by Hannah (who’s now writing so much I don’t think she needs the title of “Guest Poster”.
I’ve watched precisely two Roman Polanski films all the way through; both times with my school, and both were adaptations of books I was then studying. The first was “Macbeth” – a bizarre adaptation with lots of gratuitous nudity; the second was “Tess” – adapted from “Tess of the d’Urbervilles”. For those of you not familiar with Thomas Hardy’s tragic novel, it follows the fate of eponymous heroine, Tess Durbeyfield, an impoverished teenage girl, after she is sent to the household of a wealthy patron, by her dangerously naïve and complicit Mother, in a scheme to enable her to break into the social elite. She suffers an abusive sexual encounter with her new boss, possibly rape, possibly after being administered an illicit substance (even the author couldn’t decide on this point – the details of the incident are different in different editions of the book). This was an interesting choice of subject matter for Polanski – mirroring, as it did, an incident in his own life, in which he played the role of the predatory patron.
In 1977, less than two years before “Tess” was filmed, Polanski was arrested and charged with various sex offences against a 13 year old girl, whom he had taken to Jack Nicholson’s house and plied her with champagne and Quaaludes, having photographed her, ostensibly for modeling shots. She has always maintained that he raped her and her sworn testimony can be found here. At trial, Roman Polanski pleaded guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse in exchange for other, more serious, charges being dropped. The prosecutor accepted this plea in order spare the victim a full trial in front of the world’s media. Polanski served 42 days in a psychiatric hospital to undergo evaluation and expected to get off with probation. When he learnt that the judge planned to sentence him to prison and deportation he fled the country and hasn’t been back since, only living and working in countries that don’t have extradition treaties with the US. Astonishingly, this hasn’t had any negative effect on his career and he has produced a large body of work for which he has received numerous awards all while being on the run from justice.
So why is this now suddenly a story? In 2009, while on his way to receive a lifetime achievement award at the Zurich Film Festival, he was placed under house arrest in Switzerland, which lasted until Monday, when the US application for extradition was turned down. The case has ramifications beyond simple celebrity tittle-tattle. Within days of his arrest, last year, a petition calling for his immediate release was circulating, containing over 100 signatures, many of them from some of the world’s most renowned and influential artists. The text of the petition is a prime display of the sense of entitlement of the rich and famous. It describes Polanski as “one of the greatest living film makers” as if this, in and of itself, should grant him leniency from the authorities, not granted to mere mortals. It then expresses shock that “their international cultural event” – the film festival that Polanski was due to attend – should be tainted by such ugly matters as international law enforcement, and makes the extraordinary claim that film festivals should be sanctuaries for any artist who falls foul of any government for whatever reason – a status not recognised by any society and which they had entirely concocted out of their own pretensions. It also places great emphasis on the serious consequences extradition would have for Polanski – consequences he surely knew about when he committed his crimes, and which are what the law demands.
Since then Polanski’s supporters have clamoured for his release. Besides a constant stream of innuendo against his victim, these demands have rested on two claims, outlined by Agnes Poirier here and here. Firstly, that he was unfairly treated in his initial trial, in that the trial judge intended to give him a sentence far more severe than he was given to expect, when he pled guilty. This is despite the fact that his plea transcript shows that he knew he could face up to 10 to 15 years in prison and that the court was scrupulous in making him aware of his rights and the implications of his guilty plea. This claim rests, in essence, on the belief that Polanski has the right to determine what is and is not an appropriate sentence for him to serve, for his own, very serious offences. The second justification, is that his victim has long wanted to the case to be dropped and has publicly forgiven Polanski. It is true that she has said that “enough is enough” as well she might, given that every time that the case is reopened, she endures a flurry of media attention on her rape, and is minimised and sometimes even vilified by prominent cultural figures. Since last year, Whoopi Goldberg has been on American daytime TV saying that it wasn’t “rape-rape” and she has been described as a “hooker” by Gore Vidal in a magazine interview. While I am in no position to doubt her claims to have forgiven Polanski, her desire to see the matter closed can’t be separated from the hostile attention she has had to endure because of the case, the very situation Polanski was offered such a favourable plea to avoid.
In essence, what we have seen is a cultural elite use their powerful position to protect one of its members, by intimidating his victim into silence. He has the influential supporters and the wealth to fund his continued evasion of justice, while remaining in the limelight, and to mount a skilled defence should he ever come to trial. Prosecuting him seems near impossible so the only route to closure for her is in acquiescence. This illustrates the reason that her wishes should not be the prime factor in deciding whether the case should be pursued or not. A just society cannot be maintained by allowing the privileged to use their financial and cultural clout to avoid the consequences of their actions in law. This would send out the message that people like Roman Polanski can do whatever they like, and the little people, and their most fundamental rights and dignity, simply do not matter. This is particularly clear when compared to what should have happened. She should have had her anonymity protected throughout the legal process, he should have been convicted, and jailed, then deported and shunned and drifted off into obscurity – in spite of what a loss this would, undoubtedly, have been to the artistic world
So, Roman Polanski should be sent back to America to face justice. In the meantime I have no intention of contributing to his privileged position, during his lifetime, talented director though he may be. I look forward to the Polanski themed movie-marathon when he shuffles off this mortal coil. Hopefully the law will catch up with him before then.