I can’t recall feeling this sick to my stomach throughout a screening before. This isn’t necessarily a new feeling as every single news report about Harvey Weinstein published since The New York Times and The New Yorker first made the extensive accusations of sexual harassment and rape against him public knowledge sparked a stomach-churning sensation, but there was something about getting a concentrated dose of very personal, upsetting, and scarring experiences through the documentary Untouchable that was truly overwhelming. And at a film festival nonetheless, a place that celebrates independent cinema – the art that Weinstein preyed upon.
Untouchable is directed by Ursula Macfarlane and puts the spotlight on a number of Weinstein’s victims, covering his early days in Buffalo in 1978 working as a concert promoter to more recent encounters during which he was essentially one of the biggest, most formidable power players in Hollywood. And that’s precisely when Untouchable stands out from the substantial coverage we’ve seen thus far.
Since October 2017, we’ve seen countless articles detailing the initial accusations, the ones that followed and then the resulting rise of the Me Too Movement, and if you’ve been following along, you’re likely well versed in the disturbing subject matter. So, of course, that begs the question, how can a documentary make a difference? How can it be more than repetition of familiar facts, add something new to the conversation and maybe even make a real difference? Where Untouchable accomplishes that is through its personal testimonials.
The bravery required to tell the world about these deeply nightmarish experiences is absolutely mind blowing and you can really feel the pain of these women through the interview footage. There are certain things said that will be seared in my brain forever, like one woman who recalled Weinstein attempting to justify his actions by telling her, “Do you really want to make me an enemy for five minutes of your time?” And then there are moments when it’s not even about what’s being said. It’s about the silence after they tell their story that reminds you, this isn’t just something someone can get off their chest and shake off for good. When the camera stops rolling, they’re still stuck with the memory of what happened to them. It’s an absolutely crushing reminder of the permanent scars one suffers and, as a few interviewees mentioned, the fact that Weinstein took, and essentially destroyed, a piece of them.
Macfarlane is working with a wealth of compelling footage when it comes to the personal testimonials, but where Untouchable loses a bit of its poignancy is with the material in between, the sound bites detailing the surface specifics of Weinstein’s career that connects one crushing account to the next, most of which is covered by scenic visuals of Manhattan that don’t add much to the piece. Similarly, Macfarlane does scratch the surface of holding those familiar with Weinstein’s behavior who did nothing accountable for their actions (or lack thereof), but I suspect much more digging could have been done on that end, and if it required an extra hour of screen time, I most certainly would have sat through it. Much like a scripted film that doesn’t just tell you the facts but rather, makes you feel and understand them, Untouchable is at its most effective when the combined force of these women firmly establishes the systemic problem of severe abuse of power.
The concern regarding long term change and not assuming the loss of a job, criminal charges or a prison sentence will quickly fix the problem is very real and I’m of the opinion that one way to help ensure that long term change happens is by continuing the conversation. Untouchable highlights the importance of speaking up, but also offers a real understanding of why some might be apprehensive to do so.
I walked out of Untouchable desperate for a more extensive, hopeful ending – perhaps a very specific path we could take to assuredly suck Weinstein’s venom out of this industry. But Untouchable doesn’t offer an easy out, rather it extensively details how Weinstein played a big part in creating abhorrent, deep seeded industry norms that exploit the very reason why I, for one, am in this industry; because I love cinema. He targeted women with dreams and used that passion to manipulate them. It’s sickening but Untouchable marks yet another step forward in the lengthy journey of overturning years worth of bad behavior together, and also establishing and then upholding the positive pillars of creativity, equality, collaboration, and just making the film industry (and many beyond it) the safe, inspiring space it should be.
For more of our Sundance 2019 coverage, click here or on the links below.
- Hail Satan?
- The Hole in the Ground
- The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley
- Native Son
- Troop Zero
- Untitled Amazing Jonathan Documentary