One-Sided HBO Documentary Convicts Woody Allen

Film about abuse charges doesn’t pretend to be impartial

Allen v. Farrow, a new HBO documentary made by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, purports to set forth the facts of the long-running feud between Mia and Dylan Farrow and the famous director. How credible is it? To amend Orwell, here we see once again that in the hands of people with an agenda, some facts are more equal than others.

Dylan, the adopted daughter of Woody Allen and his ex-wife Mia Farrow, claims that the director physically and sexually abused her when she was a child, culminating in an assault in an attic of Mia’s Connecticut home in August 1992, when she was just seven. She says the molestation left her emotionally scarred well into adulthood.

Allen has vigorously denied the charges verbally and in print. But Mia and other accusers have never given an inch, and the case has gained fresh notoriety in this age of #MeToo, when Harvey Weinstein, Al Franken, Hamilton Fish, Kevin Spacey, Garrison Keillor, Bill O’Reilly, Leon Wieseltier, and so many others have come under attack and paid legal, financial, and reputational costs for their misdeeds.

Over the course of four segments, the documentary presents interviews with many people tied to the case, including Dylan Farrow; Mia Farrow; Dylan’s brother, journalist Ronan Farrow, who broke the Weinstein scandal in a New Yorker exposé researched over ten months; Priscilla Gilman, a family friend with a dim view of Allen’s character; Frank Maco, the Connecticut prosecutor who investigated Dylan’s claims and found he had probable cause to bring charges against Allen, but did not want to subject Dylan to the trauma of taking part in a trial; Maureen Orth, a writer who covered the case for Vanity Fair; and various other relatives, friends, media figures, psychologists, and child welfare experts.

In all the din, one voice is nearly absent. Practically the only times Allen gets to put a word in are when the filmmakers air news clips covering the scandal over the years and through audio segments of his book, Apropos of Nothing. They never really let Allen tell his side, except in a way that feels filtered and dated now.

In a civilized society, you have a right to face your accusers and reply to the charges against you, but Dick and Ziering don’t believe in such niceties. Theirs may seem like a curious approach for a documentary about charges this serious. In the end credits, they tell us that Allen and his wife, Soon-Yi Previn, did not reply to requests for interviews, as if that makes the one-sided approach of Allen v. Farrow just fine, as if there were not dozens of other sources the filmmakers could have spoken to if they had any pretense to exploring the case, examining facts objectively, and granting both sides a fair hearing.

The tone of Allen v. Farrow is somber, with piano keys tapping in melancholy rhythms over tracking shots of the houses and roads of a desolate rural Connecticut. Seriousness befitting a weighty topic is welcome, but sanctimony in the service of a hit job, less so. Watching this film, one is reminded of how people tend to think of history as moving in a certain direction, away from the callousness and prejudice of the past and toward a more inclusive, enlightened, egalitarian future when the rich and powerful do not get away with things just because of the advantages of their birth. No one wants to be on the wrong side of history, to be publicly identified with views and attitudes that have no place in 2021.

Yet there are those of us who still feel that judicial proceedings, and the review of facts that might lead to such proceedings, should be about one thing: evidence. Based on the evidence before you, what do you conclude about the accused’s guilt or innocence? When a case becomes politicized or tainted by personal and marital animosity, as has happened in the case of Woody Allen, then that ceases to be the question. The only question becomes: which side of history are you on? If you doubt the methodology and tactics of accusers for even a moment, then you are downplaying the gravity of the alleged abuse. You are taking the side of a monster. You are on the wrong side of history. Don’t take your job or your reputation for granted.

Now, to be clear, sexual abuse is one of the most serious things of which it is possible to accuse a person. It is heinous. Its effects are beyond devastating and reach across years and decades of a victim’s life. If found guilty through a fair and impartial process, then the toughest penalties under the law are warranted. That is why filmmakers who set out to investigate charges like these have obligations—ones that the makers of Allen v. Farrow fail to meet.

A one-sided approach

Riding high on moral sanctimony, the filmmakers unveil a lavish array of circumstantial evidence, that is to say, tissues of coincidence and innuendo that amount to nothing at all.

One of the revelations in Allen v. Farrow is that not just one or two but a large number of the dozens of films Allen has written and/or directed over his career depict a relationship between a middle-aged man and a girl who is eighteen, give or take. Who knew? The quintessential Allen movie in this vein is 1979’s Manhattan, one of his top box-office hits. Then there are films such as Whatever Works, Mighty Aphrodite, Hollywood Ending, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, and Small Time Crooks, in which the age difference exceeds decades.

If Dick and Ziering do want to play around with circumstantial evidence, then it is well to remind them that in none of the films named above does a fifty-six-year-old man betray sexual yearnings for a seven-year-old girl. Whatever interpretation one might favor, it really has no bearing on the case under consideration here. It’s an academic point anyway. Given the circumstantial nature of this evidence, Allen’s filmography wouldn’t be material even in a case of alleged abuse where the real-life age difference more closely mirrored the celluloid ones.

Wait, there’s more. Another of the documentary’s insights is that Hollywood is a cesspool in which the rich and powerful have often drawn on their vast resources, and the awesome legal machinery at their disposal, to get away with things for which other people would burn. Does the name Harvey Weinstein ring a bell? How about Roman Polanski?

Maybe it will stoke your outrage to watch to a clip, dusted off in Allen v. Farrow, in which Polanski claims that the girl he allegedly raped in March 1977 was not a novice in sexual matters, or to hear a snippet of an interview in which Quentin Tarantino reminds Howard Stern that the charge against Polanski was statutory rape rather than rape, full stop, and that Tarantino tends to side with Polanski rather than the girl because the former’s account of what happened seems the more plausible. (Tarantino later apologized.) It’s all engaging—and completely irrelevant.

The documentary also makes much of Mia’s discovery that Allen had taken nude photos of her adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, whom Allen would later marry. To be sure, the discovery of those photos is a pretty unpleasant memory, but again, it does not prove or contribute to proving that Allen sexually abused Dylan.

All this is powerful, divisive stuff, sure to stoke fierce reactions, but it is material for another documentary. You have to ask what any of it has to do with the question of Allen’s guilt or innocence.

A manufactured case?

As Allen wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece about the scandal in 2014, the charges against him arose in the context of a separation that was bitter even by the standards of such things, a point on which he elaborates in much greater detail in last year’s memoir. The charges rest on a swamp of murky and dubious statements and suppositions, and one of the facts most damaging to Mia’s case came right after the alleged sexual assault in the attic in 1992.

When you listen to Mia give her account, early in the third segment of Allen v. Farrow, of bringing Dylan to see a doctor soon after the alleged incident, you will see how flimsy the case really is.

“After the incident in the attic, the next day, I took Dylan to the doctor. . . . She sure didn’t want to talk about it,” Mia recounts. So, by Mia’s own admission, Dylan denies that sexual assault has occurred when questioned. The doctor says he understands and asks if Dylan wants to come back the next day. Mia and Dylan agree. Mia’s ploy seems to be: if the kid denies that abuse happened, keep asking until you get the answer you want.

It’s pretty clear that seven-year-old Dylan has little idea what the adults are talking about, but Mia tries to chalk this up to Dylan being uneasy with the line of questioning, or not wanting “to talk about my privates.”  Mia and Dylan leave, and Mia then explicitly urges Dylan to allege abuse the next time they see the doctor, responding to her unwillingness to pursue the matter: “I get that, but it would be helpful if you could tell him, because then we could have somebody who could make sure you are okay.”

You have to wonder whether Mia realizes what she is admitting here. She basically instructed a seven-year-old girl to tell the doctor that a thing the girl barely had a vocabulary to express had happened. She coached Dylan to accuse Woody. In her second meeting with the doctor, Dylan does a better job of repeating what Mia wants known. “Nothing will ever be normal again,” Mia now says. Indeed. The doctor alerts the police, and state prosecutor Frank Maco gets involved.

Omitted facts

The documentary grudgingly admits that an exhaustive investigation by the Yale New Haven Child Sex Abuse Clinic, involving no fewer than nine interviews with Dylan over seven months, found holes and inconsistencies in her account and cleared Allen. The allegations were also separately investigated by the New York State Child Welfare Agency. According to the New York Times, that agency dropped its inquiry and said “they consider the accusation unfounded.”

“I am given the bottom-line conclusion that the child is unreliable, untrustworthy, and/or that Mia Farrow was a fabricator,” Maco says. The report’s conclusion is blunt: Dylan’s allegations “were likely reinforced and encouraged by her mother who was enraged with Mr. Allen.”

But the documentary includes these omissions only to try to dismiss them. Allen v. Farrow barely even mentions that Allen took a lie detector test about the alleged assault, and passed. Maco admits that Allen submitted to a test by a private polygrapher, but says that doesn’t interest him and that Allen should have let the state police give the test. Nowhere does Maco or anyone else explain why that would be preferable.

Maybe your heart is likelier to beat faster when the police are grilling you, but it’s not clear that this translates to a more accurate polygraph result. The filmmakers don’t make that case, and the usual progressive concern for potential intimidation and abuse of power by the police is oddly absent here. Nowhere is there any mention of the curious fact, stressed by Allen in his op-ed piece, that in contrast to himself, Mia refused to take a lie detector test.

Anyone fair-minded enough to read Allen’s piece will feel some concern about an occasion in the past when Mia reportedly asked a former girlfriend of Allen’s to give false testimony in the context of Mia’s custody battle with Allen. And even that shocking anecdote is not the only hole in Mia’s credibility. Soon-Yi is on record claiming that Mia put pressure on her when she was younger to concoct a wild story about having suffered beatings at the hands of a prostitute mother. Nothing remotely like that ever happened to Soon-Yi.

Maco says he saw no evidence that Mia had coached Dylan, but he was hardly around them continuously and it is unclear what sort of evidence he thinks there even could be. There are many reasons to doubt what Mia says, but in our current political culture, all too often the burden of proof is on the accused, especially when the latter is a powerful and accomplished white man.

Rights of the accused

Allen does not claim that Dylan is lying, but given her extreme youth, he questions the reliability of her account and suggests that Mia’s coaching of her has been so relentless as to give manufactured memories the air of truth. His passing of a lie detector test, and the many problems with Mia’s credibility, foster more than reasonable doubt about his guilt. As Richard Cohen wrote in the Daily News after Allen’s response to the charges appeared in 2014, that rebuttal “is not dispositive but it is persuasive…. I had to wonder whatever happened to the age-old journalistic practice of being even-handed—of reporting both sides of a story.”

According to a statement Allen and Soon-Yi have made to the Hollywood Reporter, the filmmakers worked with Mia’s camp for years to prepare the documentary and then gave Allen’s side just days to reply to the charges in it. Anyone reading the text in the credit crawl saying that Allen and Soon-Yi did not respond to “repeated requests” for interviews will come away with an impression sharply divergent from the truth.

In its one-sidedness, Allen v. Farrow is as subtle as a Stalinist purge. There is only the feeblest pretense to wanting to hear both sides.

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020).

4 thoughts on “One-Sided HBO Documentary Convicts Woody Allen

  • February 26, 2021 at 5:17 pm
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    This is good review of a documentary about a fiercely divisive issue.
    It is disturbing that film-makers did not include any interviews with Allen, Soon-Yi Previn, or Moses Farrow. Nor is there any evidence they spoke to the experts who testified in Allen’s defence during the custody battle and investigations in 1993 which cleared him. I would like to see a good documentary about this controversy, (I imagine someone like Nick Broomfield could make an excellent documentary about the Allen v. Farrow dispute) but this does not seem to be it.

    Nobody seems to be benefiting from this.
    Allen’s wife and family will, of course, have to endure four weeks of HBO accusing him of committing a horrific crime without any defence.

    But Caitlin Flanagan also expressed concern about how miserable and upset Ronan Farrow and Dylan Farrow sounded during the documentary’s duration, and expressed concern about the obsessive re-enactment of their traumatic past, saying “There’s no way it benefits their well-being.” It seems unlikely further focus on this over-exposed issue will do much to help victims of sexual abuse – surely a documentary about the sexual abuse of the immigrant children in ICE would be a more beneficial way for HBO treat this issue?

    It seems the only beneficiaries of “Allen V. Farrow” will be the cynical filmmakers Kirby Dick and
    Amy Ziering, and of course Mia Farrow, who will be painted as some saintly cross between Mother Teresa and Hillary Clinton. I doubt “Allen V. Farrow” will mention the three children of Mia who died tragically – Lark Previn, Tam Farrow and Thaddeus Farrow. No Devil Advocate’s will be permitted at HBO’s Canonization.

    Reply
  • February 27, 2021 at 8:19 pm
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    An interesting review but too bad Michael Washburn doesn’t give to his readers the link to Moses Farrow’s blog, “A Son Speaks Out”: “I was present for everything that transpired in our house before, during, and after the alleged event.”

    So, everyone interested by facts should Google right now: “Moses Farrow – A Son Speaks Out”.

    Reply
  • March 1, 2021 at 6:16 pm
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    I disagree with the idea that documentaries (or this one) need to be fair and impartial. I think journalism needs to be fair and impartial, but not all documentarians are journalists – and when a documentary is on HBO Max or Go, or whatever it is called, I don’t think the filmmakers are bound by any public duty. It is entertainment. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) whenever you point a camera, there’s something else outside of the frame. And I wonder if they are making a case against Woody Allen, or building a case that the judicial system isn’t fair and impartial for everyone?

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  • March 1, 2021 at 6:18 pm
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    David Poland, in his review of “Allen V. Farrow”, for “Movie City News”, pointed out in the fourth episode of the documentary that there is an undated police drawing of the crime scene (Mia Farrow’s attic). This featured a sketch of the infamous small train set (described in the 1st Feb 2014 New York Times description of the allegation against Allen). But Poland adds “No date. No indication of whether there was electricity or even trains. No picture of the space. No date on the document.”

    Now Allen’s defender, Robert B. Weide, offers an explanation. Weide, in his essay, “FARROW v. FARROW: The Case of the Magical, Disappearing Electric Toy Train Set” points out that both Moses Farrow, in his blog post, and Mia Farrow’s nanny, Kristi Groteke (in a 1993 testimony) said there was *no small train set* in that attic. Groteke said that while there *was* a train set stored in the attic, it was far too big to be used in there, since it was big enough for a child to sit and ride on (far bigger than the train set sketched in the Allen V. Farrow diagram).

    Groteke said this train set was never used in the attic. It was in Mia’s “living room, but more recently in the past year in Mia’s room and in the children’s room”.

    This probably explains why there is no date on the “Allen V. Farrow” drawing – this drawing does not match the eyewitness descriptions of the attic given by Moses and Kristi, and hence the drawing must have been created long after the 1992-1993 investigations.

    Perhaps another piece on “Allen V. Farrow,” incorporating Poland and Weide’s new observations, might be warranted?

    Reply

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