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On film boycotts.

Posted by keith1942 on December 7, 2018

When the Leeds International Film Festival 2018 Brochure appeared in early October it included in the ‘Time frames’ programme The Knife in the Water / Nóz w wodzie (Poland 1962). There were to be two screenings from a 35mm print. The film was scripted by Roman Polanski with

Jakub Goldberg and Jerzy Skolimowski. It was the first feature film directed by Roman Polanski after he attended the National Film School in Łódź. The film over the years has garnered a reputation for quality, along with other films directed in later years by Polanski.

When I tried to book a ticket for a screening of the film I was advised that it had been cancelled. And when the Catalogue appeared on the opening night of the Festival this title was missing. Why it was missing was a mystery as there was no explanation from the Festival office. However, a little later I discovered a comment on the screening on a twitter account, one that had been copied in the USA. A social media site, ‘realwomenrealstories’ contained this tweet,

“BREAKING: Leeds International Film Festival (@leedsfilmfest) cancels screening of “Knife In The Water” by convicted child rapist Roman Polanski. This is an urgent time to say NO to #sexualabuse against women. Movie is removed: https://www.leedsfilmcity.com/film-year-round/knife-in-the-water/ … #timesup #metoo #speakup”

The pages contained a number of other tweets concerning Polanski’s sexual misconduct as well as reports of other allegations of sexual violence in media reports and especially by well-known public figures. The site is rendering a public service by exposing such crimes and offers a place for women to report this. However, as with most social media, you have to take the reports and claims on trust. In Polanski’s case it is a matter of legal record that he was found guilty of an offence in the USA. This was of ‘unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor’ for which Polanski was sentenced to a term of imprisonment. He fled the USA to avoid the jail term and has never served the sentence. In the 1990s he did conclude a settlement with the victim which involved a payment and confidentiality clauses. There have been two other accusations of sexual molestation but neither has been legally investigated or tried.

The text confirmed what had been suggested to me by a festival goer, that the film had been withdrawn because of complaints about screening a Polanski film because of his record of sexual molestation. I did ask the Festival organisers regarding withdrawal. They confirmed that the title had been dropped from the programme because of various issues; one being complaints regarding a film by Roman Polanski. They declined to discuss this further and also declined my offer of a comment which I could include in this posting.

The complainants seem to be agitating for a boycott of Polanski’s films.

“A boycott is an act of voluntary and intentional abstention from using, buying, or dealing with a person, organization, or country as an expression of protest, usually for moral, social, political, or environmental reasons. The purpose of a boycott is to inflict some economic loss on the target, or to indicate a moral outrage, to try to compel the target to alter an objectionable behaviour.”

The word derives from the actions of the Irish Land League in 1880 against the agent, one Captain Boycott, of an Anglo-Irish Peer, representative of the British occupation of Eire. Thus its original use was as part of a National Liberation struggle against a colonial power. A current example of parallel action would be the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction Movement against the Zionist occupation of Palestinian lands. However, it has also been used as part of campaigns against individuals deemed to inflicted unacceptable behaviour on people.

I have a number of reservations about this matter. Foremost is the dropping of a title without any public information nor an opportunity for film and festival goers to comment. The Festival is publicly funded – by the Council and the British Film Institute – as well as by other agencies. So public money is involved. I am not aware of a policy by national or local government of banning works by artists who have committed sexual molestations. Clearly though in the last couple of years it has become a much discussed issue with groups and individuals advocating such bans. However, there is not uniformity of opinion on this so I think public events should be prepared to have a debate when such actions are proposed. The organisers did make the point that the programming of the Festival involves choices, with some films being selected and some not. However, I would like such criteria to be matter of public knowledge and discussion. This is especially important when not just critical judgements are being made but when it is an issue of censorship; i.e. certain works are not permitted. Beyond this censorship is a thorny issue. I think there should be limited grounds which allow for this. And in the case of a film title of a particular film-maker I feel that there are a number of aspects that need to be put.

The proposal to not screen films directed or written and directed by Roman Polanski conflate his personal life with that of his profession. There are plenty of examples of artists whose personal lives and behaviour do not match up to the contemporary moral code but not many are banned. The contemporary is important because I think it is a problematic approach to judge art works, not by the standards of when they were produced, but by the later standards of some critical voice.

In fact Polanski’s films have a rather different treatment from sexual matters to his ways in personal life. Whilst sexuality is common an prominent theme in his films it is also one that is treated critically in terms of the mores operating when the film was produced. A prime example is a film produced in the USA in 1974, Chinatown. The main women character, Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) is certainly the victim of misogynistic treatment. To what degree one thinks that the protagonist J. J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is a misogynist is dependant on interpretation but the film quite clearly treats the action perpetrated on her critically; I find her the most sympathetic character in the film. Similar points can be made regarding Polanski’s two earlier British films, Repulsion (1965) and Cul-De-sac (1966). And Knife in the Water treats the sole female character Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka) better than the two men. It is their masculine pretensions that the film exposes.

Knife in the Water raises another important aspect. One of the appeals of the film is the acting and the characterisations. The three actors do a fine job of the people set out in the screenplay which is the combined work of three people, Jakub Goldberg (scenario), Roman Polanski (scenario), Jerzy Skolimowski (dialogue). And part of the pleasure of the film are the cinematography by Jerzy Lipman and the score by Krzysztof T. Komeda. The film as a whole is extremely well done and the credits [as usual with films] include a long list of skilled crafts people. All of these members of the production are barred by banning this film though I am not aware that any other of them have been accused of sexual misdemeanours.

And the film was produced by Zespol Filmowy “Kamera”, a Polish State Production Company which closed in 1968. In Britain the British Film Institute holds the distribution rights to the film.

I do not know who holds the rights for the film now; it would seem unlikely that is Polanski. So the economic impact of the proposed boycott falls not on the subject but on another agency and, of course, the BFI. The latter presumably have paid for the distribution rights. Apart from hitting the limited budgets of the BFI this is likely to discourage then Institute from trying to distribute other films, possibly not just titles by Polanski.

It strikes me that the intent and the effect of such restrictions is confused and for sure produces unintended consequences. Britain is not a hospitable environ for foreign language films and it is becoming more and more difficult to see such titles in theatrical settings; even more so to see them in their original format. I think people and groups that would like to prohibit films by Polanski [and other individuals who have committed offences] would do well to give serious consideration to what they propose and for what they organise agitation.

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