Television

Allen v. Farrow is more than a rehash of a celebrity scandal. An indictment of the entertainment industry, it looks thoughtfully at how stories are told, and who gets believed. By Michael Salter.

Allen v. Farrow

A scene from the HBO documentary Allen v. Farrow.
Credit: HBO / Foxtel

Content warning: This review discusses sexual abuse.

The HBO documentary Allen v. Farrow retraces a pivotal moment in the history of both child protection and celebrity culture: the 1992 allegation that auteur Woody Allen sexually abused his daughter Dylan Farrow.

It’s a thoughtful examination of the case against Allen, drawing on unseen footage and unprecedented access to the Farrow family. But the documentary’s greatest significance is in its indictment of an entertainment industry and public culture that has celebrated transgressive sexual boundary-pushing as a marker of masculine genius.

In many ways, Allen v. Farrow is a story about stories: what they are made of, how they are told, who is listened to and who is believed. The documentary tacitly accepts that Allen has told his side of this story, as indeed he has. Allen was active throughout the 1990s in promoting his version of events, which was repeated by his many admirers within and outside the media. Dylan and her brother, journalist Ronan Farrow, have become increasingly vocal in contesting his account since 2014, but until now Mia Farrow has avoided the controversy.

As a prolific movie director and cultural icon, Allen created definitive representations of New York life on screen. His fans identify with his invocations of an easy-going cosmopolitan culture in his films, in which Allen features as the awkward nebbish imbued with heterosexual allure. The accusation that he sexually abused Dylan is a blunt challenge not only to Allen’s fame and stature but also to the progressive milieu that idolises him.

The events retold in Allen v. Farrow are startlingly intimate and occurred a generation ago, although the themes of truth-telling, denial and counter-accusation are depressingly familiar. The first episode of the four-part documentary begins with Woody Allen’s press conference in 1992, in which he claims that the allegation against him had been fabricated by his then partner of 12 years, renowned actor Mia Farrow.

In this press conference, Allen revealed that he had begun a relationship with Farrow’s 21-year-old daughter Soon Yi. He would go on to argue that Farrow’s discovery of this relationship prompted her to “coach” Dylan into accusing him of abuse.

The aim of the documentary is to reconstruct these events from the perspective of Dylan, Mia and their family and friends, as well as key professionals who worked on the case. The filmmakers’ focus on Dylan’s and Mia Farrow’s accounts has been strongly criticised by some. This focus is somewhat inevitable, given that Allen declined to take part, although his voice and words are present through excerpts from his recent audiobook of his 2020 memoir, Apropos of Nothing.

The strength of Allen v. Farrow lies in the richness and depth of its narrative and its refusal of simple tropes. Allen is characterised with complexity and substance, recalled by interviewees as an often-luminescent figure whose presence over time took on dark and frightening dimensions. Against the backdrop of Allen’s extraordinary fame, the documentary is careful to place Dylan and Mia Farrow at the centre of events. Dylan speaks directly to camera as an adult but also appears in the documentary as a child through Mia Farrow’s many home videos.

So rich is the material available to the filmmakers that they provide only occasional voiceovers within an artfully constructed sequence of interviews and video footage.

Allen v. Farrow shares a number of similarities with the 2019 documentary Leaving Neverland, the equally harrowing exploration of the allegations against the late entertainer Michael Jackson. Both examine the collision of child sexual abuse allegations with power, wealth and elitism in the 1990s.

For much of the 20th century, the scientific consensus was that women’s and children’s accounts of sexual abuse were untrustworthy, the product of fantasy and psychosis. At the time of the allegations against Allen and Jackson, this consensus had been troubled by the emergence of feminism and the child protection movement, but it was certainly not dislodged. The defence of both men harnessed pseudoscientific discourses of false allegations to great effect. Their financial heft and overwhelming support provided fertile ground to nurture and reinforce populist suspicions about the credibility of child testimony.

Allen v. Farrow presents a vivid picture of the schisms over child sexual abuse within psychology and child protection that developed in the 1990s and continue to the present day. As expert opinion and professional practice appeared to bend around the gravity of Allen’s celebrity, one group of court-appointed psychologists concluded Dylan had not been abused. Child welfare investigators formed the opposing view: that Dylan was credible and there was cause to lay criminal charges.

One of the most telling interviews comes from a social services manager who left the department in the wake of Dylan’s case, unable to stand the hypocrisy that subjected low-income and black families to different standards of evidence than were applied to Allen. She says: “The elite can do whatever they need to do, whatever they want to do. And there’s no consequence for it.”

The documentary paints a stark contrast between the consistency and simplicity of Dylan’s narrative of abuse, and the hydra-headed response of police, psychologists, social workers, lawyers and journalists. We see Dylan disclosing abuse as a seven-year-old on camera, speaking directly to her mother, and as an adult, recounting the same experiences to the filmmakers. These moments are short but deeply affecting.

Much of the run time of the documentary explores the vast decades-spanning artifice of rationalisation and supposition that was constructed to explain away Dylan’s story – an artifice that protected the presumption of innocence not only for Woody Allen, but for those who desired the status of appearing in his films, who interviewed him for the media, and identified with him and the culture he brought to screen. Amid this maelstrom, the film continuously draws the viewer back to the uncomplicated fact that Dylan was a child who spoke about abuse and was believed by her mother.

A reasonable conclusion at the close of Allen v. Farrow is that silence and scepticism are wholly congruent with the norms and structures of polite society, while disclosure and belief are acts of resistance that can come at great cost. At a time when our national leaders are expressing shock at the prevalence of sexual violence – even as allegations emanate from Parliament House itself – Allen v. Farrow gives us a detailed blueprint of the architecture of denial and normalisation that has left them so unprepared to deal with the crisis. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 3, 2021 as "Narratives of abuse".

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Michael Salter is the Scientia Associate Professor of Criminology at the University of NSW and an expert on child abuse and gendered violence.