond appropriately; [Dylan’s] a small child, who would want to talk about it? There are so many repercussions and it sets off a grenade in the family, so you can't help but feel responsible even when you're not. And what's striking to me is it plays out in the court of public opinion in such a negative and punitive way, compounding the portrayal and gaslighting and the pain Those three things really underline the word courage. I don't know who I would be at her age or if I could carry on.

Kirby Dick: For us, this was the most high-profile case in the last 30 years. And the way Woody Allen's team vilified Dylan and her mother [Mia Farrow], who was just trying to protect her, I think in some ways influenced the way society, media, courts looked at incest. One part of this is to re-frame that and have society look at it in a much more informed way.

That brings up a great point. Reaction to Allen V. Farrow has been strong on both sides. How have power dynamics, celebrity, and “legacy” affected how this story has been disseminated to the public, both now and when it originally occurred? How do you think this affects survivors who come forward?

Amy Ziering: The series is a meditation on that and how the impunity we grant celebrities—the shield that a person of power has, and how they can reframe a story entirely. There's an offensive campaign against a victim. That interested us greatly, and we wanted to delve into it. As we have shown, predators don't work in a vacuum, it takes a village. In this case, a considerable village of resources to go after the innocent. It’s really important because that has a ripple effect and intimidates those with fewer resources to come forward. If the powerful are so able to silence their victims...then [other survivors think], “What chance do I have?”

Kirby Dick: It's even compounded by the media attention on celebrities, they’re going to focus on those, not the day-to-day cases. All the country gets is the spin of those high-profile individuals who are accused, and society just ingests it. Again, it’s really important to take a close look at how that works so you don’t buy the spin. You take a minute and say, “Wait a minute, I know how incest works I can see what is happening and what the issues are.”

Has anything about the reaction to the series surprised you?

Kirby Dick: Actually, what surprised me was that survivors reached out and talked about how episode one covered so many issues surrounding incest and the family and analyzed how a predator could operate in that environment. Again and again we heard, “That was our experience, that's how it happens, slow grooming that happens. It's so carefully done, that everyone is unaware.” I was pleased we could convey that; it was very important to get across.

What do you hope viewers take away from Allen v. Farrow in a larger sense?

Kirby Dick: I hope they better understand the experience of an incest survivor. It’s so painful that the survivor, the family, court, and society tends to suppress it and not face it. The first step is understanding the experience of an incest survivor and to put out a face to this experience, because then an empathy will be developed to make the changes that you’re fighting to make right now.

Amy Ziering: I would hope it helps make this crime become more recognized and recognizable. Maybe if something is going on, families are able to better see the signs of it. Maybe older siblings are better to hear the language of an abused child, what the behavior is. I hope all of us are finally more comfortable to hear people talking about it so that everyone can feel more supported and embraced. So that everyone can say, “Oh, maybe that is what's happening. Maybe I have to listen in this way or react in this way.” I hope it's educational, healing, and cathartic.

Allen V. Farrow is available on HBO and HBOMax. If you or someone you know has experienced child sexual abuse, it is never too late to get help and start healing. The National Sexual Assault Hotline has free, confidential, anonymous support 24/7. Call 800.656.HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org to get help.

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