”Leaving Neverland”: on the ambivalent reception of a talking witness documentary [Paper]

Leaving Neverland was released almost ten years after the demise of celebrity pop singer Michael Jackson (1958-2009). In its four-hour course, Wade Robson (1982) and James Safechuck (1978) speak extensively about their childhood years, in which they claim to have been sexually abused by Jackson. Directed and produced by the British filmmaker Dan Reed (Children of the Tsunami, 3 Days of Terror: The Charlie Hebdo Attacks), and co-produced by Channel 4 (UK) and HBO (USA), the documentary film gained tremendous attention from media and audiences worldwide, especially after tailor-made versions were broadcast on television in several countries.

Thus opens my paper on a film that aroused endless discussions last year. I wrote the piece in the context of my final master course on documentary film (UvA, 2020). You can find the full text below and on Academia.

Leaving Neverland: on the ambivalent reception
of a talking witness documentary

Tim Bouwhuis

Leaving Neverland was released almost ten years after the demise of celebrity pop singer Michael Jackson (1958-2009).[1] In its four-hour course, Wade Robson (1982) and James Safechuck (1978) speak extensively about their childhood years, in which they claim to have been sexually abused by Jackson. Directed and produced by the British filmmaker Dan Reed (Children of the Tsunami, 3 Days of Terror: The Charlie Hebdo Attacks), and co-produced by Channel 4 (UK) and HBO (USA), the documentary film gained tremendous attention from media and audiences worldwide, especially after tailor-made versions were broadcast on television in several countries.[2] In fact, many broadcasters took the opportunity to fashion their premiere of Leaving Neverland as a documentary event, with additional discussions and commentaries to accompany the main content. In the United States, for instance, an interview with the two accusers, hosted by established television personality Oprah Winfrey (1954), premiered on HBO directly ‘’After Neverland’’.[3] In The Netherlands, where I live and witnessed the publicity that surrounded the release, broadcast organization VPRO[4] included talks in which the audience was informed about MIND Korrelatie, a psychological heath foundation.[5] This is only one example of how the documentary was not merely ‘broadcast’, but concretely and deliberately linked to potential negative memories and experiences of individual viewers.

Thus, in order to understand how Leaving Neverland has affected audiences, we have to consider, at least partly, the idea that the film has served as a mirror. In this sense, I reason from the assumption that the #MeToo-movement and related organizations, such as Time’s Up[6], have brought about a global (e.g. in digitalized and mediatized terms) context in which people may feel encouraged to speak up rather than to remain silent about the personal histories they may have to process themselves. This paper discusses the central factor that fiercely complicates this particular relation between Leaving Neverland and the idea of a ‘mirror response’. The factor is the ambivalent public reception of the truth claims embedded in the testimonies of Robson and Safechuck. Independent of the realness of multiple personal memories and experiences concerning physical and mental abuse worldwide (be it kept private or not), and the momentum of the social movement(s) surrounding them, many viewers of the documentary questioned and/or debated whether these particular testimonies could be trusted. This paper serves to inquire why this was the case. My main question is: how can we understand the ambivalent reception of the truth claims of Leaving Neverland, both in terms of the documentary’s production and construction and the nature of some particular critical responses?

The paper consists of two parts. In the first part, I discuss Leaving Neverland in relation to the category of documentary. The two main questions that I will address are interlinked: which elements and/or directions of the film support or challenge a particular documentary status, and how can these elements and/or directions hypothetically affect the relation between the maker(s) (in this case mainly director/cinematographer/producer Dan Reed) and the audience?[7] In discussing ‘’documentary status’’, I am less interested in constructing an initial categorical argument than I am in the subsequent discursive questions which are (re-)introduced by this case study. We are dealing with a documentary that was presented, framed and evaluated as such from its public conception. In that sense, the category could be interpreted, at least within public discourse, as a substitute for the accusers’ truth claims, which are crucial to the film’s proposed validity (both in terms of construction and reception). The idea of the first part is to demonstrate, as I discuss Leaving Neverland in the light of some select questions on the nature of [this type of] documentary, how this ‘truth-driven’ way of assigning documentary status has already been critically discussed within the field of documentary studies itself, and which discursive complications may specifically apply to Leaving Neverland and Reed’s directing choices.

In the second part of the paper I enter the realm of reception. Whereas the question of documentary status may be (made) endlessly complex from a discursive or categorical point of view, the straightforward approach of the filmmaker merely generated an equally straightforward, more or less dialectical effect in terms of public response. Most viewers and critics did not debate the category of documentary, they debated whether or not they thought the accusers (and thus, the documentary) had told the truth and why – and they were either ‘in favor’ or ‘against’. In this regard, the fierce truth claims of the interviewees had the exact opposite effect: by telling the(ir) truth, they divided the public. The second part serves to (1) further discuss the ambivalent reception of Leaving Neverland and to provide examples, and (2) to propose two factors, namely (a) the film’s particular elements and directions, as discussed in part one, and (b) the global, public legacy of Michael Jackson, that could help to further unpack and understand why the film was received this way. I also ask where Leaving Neverland has to be situated when it comes to prevalent discussions on the value of truth claims and the purported existence of what some have labeled a ‘post-truth society’. The overarching aim is to contribute to discussions on documentary film and documentary status in relation to concrete contemporary socio-cultural dynamics and the milieu(s) of knowledge production in the (global) West.  

I

Considering that we would grant Leaving Neverland documentary status, what kind of documentary would it be? Bill Nichols’ classic categorization (1992; 2017) leaves no doubt: adopting an ‘’expository mode’’, the film (a) ‘’emphasizes voice[s] over commentary’’, (b) contains a problem-solution structure (in terms of answering a central question), (c) an argumentative logic and (d) evidentiary editing (in terms of supporting the argumentation).[8] Within Carl Plantinga’s alternative subdivision of traditional definitions (2005), Leaving Neverland would count as a DA (Documentary as Assertion); while the film contains multiple indexical records of pro-filmic scenes (for instance photos, concert footage, court footage), which are typical characteristics of a DIR (Documentary as Indexical Record), its central aim is to take ‘’an assertive stance (…) toward the world projected by the film’’.[9] In this regard, the indexical records serve to [implicitly] support the assertive stance of the film, but they are no evidence for the assertive stance itself. To put it more concrete: while Leaving Neverland does indeed set out to factually convince its audience [that Michael Jackson has sexually abused the two witnesses in their childhood], this audience has to trust the voices of the witnesses, rather than indexical records or information external to the film.

The crucial function of the witnesses motivates me to propose a term that is used by Louise Spence and Asli Kotaman Avci in a 2013 paper: ‘’the talking witness documentary’’.[10] While the paper does not contain an explicit definition, the clear terminology and the extensive descriptions of the concerning documentary qualities still substantiate the case for a documentary type that Leaving Neverland can cogently subscribe to. The talking heads offer what Spence and Avci call a ‘’comfortable indexality’’: the camera and microphone are present to record and synchronize the sound and image of the interviewees, whose iconic presence is an important persuasive tool.[11] Non-semantic clues (the expressions and the positions of the speakers vis-à-vis the camera) support or weaken the words that are spoken. Thus, the talking witness documentary sets out to use the presence of its agents and the (narrative) organization of their message to generate a logic and emotional appeal to viewers. Whether or not the truth of the message is set in stone is not necessarily the point: if a documentary does not contain any lie, but fails to convince its audience, the filmmaker and/or the producers may still witness the failure of the documentary project as a whole.  

Leaving Neverland has to rely on the logic and emotional appeal of the witnesses and [on] the (narrative) organization by Dan Reed to convince its audience. The film perpetuates what Spence and Avci call a ‘’conservative politics of truth’’.[12] The talking witnesses and their recorded utterances are meant (solely) as tools of truth and justice. Their words are weapons and the weapons are arguments. The stakes are high: as I already emphasized, there are no indexical records of the sexual abuse, and yet the (co-)assertive stance of the witnesses and the filmmaker leave no space for ambiguity or doubt – that means, the assertive stance of the film is hermetic. Audiences may disagree, but the argument is that Michael Jackson has definitely abused Robson and Safechuck.

To which extent, however, can the truth claims of [the talking witness] documentary coincide with the narrative strategies that filmmakers use to (a) support these claims, and (b) to convince their audience? Film and media scholar Dirk Eitzen writes that ‘’documentary filmmakers today read screenwriting manuals, study dramatic works and deliberately borrow strategies from fiction films’’. They also ‘’routinely select, frame and edit material (…) in the interest of making engaging and compelling movies’’.[13] This is especially true for commercial production and distribution channels such as Netflix and, in the case of Leaving Neverland, HBO, which have put great efforts throughout the past decade into releasing documentaries that could appeal to large mainstream audiences.[14] My hypothesis is that the strategies of appeal, which I have discussed, are always more likely to be employed once we are dealing with a high-profile, commercial production, which is made to attract large audiences. While there are more than enough documentaries with a non-profit profile, I assert that the globally mediatized and distributed production of Reed definitely fits the high-profile paradigm. Thus, the fact that strategies of [logical and emotional] appeal are employed by the filmmaker is supported (and possibly even necessitated] by the nature of the production.

Which strategies of appeal, then, particularly apply to Leaving Neverland? First, it is important that both Robson and Safechuck recall their memories in such detail. Their trauma and pain is uncompromised, refuting abstraction. Viewers may question the validity of the descriptions of sexual abuse and still be repelled by them. Because the suffering is emphasized verbally, it is difficult to think of something else than the abuse itself, which may even generate mental images in the mind of individual viewers. On the other hand, what details and pieces of information are left out is just as significant. In the documentary itself, Reed remains offscreen (and largely unheard[15]), but his influence cannot be underestimated. Some of the public mainstream interviews he has given make it clear that he has deliberately chosen not to include testimonies that would ‘distract’ from those purported by Robson and Safechuck. He also explicates that for him, the documentary is decisive evidence, despite its canalizing approach.[16] Reed’s stance aligns with an assertion of Spence and Avci that in talking witness documentaries, ‘’memory is [often] reduced to the facts and emotions that the documentarian feels that are necessary to tell this history in a meaningful, authoritative manner’’[17]. Of course this praxis of organizing and selecting the material is disguised in the final representation of the material, which is even more important in this case.

The main point of this first part is that the [narrative] strategies of logic and emotional appeal may do a lot to affect and convince individual viewers, but they do by no means guarantee undisputable closure on the level of the actual truth claims. In fact, the talking witness documentary may generate the opposite effect, especially in this digital age: since viewers are aware they are listening to witnesses, and can probe all the present and past accusations and settlements on the internet themselves aside from the material covered by the film, they are free to partly or completely dispute or even oppose the truth claims of the witnesses. In the second part, I will discuss how and why this [indeed] happened in the wake of the Leaving Neverland release, and what that meant for the reception of the film and its claims.

II

Image 1: James Safechuck (screenshot by the author).

When a documentary purposely takes a side, confronting its audience with particular truth claims, finding a middle ground might very well be the greatest challenge to any individual respondent. Spence and Avci generalize the hypothesized effect of the talking witness documentary as follows:

‘’Talking witness documentaries forge an implicit contract with the audience that is based on our desire for the real and our good faith. They knit us into a moral community of ‘we’, a collective we who are united by our compassion. This seems based on the liberal assumption that goodness will come from understanding that evil took place. And that knowledge will make us better people. It is also based (…) on the notion that the audience believes that these witnesses are conveying truths.’’[18]  

Image 2: Wade Robson (screenshot by the author).

The audience envisaged by this quote may not be supported by cognitive evidence, but the idealized nature of its projection can help us to understand why Leaving Neverland was deliberately staged a documentary event, taking momentum in the wake of social justice-movements such as #Metoo and the like. The point here is that the moral community of ‘we’ is expected to unite in its objection to [childhood] sexual abuse and possibly, indeed, that the process of getting to know the truth and ‘suffering along’ with the talking witnesses may make us better people.

Reading the UK/US mainstream outlets[19] that covered and/or discussed Leaving Neverland in 2019, quite some critics emphasized the powerful nature of the testimonies in relation to (the momentum of) its disturbing subject matter. In the LA Times, Lorraine Ali wrote that ‘’The men, both of whom are now fathers, said they were compelled to finally come forward to help other victims of childhood sexual abuse, and it’s likely the #MeToo movement helped bolster their willingness to speak.’’[20] Owen Gleiberman, for Variety, stated that Leaving Neverland ‘’offers [a] devastatingly powerful and convincing testimony that Michael Jackson was guilty of child sexual abuse’’.[21] The Daily Telegraph headed its review ‘’a horrifying picture of child abuse’’, ‘’painted’’ by the victims.[22] The direct appeal to victimhood and the heavy nature of the topic complicate any potential intention to separate the abuse from the truth claims of the abused up front. Brian Tallerico, writing for RogerEbert.com, openly attempts to do so by setting his own belief [that Robson and Safechuck are telling the truth] apart from the spectator’s ideal attitude toward [documentary] films in general: .[23] In fact, however, reviews or discussions that resembled Tallerico’s turn out to be relatively sparse, both among critics and respondents on all types of internet fora. IndieWire critic David Ehrlich, for instance headed his review ‘’Devastating Four-Hour Doc Proves Michael Jackson Sexually Abused Children’’, stating there is no longer any doubt at all as to whether the singer is guilty.[24] The top forum response by a user called ‘OREO’ indicates in an exemplary manner how an assertion of truthfulness [by one respondent] may evoke a dialectic response by another: ‘’It [e.g. Leaving Neverland] didn’t prove a thing. It proves people are capable of weaving quite a tale. Where’s evidence? Where are the witnesses? Credible ones, not ones with a long history of selling stories to tabloids or who have billion dollar lawsuits’’.[25]

There are countless examples of reactions that align with the assertions of this particular user. Most of them have at least three things in common: [a] they discredit Robson and Safechuck as reliable witnesses, [b] they accuse the filmmaker and his co-producers of sensationalism and/or emotional manipulation, and [c] they provide alternative arguments and truth claims to the ones discussed in the film. In order to detect these discursive trends, I have read [a] the review comment sections (if available) of the reviews mentioned in the paper, [b] the YouTube comment sections (if available) of the videos I used, [c] multiple pages of community website reddit, [d] the forum of the Dutch film site MovieMeter, [e] a selection of reviews on the Australian film site Letterboxd and [f] other particular web articles.

One of the major factors is that respondents point to the fact that the witnesses have repeatedly denied, also under court oath, that Jackson abused them.[26] In this regard, it does not suffice for most respondents that the documentary does not deny this[27] and explains [by means of testimonial ‘updates’] why they did not tell the truth.[28] Whatever the truth may be, the witnesses necessarily lied on multiple occasions, which makes them untrustworthy witnesses in any case. Accordingly, Dan Reed is often discussed and/or accused in an even more direct and judgmental way, referring to defective utterances in video interviews and alleged financial motives. These personal assaults coincide with more fleshed-out, impersonal critiques of the way in which the documentary presents its material (and leaves out particular perspectives and/or pieces of information). In an article for Slate, Christina Cauterucci explains the film’s ‘’lack of candor regarding complicating information about Robson, Safechuck, and two of Jackson’s previous accusers’’.[29] Among other gaps in the history of the Jackson accusations and court trials, she refers to a Forbes piece from January 2019 in which Jackson biographer Joe Vogel sets out former attempts of the witnesses to [a] gain money and publicity from and via the Jackson estate (e.g. Jackson’s family) and [b], in Robson’s case, to get a book on his story published. An article on medium.com linked the allegations on the address of Jackson to a longer history of Afro-American men being falsely accused by white men.[30] Contrary to medium author, Jason King (again for Slate) refuses to call the film a ‘public lynching’, yet criticizes its partial neglect of racial dimensions.[31]

These kinds of responses, which (also) delineate who Jackson was a person and/or how he was and is perceived by a broader public, already move closer into the territory of Jackson’s massive legacy as a global [black] superstar. His status as a kind, charitable person and performer (and particularly as a friend of children) is now confronted by new allegations that enrage some and seal the deal for others. What is mainly significant here is that the notion of Jackson’s fame and status affected the film’s reception on both sides of the spectrum. Skeptical respondents tend to emphasize an argument that was also used repeatedly while Jackson was still alive, especially in the context of the court trials of 1993 and 2005: [the] witnesses and the makers/producers of the film purportedly have a lot to gain, both in terms of attention (which they owe to Jackson’s status) and financial exploits. Those who believe Leaving Neverland, on the other hand, stress that it is precisely Jackson’s status as a legendary superstar that may move people to refute the witnesses’ claims. Combine this dialectic with the fact that particular choices in directing and editing were heavily critiqued, while many [other] viewers and critics expressed no doubt as to whether the witnesses’ story was touching and reliable, and we can understand why the film’s reception is bound to be so ambivalent.

Taking into account, then, that there is no overwhelming consensus with regard to the truth claims of Robson and Safechuck, does this allow broader statements with regard to the current state of truth and knowledge production in the global West? Is Leaving Neverland in any way exemplary of what some have labeled a ‘post-truth-society’?[32] If we would use the term ‘fake news’, would it concern all the alternative arguments or focus points brought about by skeptical respondents, or could the documentary itself be a fraudulent instance of ‘fake news’ as well? I argue that in answering these questions, the problem is not so much that it would be impossible to write another exposé solely based on available facts (which is and has not been my intention in this paper), or that [other] people do not care to know the truth [they actually do], but the extent to which respondents are willing to recognize or refute different knowledge regimes.

Based on the court trials held while Jackson was still alive, Jackson is innocent, and the evidence includes confirmations of Robson and Safechuck; based on the documentary, the witnesses has their reasons not to tell the truth, and the court evidence is necessarily insufficient. In any case, the respondent has to distrust a knowledge regime. One may even distrust both regimes, by questioning Jackson’s innocence and the reliability of these particular witnesses. My argument is that Leaving Neverland actually fuels the distrust, because it emphasizes one side of a story that was already highly ambivalent when the production started. Moreover, its key witness is dead. The problem is that the film can by no means provide final resolution for all, since its evidence is not derived from decisive imagery or written word, but from memories, so that ‘’the authority of the memories, the evidence of memories, becomes the realization of the real’’.[33] We could conceive of the witnesses’ revelations as a joint counter-memory[34]: the rumors that were held to be untrue time and time again, by juridical verdict and by declamations of the witnesses themselves, are now turned upside down, challenging the official narrative. At the same time, the ‘secret’ was already there for at least two decades, almost as if it were waiting to get a definitive place in the public mind and eye. In this context, the #Metoo-movement and related initiatives may indeed foster the desire to believe the witnesses, but they cannot generate the [undisputed] truth of the case itself from what is essentially a socio-cultural discourse. Whereas I agree with psychologist Susan Engel that ‘’memories must find an audience to become part of history’’[35], the audience reception of [these] memories can also write a history that is ambivalent, and currently still indefinite.

Conclusion

Is it true that ‘’documentary is not an instrument for showing and knowing reality, [but] part of a conversation about reality?’’[36] If we could take only one observation from the reception of Leaving Neverland, it would be that the process of getting to know (and show) reality can be a necessary, integral part of any discussion about this reality. The film proved itself able to convince many viewers, but convincing (or confronting) a part of the audience is not the same as providing irrefutable evidence. The many skeptical responses to the filmmaker’s approach and the status of the witnesses demonstrate how a clear documentary status does not always suffice to generate general acclaim. In fact, precisely because the film bolstered its own truth claims, viewers felt appalled by it. In this context, the global, public legacy of Jackson and the history of court trials and [other] accusers and accusations and the existence of a digital ‘arena’ did a lot to re-open the case in unprecedented (and yet inconclusive) ways. Mainstream channels and magazines that boosted the film’s event-like status in the wake of #Metoo and related discussions on social justice did not do so without discussing or at least mentioning the truth question, which, judging from a totality of internet searches, only contributed to the dialectical nature of the process.

In this paper, I have deliberately shifted from a discussion of the film’s production and construction toward the part that deals with reception. The point is that the complications which arise from the film’s particular directions and its documentary status as a talking witness documentary help to understand why respondents reacted in such a dialectical way. While some of them may indeed have had emotional motives for defending or attacking the film, the ambivalent reception of Leaving Neverland merely has to be explained in terms of the film’s (and the witnesses’) pre-history and the way in which purported closure was constructed and presented. In this regard, the ambivalent reception does not indicate that there is a (public) disregard for (questions of) truth following the acknowledgement of documentary status. It only shows the acknowledgement of documentary status is not always enough to publicly affirm the factual reliability of the film’s content. In cases like these, the responsibility does not prominently lie with the audience, but with the maker.

Tim Bouwhuis, June 2020.

Bibliography

Aguayo, Angela J. Documentary Resistance: Social Change and Participatory Media. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.
Ali, Lorraine. ‘’Review: HBO’s ‘Leaving Neverland’ is a disturbing portrait of Michael Jackson and childhood trauma’’. Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/tv/la-et-st-michael-jackson-documentary-leaving-neverland-review-20190301-story.html. 1 March, 2019. Accessed June 10th, 2020.
Catch-Up (Reddit user). ‘’A condensed version of the major credibility issues of Robson and Safechuck’’. Reddit. https://www.reddit.com/r/MichaelJackson/comments/ay42cx/a_condensed_version_of_the_major_credibility/. 6 March, 2019. Accessed June 5th, 2020.
Cauterucci, Christina. ‘’How Leaving Neverland Does a Disservice to Michael Jackson’s Accusers’’. Slate. https://slate.com/culture/2019/02/leaving-neverland-accusers-wade-robson-james-safechuck.html. 27 February, 2019. Accessed June 8th, 2020.
CBS This Morning. ‘’’’Leaving Neverland’’ director Dan Reed defends explosive Michael Jackson documentary’’. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tPdTmWwK8Rs. 26 February, 2019. Accessed June 1st, 2020.
Clarke, Stewart. ‘’’Leaving Neverland’ Sells Around The World’’. Variety. https://variety.com/2019/tv/news/michael-jackson-documentary-leaving-neverland-sells-globally-1203154079/. 4 March, 2019. Accessed May 23th, 2020.
Ehrlich, David. ‘’’Leaving Neverland’ Review: Devastating Four Hour-Doc Proves Michael Jackson Sexually Abused Children’’. IndieWire. https://www.indiewire.com/2019/01/leaving-neverland-review-michael-jackson-hbo-sundance-1202038317/. 25 January, 2019. Accessed June 12th, 2020.
Eitzen, Dirk. ‘’The Duties of Documentary in a Post-Truth Society’’. In Catalin Brylla and Mette Kramer, eds. Cognitive Theory and Documentary. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. 93-111.
Gleiberman, Owen. ‘’Film Review: ‘Leaving Neverland’’’. Variety. https://variety.com/2019/film/reviews/leaving-neverland-review-michael-jackson-1203117883/. 25 January, 2019. Accessed June 8th, 2020.
Good Morning Britain. ‘’Director of ‘Leaving Neverland’ Dan Reed Discusses Controversial Documentary | Good Morning Britain’’. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RUvS9rTdzes. 6 March, 2019. Accessed June 1st, 2019.
Imdb. ‘’Leaving Neverland (2019). Full Cast & Crew’’. Imdb. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt9573980/fullcredits/. Accessed June 5th, 2020.
Imdb. ‘’Oprah Winfrey Presents: After Neverland (2019)’’. Imdb. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt9870402/. Accessed June 5th, 2020.
King, Jason. ‘’What Leaving Neverland Leaves Out by Ignoring Race. Slate. https://slate.com/culture/2019/02/leaving-neverland-michael-jackson-race-lynching-accusation.html. 27 February, 2019. Accessed June 10th, 2020.
Mulkerrins, Jane. ‘’Leaving Neverland, Review: Michael Jackson ‘victims’ paint horrifying picture of child abuse’’. The Daily Telegraph. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/2019/01/26/leaving-neverland-review-michael-jackson-victims-paint-horrifying/. 6 March, 2019. Accessed June 10th, 2020.
Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary. 3rd edition. Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 2017.
NOS Nieuws. ‘’Drie dagen na Michael Jacksondocu is het nog druk bij MIND Korrelatie’’. NOS. https://nos.nl/artikel/2275544-drie-dagen-na-michael-jacksondocu-is-het-nog-druk-bij-mind-korrelatie.html. 11 March, 2019. Accessed May 24th, 2020.
Plantinga, Carl. ‘’What a documentary is, after all’’. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 63 (2) (2017): 105-117.
Reed, Dan. Dir. Leaving Neverland. HBO Archives. 2019. On Amazon Prime video with HBO. Bootleg DVD.
Russian, Ale. ‘’Reese Witherspoon, Taylor Swift, Jennifer Aniston: See Who’s Given $ 500k, More to Fight Harassment’’. People. https://people.com/movies/reese-witherspoon-taylor-swift-jennifer-aniston-see-whos-given-500k-more-to-fight-harassment/. January 2, 2018. Accessed May 24th, 2020.
Scopsi, Claire. ‘’The Documentality of Memory in the Post-Truth Era’’. Proceedings from the Document Academy Vol. 5: Issue 2, article 4. 1-10.
Spence, Louise and Asli Kotaman Avci. ‘’The talking witness documentary: remembrance and the politics of truth’’. Rethinking History 17:3 (2013). 295-311.
Tallerico, Brian. ‘’Leaving Neverland’’. RogerEbert.com. https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/leaving-neverland-2019. 1 March, 2019. Accessed June 8th, 2020.
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Woods, Linda-Raven. ‘’The New Lynching of Michael Jackson: Dan Reed’s Leaving Neverland May, In Fact, Leave Blood on Many Hands’’. Medium.com. https://medium.com/@lrixwoods/the-new-lynching-of-michael-jackson-dan-reeds-leaving-neverland-may-in-fact-leave-blood-on-2a9e2193f818. 27 February, 2019. Accessed June 10th, 2020.


Full list of references

[1] Michael Jackson died on June 25th, 2009. Leaving Neverland was shown for the first time at the Sundance Film Festival on January 25th, 2019.

[2] See: Stewart Clarke, ‘’’Leaving Neverland’ Sells Around The World’, Variety, https://variety.com/2019/tv/news/michael-jackson-documentary-leaving-neverland-sells-globally-1203154079/, 4 March, 2019 (accessed May 23th, 2020). I write ‘versions’ because the two times two hours-cut of HBO was re-edited into a three hour-version by co-producer Channel 4. In the USA and the UK, the television cuts were broadcast on March 3 th and March 6th, 2019 respectively.

[3] Imdb, ‘’Oprah Winfrey Presents: After Neverland (2019)’’, Imdb, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt9870402/ (accessed June 5th, 2020).

[4] ‘’Vrijzinnig Protestantse Radio Omroep’’; established in 1926.

[5] NOS Nieuws, ‘’Drie dagen na Michael Jacksondocu is het nog druk bij MIND Korrelatie’’, NOS, https://nos.nl/artikel/2275544-drie-dagen-na-michael-jacksondocu-is-het-nog-druk-bij-mind-korrelatie.html,  11 March, 2019 (accessed May 24th, 2020).

[6] Time’s Up is an organization which originated in 2018 in the wake of persistent public resistance, by Hollywood A-listers (such as Meryl Streep and Reese Witherspoon), against sexual harassment. Ale Russian, ‘’Reese Witherspoon, Taylor Swift, Jennifer Aniston: See Who’s Given $ 500k, More to Fight Harassment’’, People, https://people.com/movies/reese-witherspoon-taylor-swift-jennifer-aniston-see-whos-given-500k-more-to-fight-harassment/, 2 January, 2018 (accessed May 24th, 2020). Time’s Up aims to establish a world free of sexual harassment/assault, economic inequality and gender-based discrimination (paraphrased from Time’s Up, ‘’About’’, Time’s Up, https://timesupnow.org/about/ (accessed June 5th, 2020)).

[7] While the editor(s) is/are fundamental to the final construction of every (documentary) film, I have not found one review or response in which the name of Jules Cornell, the editor of Leaving Neverland, was mentioned, let alone discussed, steering the public impression that this was a one man’s job and that Reed was to be held a hundred percent accountable. Imdb, ‘’Leaving Neverland (2019). Full Cast & Crew’’, Imdb,  https://www.imdb.com/title/tt9573980/fullcredits/ (accessed June 5th, 2020).

[8] Bill Nichols, Introduction to Documentary, 3rd edition (Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 2017), 22.

[9] Carl Plantinga, ‘’What a documentary is, after all’’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 63 (2) (2017), 107.

[10] In the paper, Spence and Avci use the Kurdish video No.lu Cezaevil/Prison No. 5 (2009) to argue that the ‘talking witness documentary’ generally employs a(n) (unstable) (conservative) politics of truth. In this paper, I will use and/or refer to some of their arguments without discussing their particular case study. Louise Spence and Asli Kotaman Avci, ‘’The talking witness documentary: remembrance and the politics of truth’’, Rethinking History 17:3 (2013), 295, 298.

[11] Spence and Avci, ‘’The talking witness documentary’’, 299.

[12] Spence and Avci, ‘’The talking witness documentary’’, 295.

[13] Dirk Eitzen, ‘’The Duties of Documentary in a Post-Truth Society’’, In Catalin Brylla and Mette Kramer, eds. Cognitive Theory and Documentary (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 93, 97. Eitzen even argues that these ‘’mainstream audiences are drawn to storytelling and sensation; they are not particularly interested in reality, except as a vehicle for storytelling and sensation’’. Eitzen, ‘’The Duties of Documentary’’, 98. Personally, I would rephrase this statement and propose a more nuanced view: while many people might want to know the truth about what happened, elements of storytelling and sensation can play a significant role in the process of drawing their actual interest. How the two pull-factors relate, will differ per film and per viewer.

[14] See also Angela J. Aguayo, Documentary Resistance: Social Change and Participatory Media (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 3 [Introduction].  

[15] There are a few instances in which we hear Reed ask a question off-screen.

[16] See the following two interviews: CBS This Morning, ‘’’’Leaving Neverland’’ director Dan Reed defends explosive Michael Jackson documentary’’, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tPdTmWwK8Rs. 26 February, 2019. Accessed June 1st, 2020. Good Morning Britain, ‘’Director of ‘Leaving Neverland’ Dan Reed Discusses Controversial Documentary | Good Morning Britain’’, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RUvS9rTdzes. 6 March, 2019. Accessed June 1st, 2019.

[17] Spence and Avci, ‘’The talking witness documentary’’, 301.

[18] Spence and Avci, ‘’The talking witness documentary’’, 300.

[19] In terms of general familiarity.

[20] Lorraine Ali, ‘’Review: HBO’s ‘Leaving Neverland’ is a disturbing portrait of Michael Jackson and childhood trauma’’, Los Angeles Times, https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/tv/la-et-st-michael-jackson-documentary-leaving-neverland-review-20190301-story.html, 1 March, 2019 (Accessed June 10th, 2020).

[21] Owen Gleiberman, ‘’Film Review: ‘Leaving Neverland’’’, Variety, https://variety.com/2019/film/reviews/leaving-neverland-review-michael-jackson-1203117883/, 25 January, 2019 (Accessed June 8th, 2020).

[22] Jane Mulkerrins, ‘’Leaving Neverland, review: Michael Jackson ‘victims’ paint horrifying picture of child abuse’’, The Daily Telegraph, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/2019/01/26/leaving-neverland-review-michael-jackson-victims-paint-horrifying/, 6 March, 2019 (Accessed June 10th, 2020).

[23] Brian Tallerico, ‘’Leaving Neverland’’, RogerEbert.com, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/leaving-neverland-2019, 1 March 2019 (Accessed June 8th, 2020).

[24] David Ehrlich, ‘’’Leaving Neverland’ Review: Devastating Four-Hour Doc Proves Michael Jackson Sexually Abused Children’’, IndieWire, https://www.indiewire.com/2019/01/leaving-neverland-review-michael-jackson-hbo-sundance-1202038317/, 25 January, 2019 (Accessed June 9th, 2020).

[25] Quoted from Ehrlich, ‘’’Leaving Neverland’ Review’’. User comment posted on October 5th , 2019 (Accessed June 9th, 2019).

[26] An exemplary feature of these recurring arguments can be found on a reddit community page: Catch-Up (Reddit user), ‘’A condensed version of the major credibility issues of Robson and Safechuck’’, Reddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/MichaelJackson/comments/ay42cx/a_condensed_version_of_the_major_credibility/, 6 March, 2019 (Accessed June 5th, 2020).

[27] This observation mainly concerns a 2005 court trial in which Robson testified in Jackson’s favor. Footage of the trial is presented and Robson’s discusses his former testimony himself.

[28] Robson states [a] that he defended Michael because he actually loved him, [b] that he was not fully acknowledging the abuse as abuse [yet], and [c] that Michael pressured him not to tell, because in that case people would not understand and would bring him down.

[29] Christina Cauterucci, ‘’How Leaving Neverland Does a Disservice to Michael Jackson’s Accusers’’, Slate, https://slate.com/culture/2019/02/leaving-neverland-accusers-wade-robson-james-safechuck.html, 27 February, 2019 (Accessed June 8th, 2020).

[30] Linda-Raven Woods, ‘’The New Lynching of Michael Jackson: Dan Reed’s Leaving Neverland May, In Fact, Leave Blood on Many Hands’’, Medium.com, https://medium.com/@lrixwoods/the-new-lynching-of-michael-jackson-dan-reeds-leaving-neverland-may-in-fact-leave-blood-on-2a9e2193f818, 27 February, 2019 (Accessed June 10th, 2020).

[31] Jason King, ‘’What Leaving Neverland Leaves Out by Ignoring Race, Slate, https://slate.com/culture/2019/02/leaving-neverland-michael-jackson-race-lynching-accusation.html, 27 February, 2019 (Accessed June 10th, 2020).

[32] In her article ‘’The Documentality of Memory in the Post-Truth Era’’, Claire Scopsi grants the origin of the concept to Harry Frankfurt’s 1986 essay ‘’On bullshit’’, in which he differentiates between the lie, the opposite of truth, and the notion of ‘bullshit’, which does not reference truth but generates an image or idea that people may embrace or reject beyond the strict paradigm of truth and lie. Claire Scopsi, ‘’The Documentality of Memory in the Post-Truth Era’’, Proceedings from the Document Academy Vol. 5: Issue 2, article 4, 5. The purported problem here is of course that ‘’bullshit’’ can be presented or embraced as truth, thus entering a different paradigm.

[33] Spence and Avci, ‘’The talking witness documentary’’, 302.

[34] Michel Foucault defined such memory as ‘’a residual or resistant strain that withstands official versions’’. Via Spence and Avci, ‘’The talking witness documentary’’, 296.

[35] Via Spence and Avci, ‘’The talking witness documentary’’, 304.

[36] Eitzen, ‘’The Duties of Documentary in a Post-Truth Society’’, 101.

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