Organizers of the 5th Zurich Film Festival certainly couldn’t have imagined that they would be at the center of an international incident drawing the attention of the worldwide media. With only a half decade under its belt and a lineup that includes 60 international titles, the festival has nonetheless attracted high-profile names in recent years, including Oliver Stone in 2007 and Oscar-winner Costa Gavras and Sylvester Stallone in 2008. Actress Debra Winger, who heads the jury at this year’s ZFF, underscored the unusual circumstance the event has found itself in during a press conference in Zurich, saying, “This fledgling festival has been unfarily exploited and whenever this happens, the entire art world suffers.” While other guests such as Morgan Freeman are expected at the Zurich fest (Freeman will receive the festival’s “Golden Icon Award”), the sudden arrest of Roman Polanski en route to the festival four days ago has cast a heavy shadow over the young film event, which continues through October 4.
“It was a huge shock, we were so surprised. We never thought something like that could happen,” Zurich Film Festival co-director Karl Spoerri told indieWIRE by phone Wednesday afternoon about Saturday’s arrest of filmmaker Polanski. “I mean, he’s a regular visitor in Switzerland and he owns a home here, and he regularly travels throughout Europe.”
Polanski’s trip to Switzerland was touted by the festival in early August when it revealed he would accept the Golden Eye Award for life achievement at the event. The fest also planned a retrospective of his films, including “The Pianist,” which earned him the Academy Award for best director in 2002. Polanski was not present to receive the award in Los Angeles due to an outstanding warrant for his arrest stemming from a 1977 case of sexual intercourse with a 13 year-old girl.
Polanski later fled Los Angeles for France after he believed the judge was reneging on a plea deal. The drama and judicial mishaps of the case are detailed in Marina Zenovich’s Sundance doc, “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired,” which alleges the judge in the case, now deceased, was more interested in celebrity then justice.
Though Polanski has traveled through Europe in the decades since, he has avoided countries with a strong extradition treaty with the United States, including Great Britain. But the director, who lives primarily in Paris, has been known to frequent Switzerland, and he reportedly spent a significant amount of time at his home in Gstaad, Switzerland this summer. His pending American arrest warrant, in fact, was never even considered by organizers of the Zurich Film Festival when they first learned of his detention over the weekend.
“We went to the airport to welcome him and pick him up,” said Spoerri. “We were just standing there and we thought maybe he had missed his flight, but then forty-five minutes later, someone from the airport came and said he had been arrested.” Spoerri continued, saying that they tried to immediately get him released, but that they weren’t allowed to have any contact with the 74 year-old filmmaker.
“Two hours later, someone told us why he had been arrested, which came as a shock becasue we didn’t [understand]. I never thought it could be an international situation – we were just so surprised.” Spoerri said that they immediately organized getting Polanski a local lawyer and that they were later able to speak with him. Although he declined to detail their conversation. The festival continued with the Polanski retrospective and award event in his absence.
“Personally, he’s one of my all-time heroes and I was so excited to meet him. And he was going to teach master-classes to 25 young talents, and it all came to an end. It’s just so sad,” Spoerri said.
On the topic of the crime in which Polanski was convicted back in the ’70s, Spoerri added, “This case is from 31 years ago. I saw the documentary ‘Wanted and Desired,’ which I think brings up a lot of valid questions [about the case]. I’m not interested in his personal life, I admire him for his work and his inspiration to new generations.” Spoerri likened the current situation with the Michael Jackson phenomenon, saying that he found it surreal how admirers can so quickly become despisers of a public figure and vice versa.
While it remains to be seen whether Polanski will face a California judge, the BBC reports that a “backlash” is brewing over initial support for Polanski by high profile members of the French government, including the foreign and cultural ministers who called for his release. A French government spokesperson has called the 1978 case a “serious affair” and the Polish Prime Minister has distanced initial Polish government efforts to free him, telling his ministers, according to BBC, to show “great restraint” in defending him. Polanski holds joint French and Polish citizenship.
Meanwhile, high profile members of the creative world have defended Polanski via a petition urging his immediate release. Over 100 people, including Americans Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Alexander Payne and Julian Schnabel have joined their counterparts from other countries to add pressure to Swiss authorities.
Echoing that sentiment, Zurich’s Spoerri told iW, “We’re all very mad at the Swiss government right now.”