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Going Back to The Scene of an Auteur's Crime

By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 8, 2008

CANNES, France -- Before the new documentary about Roman Polanski and his statutory rape case had its gala opening here at the film festival (and isn't that a mouthful), there was speculation that the 74-year-old Oscar-winning director might come down from his home in Paris to attend the screening. But that never really made sense.

He would stroll the red carpet? Not for "Rosemary's Baby," "Chinatown" or "The Pianist," but for a 99-minute film that at its heart is an investigation into his crime and punishment -- the crime being "unlawful sexual intercourse" with a 13-year-old girl, which Polanski pleaded guilty to before he fled from Los Angeles to Paris as a fugitive 30 years ago.

"I watched it wondering what it would have been like if he were there," says Marina Zenovich, the director of "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired," which premieres on HBO on Monday at 9 p.m. "It's very, very personal stuff that's going on there for him, and I don't know how he would feel watching it."

The documentary contains interviews with lawyers, police, journalists and the victim herself, Samantha Geimer (now 45, married, living in Hawaii), that suggest Polanski, though guilty of having sex with a minor, was perhaps also a victim -- or as Polanski complained at the time, "I was some kind of mouse" played with by "an abominable cat." The cat being a publicity-obsessed county judge who manipulated the proceedings, lied to attorneys and misled the public, according to the film, in a case that foreshadows the carnival trials to follow, those of Phil Spector, Robert Blake, Michael Jackson, O.J. Simpson.

Whatever else it accomplishes -- and the critics have praised the documentary for its subtle dexterity and thoroughness -- it may shed new light on Polanski's decision to board a flight to Europe and never return. Even Polanski's prosecutor, former Los Angeles assistant district attorney Roger Gunson, says in the film he might have done the same thing.

"This isn't an apology project for Roman Polanski," says Zenovich, a Los Angeles filmmaker who sat for an interview on a windy hotel roof the day after her film was shown in Cannes. "But even people who think they recall the details of the case may be surprised. I know I was surprised."

There are many films that could be made about the extreme life of Roman Polanski, which includes genius and tragedy, as well as violence and disgust. There is the boy Roman, a French Polish Jew, who survived in a barn during the Nazi extermination campaigns in Poland that saw his father imprisoned in a slave-labor camp and his mother taken away to Auschwitz, where she died in the death chambers.

The young auteur goes on to conquer London and Hollywood, where he arrives with beautiful new wife Sharon Tate. While Polanski is away, Tate and four others are slain by members of the Charles Manson cult in the summer of 1969. Tate was eight months pregnant; her assailants scrawl in blood the word "pig" on the walls. The media speculate that the couple's Benedict Canyon home was the scene of wild orgies and Polanski, because of his lifestyle, because of "Rosemary's Baby," was somehow culpable in his wife's murder.

After the Manson murders, Polanski rebuilds his life, achieving great success with "Chinatown." But then in 1977, in a photo shoot he was asked to do for a French fashion magazine, Polanski and a ninth-grader who wanted to be an actress spent the afternoon and evening alone at his friend Jack Nicholson's house -- with champagne and a hot tub.

Zenovich was just beginning her research when the grand jury testimony was unsealed. "I was reading, going: 'Oh my God, oh my God, this is awful. I don't want to do this.' Then the girl and her lawyer went on the Larry King show, and I was fascinated by the case."

King: "Did he forcibly rape you?"

Geimer: "You know, I said no. I didn't fight him off. I said, like, 'No, no, I don't want to go in there, no. I don't want to do this, no.' And then I didn't know what else to do. We were alone. And I didn't want to -- I didn't know what would happen if I made a scene. I was just scared and after giving some resistance, figured, well, I guess I'll get to go home after this."

Toward the end of the King interview, Geimer's lawyer, Lawrence Silver, says, "What happened that day, both to Polanski and to some extent the American judicial system, I really think it was a shameful day."

Zenovich: "That was the bing! That didn't make sense. Why would the girl's lawyer say that? That's what I decided to make a movie about."

In a plea bargain, the director served 42 days in state prison undergoing psychiatric observation. He was then to be released with time served. But the judge, Laurence Rittenband, told the lawyers in the case that he was feeling pressure from the public, and that he planned to sentence Polanski to 50 years in prison, but that Polanski could elect to have himself deported instead. The judge was also instructing the lawyers what to say in his courtroom, so that the judge would seem stern and tough, but that behind the scenes, Polanski would be released. Or so we are told. Rittenband, the villain of the documentary, died in 1993.

In the Zenovich film (and on "Larry King Live"), Geimer does not forgive Polanski. Instead, she says she believes he has been punished enough. To King, she says the publicity surrounding the case -- she was never named, but she said everyone in high school knew it was her -- was the worst. "The publicity was so terrible, that -- and so immediate that -- it just overshadowed everything that happened that night," she said.

For the film, Zenovich pursued Polanski through intermediaries. Polanski knew, of course, she was making the film. His godson, Adam Bardach, assisted Zenovich, and it is obvious that Polanski gave his permission to his close friends and his lawyer to speak.

As she was completing the film, Zenovich tried Polanski one last time.

"He called me back and said let's meet. I met him at a bar, a nice French bar near his home. It was great to lay eyes on him after seeing him in my head for so long. We talked about the film."

Was there anything you were dying to ask him?

"Yes and no, because I didn't want to ask him anything until I had a camera. I was still toying with the idea of trying to talk him into doing the interview," Zenovich says. "But he said no. I'm really sorry, but no. He thinks it would look like self-promotion. He said: 'I don't want to be a prima donna. But I'm sorry but I don't think I should be in the film.' "

Steven Soderbergh, who gave Zenovich money to develop the film, told her it was better that Polanski wasn't in the documentary. "It's a mistake. I knew it was, but I wanted to interview him!" Zenovich says.

To ask that one question -- that it was wrong what he did?

"It's a very tricky subject," Zenovich says. " I probably would have wanted him to apologize on the record, on a camera, for the Americans, because that is what the Americans need to hear. It's almost like I'd have to get that out of him. I think he's felt badly about it, but he just doesn't go on about it."

Zenovich did give Polanski a DVD of her film. "He told me it was very good filmmaking and asked me what's next," Zenovich says.

Next, in his case?

"No, what's my next film project," she says.

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