The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In ‘Allen v. Farrow,’ looking for the last word on a notoriously unresolved story

A new documentary series on HBO dives deep into decades-old allegations of sexual assault against director Woody Allen, shown in New York in March 1993, by daughter Dylan Farrow. (Arnaldo Magnani/Liaison/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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The subject was “Manhattan.”

The documentary filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, whose four-part series “Allen v. Farrow” begins airing Feb. 21 on HBO, were discussing the films of Woody Allen. Their new production revisits the events of 1992, when Allen was discovered to be in a relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, the college-age daughter of his romantic partner Mia Farrow; in the midst of that revelation and a bitter custody battle, Allen was accused of sexually assaulting the couple’s 7-year-old daughter, Dylan Farrow.

“Allen v. Farrow” is the result of co-creator and producer Amy Herdy’s 3½ -year deep dive into the case, including an exhaustive reexamination of documents, tapes and interviews with corroborating witnesses. In addition to taking viewers inside the family’s story, the filmmakers pull back the lens to critique how incest and trauma are treated within a patriarchal criminal justice and family court system, and how power plays out in private and public spheres.

This documentary explores the accusation of sexual abuse against Woody Allen involving his then 7-year-old daughter and the trail of revelations that followed. (Video: HBO)

They also revisit parts of Allen’s oeuvre, using the director’s work as proof of the frequent charge that he has long harbored a disturbing fetish for portraying sexual relationships between teenage girls and older men.

Viewers can decide whether that’s entirely fair play. But Dick and Ziering clearly see disturbing links between Allen’s alleged behavior and his views of women, whether it’s the lovably ditsy title character of the rom-com “Annie Hall” or Allen’s portrayal of a 42-year-old man in love with a 17-year-old high school student in “Manhattan.”

“Obviously he’s a very skilled filmmaker, there’s no question about that,” Dick said regarding Allen. “But one of the things that struck me, especially to some degree about ‘Annie Hall,’ which made me slightly uncomfortable the way the characters are presented, but especially [about] ‘Manhattan’ [was] that celebration of an older man’s relationship with a teenager, without any kind of analysis of the power structure. I was very suspicious of that.” So suspicious, he added, that when it was first released, “I didn’t watch the film.”

Although Dick and Ziering have made films about well-known people before, “Allen v. Farrow” is on an entirely different order of fame, public notoriety and complexity. Now 85, Woody Allen and his wife, Soon-Yi Previn, did not respond to the filmmakers. Allen’s son, Moses Farrow, declined to participate in the film, and both he and Previn have defended Allen and accused Mia Farrow of verbally and physically abusing them, a charge Farrow’s other children vehemently deny. Allen’s voice is nevertheless present in “Allen v. Farrow,” in the form of clips from his 2020 audiobook “Apropos of Nothing,” as well as in taped phone calls with Mia Farrow. The series’ compelling and self-possessed gravitational center is Dylan, 35, who after decades of silence is now eager to share her story and push back against Allen’s contention that she either confabulated his behavior toward her or was coached by her mother. (Allen was never criminally charged and has maintained his innocence.)

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Over the years, those who had an interest in the story in the 1990s have dug into their respective worldviews: Allen is a pervert and a narcissist, who at worst assaulted his young daughter and at the very least committed breathtakingly callous boundary violations within the Farrow family. Or, Allen is the victim of a scurrilous false accusation that was originally hurled within the context of a bitter breakup and is now being resurfaced by vindictive adult children. (Allen’s son Ronan Farrow, a journalist who helped break the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse allegations story that launched the #MeToo movement in 2017, has been particularly avid in his support of Dylan and vitriol toward Allen.) Those who avoided the story have been content to relegate it either to unsavory tabloid fodder, the bizarre psychodrama of a dysfunctional family or the realm of “We’ll never know for sure.”

Regardless of where they fall along that continuum, “Allen v. Farrow” invites audiences to reexamine their most closely held assumptions. Like Dick and Ziering’s previous films — “The Invisible War,” “The Hunting Ground” and “On the Record” — “Allen v. Farrow” addresses the issue of alleged sexual assault, in this case incest, a subject they had long wanted to tackle. Like those previous films, it is both methodically reported and deeply emotional, presenting an absorbing and often discomfiting alternate history to the one many people reflexively accepted in the 1990s — a version of reality that Dick and Ziering maintain was the result of a shrewdly effective campaign on the part of Allen’s lawyers and PR team.

Herdy has done a particularly granular job of illuminating the institutional lapses that prevented Dylan from getting her day in court: “Allen v. Farrow” finds serious flaws in the Yale-New Haven Hospital report used by Allen as proof of his exoneration, and it makes a persuasive case that another report, from New York child-welfare investigators, was covered up. The series also reminds viewers that the Connecticut state prosecutor in the case has always maintained that he had probable cause to charge Allen, although he declined to do so.

Beyond the specifics of the case, “Allen v. Farrow” offers a pointed challenge to film critics and entertainment reporters as it casts a skeptical eye on auteur worship, celebrity culture, separating the art from the artist, and the complicity of compartmentalization. And it serves as yet one more skirmish in a conflict that has been waged primarily through the media for almost 30 years.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Q: Where were each of you with this story as you went in, in terms of your understanding of it and how you chose to think about it?

Kirby Dick: I really didn’t feel like I knew the facts, per se. I did know a number of things. I knew that most survivors of sexual assault and most survivors of incest are telling the truth. So I just instinctively felt there was a high likelihood that Dylan was telling the truth. But I did not know the facts at that time. The other thing that struck me, when the story broke, was the way that Mia was vilified. And that struck me as very misogynistic, even at that time. I thought, “This seems to me to be a classic move to denigrate mothers.” In our society, mothers often take the blame for everything, and this just seemed to be an extension of it.

Amy Ziering: I know that I was very much influenced by the media spin of the ’90s. I was of that generation. So that was a strong narrative running through my mind that I hadn’t really interrogated.

Q: The reason I asked you both is that I feel that's what your film asks all of us to do. Like Amy, I wasn't that engaged with the story in the '90s. It felt tawdry and unfortunate and sad. So, to the degree that I internalized it, I put it in that compartment of "icky" and "We'll never really know the truth" — those rhetorical devices we rely on to distance ourselves.

KD: What’s so interesting about that is that the Woody Allen campaign accomplished exactly the two things that he wanted to do. One, that you will never know the truth, therefore he’s innocent until proven guilty. And two, that it’s icky and I don’t even want to examine it, I don’t even want to think about it. Now look at it from Dylan and Mia’s side. They’re just trying to tell their story and they get overwhelmed by the effectiveness of the campaign.

Q: Woody Allen mastered his generation of media — Time, Newsweek, "60 Minutes" — and that generation grew up internalizing his version of events. Now a new generation, Ronan and Dylan, are mastering a new media culture — Twitter and blog posts and this documentary, frankly. Already I'm looking at comments saying this is one-sided. Woody isn't in it, Moses isn't in it, Soon-Yi isn't in it. That makes it easy for people who have defended him all these years to dismiss it. Where do you want this series to situate itself in this ongoing media narrative?

KD: One thing is, obviously, the comments that are coming out before people have even seen it —

Q: But it is one-sided. They're not in it.

KD: They’re not in it; of course, we asked them to be in. And they chose not to. . . . But I think a lot of that reaction that you’re seeing is that Woody’s story is out there, all the facts and the deeper dive, the real investigation that Amy Herdy led and accomplished has yet to be out there, and that’s what this series is. I think a lot of people, when they see this — even people who right now are defending Woody Allen — I think they will either change their mind or examine things in a much different way.

Q: [But] we were raised with certain notions of due process that we all had faith in. And in this particular instance, those institutions failed, for various reasons. If this is how people get accountability in the absence of other avenues, I'm still not 100 percent comfortable with it.

KD: There are many ways to get accountability, obviously. . . . [And] obviously the justice system is more skewed against sexual assault survivors. That’s really been established. . . . But I still think it’s the responsibility of journalists and investigative filmmakers to also get these stories out. Because this is what helps change the institutions.

AZ: You’ve been a little naive if you really think it’s been a fair shake all along. It’s also a fallacy to think that our films are about a particular incident. It’s more about the systemic. This film is about complicity, the power of celebrity, the power of spin, how we all are viral and will believe something that’s repeated enough.

Q: Dylan and Ronan have not hesitated to call out Woody Allen, the actors who work with him and the journalists who cover him, especially when he has a new movie coming out. Now we have this series. Can you clarify or illuminate what they want?

KD: I don’t think we ever asked them what they want. We didn’t ask them that. We weren’t doing this because of what they wanted. . . . What I find is, each time we make a film, we go deeper and we have so much more to learn. That’s what’s revelatory to me, is that I go into this subject matter thinking I’ve kind of got it. And yet again, it’s one more process of discovery. So for us, it’s not so much and it never was about what they want. It’s about what we’re trying to accomplish as filmmakers.

Q: Your film "The Hunting Ground" includes an allegation that Jameis Winston committed sexual assault while he was a student at Florida State University; he went on have a career in the NFL. Despite credible accusations, [music executive and "On the Record" subject] Russell Simmons is living his life, seemingly without repercussions. As you note in "Allen v. Farrow," Woody Allen is still making movies. Does that pain you?

KD: People who are powerful, just because something’s reported on them, they don’t automatically lose all their power. What happens is that, the adulation of celebrities and the protection of celebrities starts getting questioned. So the next time something like this happens, instead of people just saying, “She’s completely lying, she’s [being coached]” or “It’s he said/she said,” they’ll say, “Wait a minute. I know I’m only getting one side of the story here, let’s wait.” I think that’s what you’re getting from the younger generation. They don’t go to “There’s two sides to the story,” because they’re educated in the fact that 92 to 98 percent of sexual assault survivors are telling the truth.

Q: But if I'm honest, I do have some misgivings about that. I promise you I'm not going to going use the term "cancel culture," but the stance of refusing to see or review another Woody Allen film — I guess this is my age talking, but that's not the way I learned how to do my job. You contend with the work in front of you. It's not separating the art from the artist, it's sitting with the art and the artist and making space for all of it.

AZ: The world is filled with brilliant, flawed people. That doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate and approve of their brilliance. But you can make a choice when you realize your economically supporting them allows them to do awful things, and allows to give cover to the awful things. So that’s where your responsibility as a consumer comes in. And everyone’s going to come down on a different side of that. . . . It would pain me to know that someone’s perpetrating violent acts on other people and getting away with them because I’m giving them box office support. And there is a one-to-one translation of that. As they accrue more power, they accrue more protection.

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Q: Another thing that really comes through in "Allen v. Farrow" is what incredible work Mia Farrow did during that 12-year period with Woody Allen, which circles back to another issue with how we contend with his work. Those people who choose to reject the Woody Allen canon are rejecting Mia Farrow's canon, too. Did you ever talk to her about that?

KD: You do see examples of her work and her range, even in this, that will allow audiences to come back to her as an actor and to see how skilled she is. And of course, a lot of her work has to be seen in Woody Allen films. Even that’s a Catch-22 for her in a way. But that is her life.

Q: Just to be fully transparent, I've been in constant evolution around this story. But I've never been comfortable with saying, "I'm not going to deal with Woody Allen's films." It's just been extremely uncomfortable. And maybe that's where we belong. Just sitting with that discomfort.

AZ: Maybe it’s uncomfortable for you, but it’s been uncomfortable for so many other people for so long.

KD: You know, this is interesting. Obviously we had conversations with critics [who appear in “Allen v. Farrow”] who’d been analyzing his work and thinking about their personal experience of it. But you’re the first person we’ve had this discussion with who’s seen the [series] and is now dealing with your own journey and experience and past. It’s interesting to hear your process and struggles as a writer about film.

Q: And I'll admit, another piece of this I'm ambivalent about, and this gets to this new generation's means of production and accountability, is the calling out of the actors [who defend or continue to work with Woody Allen]. I have to sit with that, too. I don't know how I feel about that.

KD: Well, first of all, if it’s your story, and your story is not being told, and in fact the person who has done this to you is getting celebrated, you have every right to speak out and say, “Look, please stop the celebration of this person.” That’s the first thing. But again, there’s a machine at play. And this is starting to throw a little bit of sand into the machine supporting celebrity and protecting celebrity. People who do speak out about the actors are saying, “Wait, let’s not let that machine run at perfect speed and accomplish everything it’s going to accomplish. Let’s slow it down and stop it so that maybe the truth gets out.”

AZ: Ann, if it’s any consolation, it’s possible to create great art and not hurt people. It doesn’t need to be this conundrum. And it’s possible that by calling people to account, it keeps bad behavior in check so that people don’t abuse their positions of power.

Q: Amy, I agree with you and I've written about the same thing. I do think, though, that this is such a singular case. And I don't mean that to exonerate or put an asterisk on it, but not once has Woody Allen been accused of poor behavior on-set. This is not his work life. This is his private life, [which admittedly looks bad in] this movie. But I guess that gets back to what we all want. That he never work again? Is that our only form [of accountability] now as a society to adjudicate a case that for various reasons wasn't properly adjudicated? What would a suitable outcome be to all of this?

KD: Well, it’s really not about him.

Q: It's called "Allen v. Farrow"! It is about him!

KD: But ultimately, each individual person can answer that question for themselves. If there was just one case of incest in history, we would never have made this film. It’s really about this issue and how it’s treated and the experience of people who go through it that echoes millions of times throughout this country and tens of millions of times or more throughout the world. That’s what it’s about and that’s where we want things to change. Yes, we would like some focus on Woody Allen as well, but that’s a small part of the impact of what we want this series to accomplish.

Q: I keep thinking of an encounter late in the film, when Dylan has a conversation with one of the adults who was familiar with her case in 1992. It just encapsulated all the institutions that failed her, for whatever reason. And I thought of that Martin Luther King Jr. quote about riots being the language of the unheard, and I thought of these sorts of movies being the language of the "unseen and disbelieved," as Dylan puts it in your film. And I think it's important and it's valuable, but there's still a little part of me that feels caught up in this endless, confounding cycle of competing narratives.

AZ: Well, what we most want, obviously, is for people to come with an open mind and not think they know the story. And see what our investigative work uncovered and see where it takes them. And it really is, for us, a looking glass. It’s a looking glass at ourselves, at our evolution in terms of misogyny and sexism and sexual abuse and incest and the criminal justice system, and where we were at, where we are right now and hopefully where we want to next go. . . . This is so interesting. We test-screened [the series], but we never got into these kinds of discussions. It’s fascinating. It’s hard.

Allen v. Farrow, a four-part series, premieres Feb. 21 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.

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