Despite reports that the world premiere screening of Dan Reed’s two-part “Leaving Neverland” series at the Sundance Film Festival would be beset by protestors, the Friday morning screening at Park City’s Egyptian Theatre unfolded without much in the way of outside drama.
Inside the theater, however, audience members who sat through the four-hour-long series endured a devastating and often grueling look inside the experiences of two men who allege that Michael Jackson sexually abused them during their youth. Festival director John Cooper was on hand to introduce the film, during which he explained that for viewers who felt overwhelmed by the graphic descriptions of childhood abuse contained within the documentary, there were health care professionals on site to assist.
Reed’s project focuses on the stories of Wade Robson and James Safechuck, long-time fans of Jackson’s whose own career aspirations brought them into the singer’s orbit, unspooling strikingly parallel stories of childhood abuse that have continued to impact their adult lives. Both Robson and Safechuck previously advocated on Jackson’s behalf — as young boys, they were both interviewed during a 1993 case in which Jackson’s first accuser, Jordan Chandler, went public with allegations of abuse; later, Robson very publicly testified during a 2005 trial involving yet another accuser — and have only in the last six years come forward with their own accusations.
It was after Robson went public with his alleged story in 2013 that Safechuck revealed his own story to his family, and the pair have filed their own lawsuits against his estate in the years since. Because of Robson and Safechuck’s previous support of Jackson and claims that he never molested them, fans of Jackson have decried the documentary and asked the festival to pull it, while Jackson’s own estate has hit back at the project as “another lurid production in an outrageous and pathetic attempt to exploit and cash in on Michael Jackson.”
After the premiere, Reed and both Robson and Safechuck were on hand for a 15-minute question and answer session that kicked off with a standing ovation from the Egyptian’s audience. Both Robson and Safechuck maintained that they received no financial compensation for the project, and that for them, their involvement was inspired by the hope that it would help other victims of childhood sexual abuse.
“This was really just trying to tell the story and shine light on it,” Safechuck said. “The same way, knowing that Wade went through it, if we can give other people that same connection and comfort that we’ve gone through something like this, that’s the point.”
Robson added, “That was the goal of deciding to try the [legal] case route, was just looking for a platform to be able to tell the truth. … We can’t change what happened to us, and we can’t do particularly anything about stopping Michael. I mean, he’s dead, that’s gone. What happened, happened. So the feeling is, what can do with it now? How can we use this platform to tell the story? And hopefully, it helps other survivors feel less isolated, and it’s something they relate to and validates their story.”
Asked specifically about Jackson’s fans who do not believe Robson and Safechuck’s claim and have attempted to discredit them and the documentary, and if there is anything that could be done to encourage them to actually see the project, Robson provided a response that spoke to the personal conflict that is readily apparent in the project.
“I understand that it’s really hard for them to believe because, in a way, not that long ago, I was in the same position they were in,” Robson said. “Even though it happened to me, I still couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that what Michael did was a bad thing up until six years ago. So I understand. We can only accept and understand something when we’re ready, and maybe we’ll never be ready. Maybe we will. So that’s their journey.”
“Leaving Neverland” premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. It will be broadcast on HBO later this year.