Let’s Go to the TapeFilmmaker Amy Ziering on Bias and Belief in HBO’s “Allen v. Farrow”

a black and white photo captures Soon-Yi Previn, an Asian American teen, holding hands with Dylan Farrow, a small, white child, and Woody Allen, an aging white man with glasses

Soon-Yi Previn, left, Dylan Farrow, and Woody Allen (Photo credit: Courtesy of HBO)

I’m not proud to say that when I saw a preview for HBO’s limited docuseries Allen v. Farrow, my first reaction was a heavy sigh of frustration. What possible good, I wondered, could come from further speculation and debate about a case of—depending on whom you believed—either child sexual abuse or a vindictive revenge plot hatched by a woman scorned? The battle lines were entrenched, and each bit of new information that came to light was made a cudgel by one side against the other. In a world that remains stubbornly insistent that sexual assault is a matter of opinion as much as one of criminal behavior, could more information make a difference?

Since 1992, when beloved filmmaker Woody Allen split from longtime partner and muse Mia Farrow after she discovered he was having an affair with her 21-year-old adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn; was accused by Farrow of molesting their own 7-year-old daughter, Dylan; and sued Farrow for custody of both Dylan and their son Satchel (now Ronan), the saga has indulged the worst impulses of sexist cliché, gendered power dynamics, and male-auteur apologism. Mia was smeared as an opportunistic and even abusive child collector who brainwashed Dylan in her quest to punish Allen for the affair with Soon-Yi. And by the time Dylan, now 35, began speaking out about her experience amid Hollywood’s #MeToo awakening—yes, Woody molested her; no, she wasn’t coached by her mother to accuse him; yes, it was painful to see the film industry continue to lavish praise and awards on an abuser—Allen’s powerful PR machine was primed to dismiss anyone corroborating her story (including Ronan, who was among the investigative reporters who brought down #MeToo’s white whale, Harvey Weinstein) as a vector for Farrow’s lies. 

But if any filmmakers can prompt long-frustrated audiences to reassess what they think they know, it’s Allen v. Farrow’s Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering. The team behind 2012’s The Invisible War, 2015’s The Hunting Ground, and 2020’s On the Record have an unparalleled ability to spotlight both the humanity of their subjects and the bloodless efficiency with which powerful institutions and individuals protect sexual abusers and discredit victims. And each of Allen v. Farrow’s four episodes (as well as a companion podcast) add a wealth of both hard evidence and cultural context to a story people are confident they already know: Both Mia and Dylan Farrow sat for interviews, as did family friends, neighbors, nannies, and the Connecticut state prosecutor who oversaw the investigation. Dick and Ziering’s collaborator, journalist Amy Herdy, unearthed police records, sworn affidavits, and revelations about an investigation by New York’s Child Welfare Administration that was quashed due to what a caseworker termed “a strong political climate to shut this thing down.” (Allen himself declined to be interviewed for the film, but appears throughout via passages from the audiobook of his recent autobiography, Apropos of Nothing—and, perhaps more notably, in recorded phone calls with Farrow that find his trademark nebbishy vocal tics replaced by a chilling lack of emotion.) Most devastating, the series includes pieces of a video, shot by Mia, of 7-year-old Dylan telling her mother what happened in that Connecticut attic.

It’s easy to dismiss further coverage of the alleged incident and reason that we’ll never know the real truth, that the well has been so posioned in the decades since the Woody-Mia media circus that revisiting it is futile. Amy Ziering, for one, strongly disagrees; Bitch recently talked to her about what Allen v. Farrow has to tell us about power, bias, and belief.

So much of what came across in the series is about the power dynamics of storytelling and who gets to control how a story is told. I’ve seen criticism from people who insist that Mia and Dylan Farrow participating in Allen v. Farrow makes it inherently biased against Woody Allen—as though we haven’t heard his side almost exclusively for nearly 30 years. How do you feel the series works against the narrative that people have reflexively accepted because it came from Allen? Did you set out to do that?

We didn’t set out in any direction, initially. We kind of never do; I like to say our films find us. We happened to do an interview with Dylan for what was going to be a different project. And in the course of that interview, we learned there’s so much more [there] that you never read about. The [media] narratives that we had ingested, [that] had been espoused for decades, were radically incomplete. And a sleight of hand with those narratives is that you think they were “he said/she said” but they really were “he said, he said, he said, he said.” And what’s so clever about that is Woody embedded Mia as a voice in his own explanation of events; people thought they were hearing her side where [she] was vindictive, upset, angry. That’s all the “he” presentation of the “she.” I [wasn’t] aware that Mia had never spoken to the press, had never given an interview on camera, had just decided that the best route as a mother would be to not have this play out in public. She was quiet for that reason alone, not because of anything else. And so Woody could very much run the show and [control] the public narrative.

I don’t know if people know or remember that Woody was always extremely reticent to talk to the press [before then]—that was absolutely one of his flagship idiosyncrasies. And yet all of a sudden he’s talking, so that was a perfect storm. People are excited—“I finally get to talk to Woody Allen!”—and he gets to present whatever he wants [to] an eager and willing audience that is starved for Woody time. And no one said, “Hmm, I wonder why someone so reticent to speak is suddenly on the cover of magazines, and granting interviews to 60 Minutes—what might that be about?” That was never questioned, nor was his narrative ever really questioned or challenged. That was what we started unpacking as we [began] looking at this case.

Obviously, media was very different back then, but one of the ways people have let Allen’s version of events go unquestioned over the years is by saying, “Well, this is a sad story and a family matter and we’ll never know the truth of it.” Allen v. Farrow is in some ways a rebuttal of that—it is a family story, but not in the way we thought.

The most important thing I can do with any of these interviews is [remind] us to all be extremely cautious and careful [about] carrying water for the idea that anything that tells the truth is “one-sided.” It’s a rhetorical sleight-of-hand that is a reactionary sleight-of-hand. Actually we can know, and the fact that you hear a victim speak out doesn’t make it biased. Should no victims speak out about their [experiences]?

The reception of our film has been laced with this one-sided bias thing, and it just makes me crazy. I really want people to start thinking about how our whole move to “We need to hear the other side,” is a way of making everything a matter of opinion and debate as opposed to truth. And it’s a way that you ultimately empower oppressors and grant them impunity because you make everything murky and undefinable. It’s really insidious and it’s really harmful. [We’re] still happy to talk to Woody, Moses [Farrow], and anyone else who would like to talk with us; I’m sure HBO would do [another] episode. We just tracked what the investigators found; we tracked what the eyewitnesses saw. That’s what’s in front of you, and I don’t think it’s undecidable. I don’t think “We’ll never know.”

Do you think Mia would have been so easily demonized if she had been a more “traditional” parent? Allen absolutely made it central to the narrative that she was a bad parent. And it’s been appalling to see people who should know better say things like, “Well, two of her children died by suicide,” as though that’s evidence that she was abusive. It’s almost like people are relieved to have something to point to in order to feel okay about believing Allen.

Motherhood has its own particular strain of misogyny attached to it. And on top of that you have Woody, who’s absolutely beloved—people have, as Ronan [Farrow] says in [the] series, an existential attachment [to him], a love bond, a narcissistic bond, and an identification bond. So when those are threatened, that’s very triggering. The second thing is that, yes, this is a completely specious argument: You can molest a child, and a mother can be a horrible person. One does not negate the other. And yet, that this narrative has so much traction just shows you how eager we are to cling to a specious, misogynist agenda rather than hold white male criminals accountable.

I will say, and I said it in the podcast and in other places, [that] it’s baffling and disturbing to me that instead of celebrating Mia taking in children that had no other place to go—I mean, literally living on the street, and that’s not being hyperbolic—and offering them a home and a haven should be something you would think our initial impulse would be to celebrate, rather than to challenge. So that says a lot about us. I’ve said, more sarcastically, in other interviews, [that] my demographic is riddled with families with three children all in therapy 24/7, and yet [no one is asking] “How dare you have three children?” [Laughs.] That’s not ever challenged or questioned, and yet a woman who has the patient heart to look after shunned [children] is not revered, but is looked at like, “That’s really strange.” So, there’s all of that at play, and it’s just….really, really sad.

I had no preconceptions going into this. And we really did push hard to uncover what was true or not in [narratives] that had become commonplace. We just couldn’t find any allegations of abuse that Mia did. There was nothing even in the custody trial—you would think in a trial [that] had two appeals and in which each parent was rigorously investigated, someone would have mentioned [abuse].  We just couldn’t fact track a pattern that substantiated anything. What’s sad to me is we found the opposite: Mia was a remarkable mother. On a human basis, [it] was just sad that someone who was actually doing a really good job and had a really loving, close family had been viciously maligned—and that [people] are willing to believe that malice because of the power of these tropes.

Something that Allen’s defenders have said, and still say, as a workaround to saying they don’t believe Dylan is that they believe Dylan believes she was molested, which goes back to the whole Mia-coached-Dylan allegation.

If you’ve talked to any experts, coaching is extremely difficult to do. And the majority of children, once they’re older, don’t stick with the coaching. If you are successful at [coaching], it’s extremely rare for an adult person to not recant. We had experts and experts and experts look at the testimony inside and out and say that, as far as they could tell, it comports with authentic testimony; investigators at the time said it comported with authentic testimony.

Have you gotten any feedback or seen evidence that Dylan’s involvement in the series, and the fact that her story hasn’t changed, is changing people’s minds?

Yeah, we [have]. And that made me think of something else I wanted to say, [which is that] the other thing that’s elided in these stories is: Given that all the children told us—because no one is just one thing—that there were wonderful things about Woody as a parent, that he is so beloved, and Mia had a wonderful career with him, wouldn’t there be a lot more upside in not making this up? What’s to gain? What’s the net positive for Dylan in losing a stable, wealthy, powerful, pretty bitchin’ dad, if you ask me, that anyone would pretty much die for? What’s the upside for Mia? Talk about tracking a fact pattern: Frank Sinatra left her, gave her divorce papers on the set of Rosemary’s Baby—very traumatic—[but] she stayed friends with him until he died. In looking at the interview we did with Quincy [Farrow], she talks about how her mom took care of Andre Previn until his death, and Andre left Mia for her best friend!

If she were going to be vindictive, that would have been the moment.

It’s just infuriating. If you look at [Allen’s] press conferences, his [accusations of] Mia, there were so many people she would have had to somehow loop into her “insanity”—the other eyewitnesses, the investigators, the prosecutor, the police. Like all of them [were] duped and swayed to believe that one of our national heroes is a villain? It doesn’t make sense. And yet it was so natural for the media to run with it—and still is. That’s how powerful and toxic the patriarchal narrative is.

When you label something “activist,” that implies that there’s something unique about it and [that] it’s not simply something all of us need to be attentive to and responsible for.

That got me thinking about the larger body of work that you and Kirby have done together: films about women who come forward to discuss their experiences with sexual assault and are presented as unreliable witnesses by powerful institutions, when there is absolutely no incentive for them to do so.

Not only no incentive, but it’s punitive for them to do so. It’s punitive and stressful.

And yet there is still this cultural willingness to say it’s much more plausible that a person pulled a decades-long con than that institutions like the U.S. military or Hollywood or the recording industry have power that they don’t want to compromise. Have you seen any signs that this dynamic is shifting?

The Invisible War was only 12 years ago, and the culture then compared to now is unrecognizable; there has been a dramatic shift. When we pitched The Invisible War in 2010, we were established entities in the documentary field; we’d done things for HBO, we had things on the BBC. And what we heard across the board was [that] no one wants to hear women’s stories; no one wants to hear stories of women being raped; and certainly no one wants to hear stories about women being raped in the military. Over and over again. We couldn’t get any money.

So Kirby and I went on our own, by ourselves, drove around the country—he did camera, I did interviews—and that was The Invisible War. [We] met with 21 survivors, heard their stories, and ended up putting [the film] together and getting money just a couple months before Sundance. And, then, of course, that film broke the story of the epidemic of rape in our military; it ended up leading to five congressional hearings [and] 35 pieces of legislation passed. It was like a tsunami. And the good news was [that] the Pentagon, instead of rejecting us—because it wasn’t an anti-military film—kind of embraced it. It’s still a teaching tool. The culture has a long way to go, but it really did make an impact and a difference; [former Secretary of Defense Leon] Panetta saw it and changed military policy [in response].

#MeToo is something I never thought I’d see. The only reason we could actually do this project and On the Record—which also came out of that more exploratory project—was because people were, post–#MeToo, funding these kinds of stories. I remember Kirby called me after #MeToo [started] saying “Do you remember the talking points for The Invisible War and The Hunting Ground? The only thing we had to make sure we said was ‘Believe women,’ and that was radical?” [Laughs.] Now we can talk more about the nuanced and sophisticated ways misogyny works in Allen v. Farrow, and we can talk about misogynoir in On the Record. Things have dramatically changed.

Do you feel like the films you make about institutional power and silencing are activism?

No, I feel like they’re responsible. Let’s go back to this whole thing I have about rhetoric: Terms like “biased,” “one-sided,” “fair and balanced,” and “activism” all serve to keep the status quo in power. When you label something “activist,” that implies that there’s something unique about it and [that] it’s not simply something that all of us need to be attentive to and responsible for. And what that does then is it labels a certain set of people in a certain way and allows a reactionary narrative to take hold, which insists that they then have an agenda or a bias and then allows powers of oppression to dismiss and marginalize [them]. So no—I’m doing what every responsible citizen should do.

It’s true that “activism” has taken on a pejorative meaning when people talk about cultural products like films or books. Advocacy journalism has always existed, but it seems like the more people who are not white and not men get involved in it, the more pejorative those terms become.

I just reject those titles. I reject them for anyone. I don’t think Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is an activist; I think she’s responsible. Making people accountable for violations and crimes—that’s being a responsible citizen. That’s my mantra and that’s the hill I’ll die on. And that’s what I do. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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by Andi Zeisler
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Andi Zeisler is the cofounder of Bitch Media and the author of We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. You can find her on Twitter.