[8 February 2009]
Is it ironic, or expected, when a director – whose films like Knife in the Water, Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown dissect the warped sensibilities of humanity and the injustice in society – succumbs to those same sensibilities and is promptly given injustice? Roman Polanski’s life story has been well-publicized – his parents who were killed in the Holocaust, his immigration through multiple countries (Poland, England, the United States), his wife, Sharon Tate, a victim of the Manson family, his statutory rape conviction and his subsequent flee to France where he remains today in exile – but publicity is not storytelling, and Polanski’s story had yet to be told.
Marina Zenovich saw the opportunity to make something extraordinary based on a story and subject that everyone knew of but didn’t know much about. And a situation where everyone had an opinion, but no one deserved to.
In 2008, after five years in the making, Zenovich released Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, an impressive documentary about the charming and intelligent Poland-born director, and his tribulations with the Los Angeles court system and a particularly interesting judge, Laurence J. Rittenband. And now, with the release of the DVD, there are hours of additional interviews, criticisms and a feature-length commentary to submerse in the minutia of a compelling tale about justice not being served.
Though ample time is given to Polanski’s tragic background and his troubled relationship with the media, the main focus of the 99-minute feature is the 1977 trial and sentencing of the auteur’s “unlawful sexual intercourse” with a 13-year-old girl. Zenovich interviews just about everyone affiliated with the case including the prosecution, the defense, the victim and her attorney (Roger Gunson, Douglas Dalton, Samantha Geimer and Lawrence Silver), but expectedly, Polanski is nowhere to be found. Zenovich additionally talks with other elected officials, reporters and newscasters, and a litany of friends and colleagues who lend credence to Polanski’s seemingly questionable character, the most convincing and erudite coming from Mia Farrow.
Zenovich strives for impartiality at every turn and falters only slightly, an impressive feat given the subject matter. And though many will say that the film sides with Polanski, it’s important to remember that it’s not the film’s job or goal to execute or exonerate him. But more so to hold executioners and exonerators accountable for how they perform their tasks. The film never questions Polanski’s guilt; as far as everyone interviewed is concerned (including Polanski himself, in amazing archived footage), the director did indeed commit the crime of his conviction. But the film wants to see justice served to both the victim and the criminal. And just about everyone – the prosecution, the defense and the victim – are in agreement it was not.
Sadly, it appears Judge Rittenband was more concerned with his own press coverage than with providing fair sentencing. The media influence on Rittenband was very clear – he held a press conference before the trial was over; he consulted reporters, the district attorney and even people at his country club’s urinal about his sentencing (“What the hell should I do with Polanski?”); and not once, but twice, he held fake hearings for the media’s benefit on issues that had already been decided behind closed doors. He disregarded unanimous state recommendations and even his own word as soon as the media showed disapproval.
The media’s effect on the judge and Polanski are both profound and, thankfully, well documented. Zenovich uses the archival footage brilliantly throughout the film to bring to light the until now unlit. Though she uses some footage from aired reports, the vast majority is taken from the unused news reels, filled with the whirrs of 16mms and the clicks and snaps of photographs. The media’s ever-presence invades not only the judge’s and Polanski’s mind, but our own. And because the film wisely doesn’t attempt a large-scale criticism of American journalistic practices, and instead merely captures how such practices, beliefs and behaviors affected this specific case, the film keeps itself well-guarded against its own criticisms.
The film is genuine, thorough, and convincing. So convincing, in fact, it contains new evidence that might re-open the case to examination. After the Cannes premiere, defense attorney Dalton requested review of the possible malfeasance [Wikipedia’d for convenience] on the part of deputy district attorney David Wells (consulting outsiders for sentences, whether qualified or unqualified is quite illegal). Throughout this revitalized media three-ring, Polanski’s position has remained clear.
Though he would like to “leave a legacy of justice” with the case, he’s stated he has no intention of returning to the States. And really, with the adoration he receives in France and the scorn he’s subjected to across the Atlantic, it’s hard to argue with him.
Lastly, I’d like to mention the incredible special features on this DVD. The additional interviews, deleted scenes, criticisms and commentary (with Zenovich and editor Joe Bini) are wonderful. Anyone who’s gone through a doc research class knows the painstaking process of condensing hundreds of hours of footage, both archival and non, into a small palpable presentation. That palpability comes at the cost of hours truth and information. And though the documentary feature gives a part of the story, we’re left to find out the rest on our own.
With the addition of large amounts of digital storage space on DVDs/BluRays, the creators can give back parts of the story they had to leave out due to time allotment or story-telling constraints. The extras aren’t shoved in your face, but if you want to know more, instead of surfing the internet for second-hand, unreliable information, the documentarian can provide just about everything you could want. The full-length commentary specifically is insightful.
It’s especially nice to hear from Bini, as the editing on the film is fantastic. The seams are invisible among the archival footage, the interviews, the sound design and classic Polanski films that create this impressive narrative. A deft and smart DVD from start to finish.
We may all already have an opinion on the Roman Polanski case, but this documentary at least gives us a modicum of clout to back it up.