Harvey Weinstein Accusations: How Film Festival Environments Provided a Backdrop For Sexual Assault

In 1995, Harvey Weinstein tried to give Mira Sorvino a massage, chasing her around the room when she rebuffed him. In 1996, he sexually assaulted rising French actress Judith Godrèche in a hotel room; a year later, he had another incident with Rose McGowan. In 2008, actress Louisette Geiss fled a hotel room where Weinstein tried to get her to watch him masturbate. In 2010, he tricked another French actress, Emma de Caunes, into visiting a hotel room where he exposed himself and tried to get her to lie down. 

In all of these accounts, Weinstein seemed to think that the relative privacy of the hotel room provided him with a sanctuary in which he could perform deplorable acts on whomever he pleased, but the context was more specific than that: In every instance, he was at a film festival. 

The Sorvino incident allegedly took place at the Toronto International Film Festival, while Godrèche and de Caunes say they dealt with Weinstein’s grotesque maneuvers at Cannes. Geiss and McGowan were at Sundance. These environments are key to understanding the atmosphere of abuse and secrecy that sustained Weinstein’s behavior through the decades.

Along with his brother Bob, Weinstein’s Miramax fostered a mythology surrounding the birth of the American independent film industry. In between world premieres, it was a world of aggressive dealmaking, late-night parties, and raucous showdowns between talent, industry veterans, and audience members. That mythology also allowed Harvey Weinstein to preside like a deity over a world that he created from scratch. 

It was also a total lie. 

Sundance, contrary to popular belief, did not emerge solely from Weinstein’s decision to buy “sex, lies and videotape” at the festival in 1989 or his willingness to provide a platform for Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” a few years later. While Weinstein may have been a pivotal figure in championing these works, alongside others from the likes of Michael Moore (“Fahrenheit 9/11”) and Kevin Smith (“Clerks”), he didn’t own its identity. Robert Redford and others engineered Sundance as a brilliant contrast to the homogenized content churned out by Hollywood, and it remains one of several U.S. institutions playing that role today. American independent film stemmed far beyond the specific influence of one pervy cinephile willing to open his pocketbook. 

Harvey Weinstein at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival

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In fact, removing Harvey’s hulking shadow from American independent film reveals a much more complex portrait. Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It” and Jim Jarmusch’s “Stranger Than Paradise” were both early ’80s phenomena that galvanized moviegoing audiences and inspired filmmakers to work beyond the constraints of the studio system. A few years later, Richard Linklater’s “Slacker” gave voice to a generation. Harvey didn’t make any of them.

Wes Anderson’s first feature “Bottle Rocket” wasn’t a Harvey discovery, nor was Paul Thomas Anderson’s debut “Hard Eight.” Harvey had little to do with the seminal works of New Queer Cinema to emerge out of Sundance in the ’90s; his alleged Midas touch stayed away from Todd Haynes’ “Poison,” Gregg Araki’s “Doom Generation” and Rose Troche’s “Go Fish.” 

Anyone who has attended major film festivals knows these environments take on their own specific gravity. At Cannes, the notion of art cinema as a major force worthy of red carpets and waves of paparrazi stands in stark contrast to a challenging marketplace. It’s also treated as an excuse for industry professionals to party late into the night, acting as though the round-the-clock professional environment means that the rules of traditional human behavior have changed. Sometimes that gets called out, as when cops arrested Emile Hirsch after he drunkenly attacked a woman at Tao’s annual Sundance party — but more often, what happens at a film festival stays at a film festival.

Harvey’s imposing figure exploited this system better than anyone else — and his behavior threatened to ruin it for the rest of us. Film festivals should be fun, energizing opportunities to engage with the movies, especially when the rise of streaming and VOD platforms means moviegoing has become an increasingly private experience. Film festivals provide an essential contrast by offering social context to the process of discovering the art form.

Harvey Weinstein last month in New York City

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At this point, Weinstein doesn’t have a company and the one he co-founded is struggling for survival — but while Weinstein was the most famous offender, he’s not alone. Just a few weeks ago, accusations against members of the Fantastic Fest community cast a harsh light on its capacity to enable sexual assaulters and silence victims. 

So how can film festivals take charge and do their part to prevent another Harvey? That remains an open question. We put that question to Sundance, Cannes, and Toronto; only Toronto and Sundance responded (an earlier version of this story only included the TIFF statement; Sundance weighed in after its publication).

“No woman should have to face sexual harassment,” TIFF told IndieWire in a statement. “TIFF salutes the courage of all who speak up, and we commit to fostering a safe environment for women in film.”

A spokesperson for Sundance Institute said: “The Sundance Institute and Film Festival denounce, in the strongest possible terms, the behavior of Harvey Weinstein as described by the growing number of women who have bravely come forward. The accusations are abhorrent and profoundly disturbing. We recognize that too often a pattern of abuse like this one thrives in the shadows, and we stand in solidarity with the courageous women whose honesty has helped shine a light on it.”

Eventually, every festival will have to reckon with its ability to sustain breaches of its ethical standards. One idea: Create a visible sanctuary on festival grounds, with security and medical professionals, where anyone can find a neutral party when safety issues arise. Festivals need a system of checks and balances to ensure that — no matter how hectic and wacky circumstances become — there is a backstop to ensure overarching standards. 

So far, no festival has banned Weinstein from its premises (and, to be fair, they haven’t banned Woody Allen or Roman Polanski, either). However, as the industry wrestles with these revelations, it will need to continue exploring not only how the media and the industry were complicit in hiding Harvey’s behavior, but also how the foundations of that culture allowed him to loom large in the first place. 

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