Leaving Neverland was a hot ticket at the Sundance Film Festival. The two part, four hour documentary about survivors of Michael Jackson’s sexual abuse had festival attendees lined up early Friday morning to get a seat.
Protesters were expected but only two showed up before the movie, and one more could be seen on the street after. Some Michael Jackson fans still proclaim his innocence despite Wade Robson and James Safechuck coming forward.
Robson and Safechuck were children when Jackson befriended each of them, and began sexually abusing them when they were as young as seven. Safechuck, Robson and their families tell their detailed stories, including how they were terrified into testifying to Jackson’s innocence at 1993 and 2003/2005 trials.
Director Dan Reed said he explored other cases of abuse committed by Jackson but found Robson and Safechuck’s stories should be the focus.
“This was a story that made sense only if you could understand the relationships within the family and only if you can understand Wade and James’ journey through the eyes of their mother, through the eyes of their brothers and sisters,” Reed said at a Q&A following the screening.
“People who don’t really know much about child sexual abuse find it astonishing when you stand up in court and say nothing happened in 2005. That’s why this film became four hours instead of two hours. It’s a story you have to follow from the beginning. It’s a thread you have to weave across two decades in order to get to the end and understand what actually happened because it was so confusing.”
Safechuck and Robson answered questions after the screening two. Below is a transcript of their Q&A.
Q: You haven’t interacted much before this, right?
JR: They kept us apart for legal reasons of course. We met once or twice as little kids, but once the court case started they wouldn’t let us talk to each other.
WR: First in relation to being able to be with James has just been incredible. Like we talked about in the film, it can be so isolating. It was all we both wanted for the last however long it’s been, six years ago, was just to talk, to communicate. To be able to do it now is just amazing. It’s beautiful.
JR: Since the legal case, I was just longing to talk to Wade. Ironically, this is the way we could end up doing it so this is a long time coming. Just connection with somebody that’s been through this.
Q: People may ask what’s in it for you to tell the story now? Were you ever offered compensation by the production to tell your story?
JS: From the get go there was no money ever offered. This is really just trying to tell the story, shine light on it the same way knowing that Wade went through it, we can give other people that same connection and comfort that we’ve gone through something like this. That’s the point.
WR: I think that’s what I and what we have been looking for. That was the goal of deciding to try the case, was just looking for a platform to be able to tell the truth. That’s had all of its twists and turns and it’s still in the process and it’s gonna be whatever it’s gonna be.
This film was nothing that we ever thought about or sought out in that sense. It came to us. I think it was really Dan’s [idea] and once for me, sitting down with Dan for the first time and trying to get a sense of can I trust this guy, especially having such a history with press and being scared of that and what his angle?
Really getting a sense of Dan’s integrity and his intention for just telling the story simply and just giving us that moment. We can’t change what happened to us and we can’t do anything particularly about Michael. He’s dead. That’s gone, right?
What happened happened so the feeling is now what can we do with it now? How can we use this platform to tell the story and hopefully it helps other survivors feel less isolated and something they can relate to, validates their story.
My greatest hopes too is just raising awareness for parents, for teachers, for business leaders, anybody responsible for children to try and prevent this from happening as much as possible.
Q: There are fans of Michael Jackson who don’t believe your story or don’t want. Is there anything you feel you can say to them to make them see the film and listen to your story?
WR: I don’t feel like there’s anything that I need to say to them, except that I understand that it’s really hard for them to believe, because in a way not that long ago I was in the same position they were.
Even though it happened to me, I still couldn’t believe it. I still couldn’t believe that what Michael did was a bad thing, up until six years ago. So I understand and we can only accept and understand something when we’re ready. Maybe we’ll never be ready. Maybe we will. That’s their journey.
Q: Your mothers, wives and siblings gave interviews too. Have they seen the film and where do your relationships with your mothers stand now?
JS: My mom saw it and I think she was looking for forgiveness in the film, but I didn’t quite give it to her and I think that was hurtful for her. But what I think she needs to understand is that forgiveness isn’t a line you cross. It’s a road you take and I’m on that road. That will mean so much more when it’s fully developed.
WR: Yeah, my mother, my sister and my brother have seen the film. Independently, my mother watched it by herself, my brother and sister watched it by themselves. I was really scared for my mother to see it. I saw it just hours before her for the first time.
I was scared for that, just things that I said, things that I didn’t say, things that my brother said that have never been really communicated within our family dynamic. So I think it was a pretty intense experience for them.
It’s not the usual way that new doors for healing open up in a family by things being said in a film that’s going go out all over the world. But hopefully it can open the doors for healing within our family. That’s my hope. It’s a tense moment but they’ve been amazing, supportive and they feel this is an important story to tell.