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Roman Polanski’s win at French César Awards sparks riots in Paris

By Alma Fabiani

Mar 4, 2020

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This weekend, during the 45th César Awards (France’s equivalent to the Oscars) famous movie director Roman Polanski won the César for best director for the movie An Officer and a Spy. This resulted in people from the film industry leaving the room in protest and, subsequently, riots in Paris.

To many, Polanski, who had previously been accused of drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl in 1977, pleaded guilty to the ‘lesser offence’ of unlawful sex with a minor in 1978 to then fled from his US sentencing.This is just another reminder of how ‘separating the art from the artist’ doesn’t always work. His nomination and win at the César Awards caused an uproar both in the movie industry and in the streets of Paris, sending a clear message: French women are finally ready to speak up about sexual abuse and join the #MeToo movement.

Only last week, Harvey Weinstein was convicted of rape during his trial in New York. After hearing the news, many hailed the courage of the victims who had spoken out—it felt like a victory for the #MeToo movement and every woman, one that we were all quick to celebrate. But that didn’t last for long.

At the end of January, the César nominations were announced, a month before the ceremony, and caused more than 200 members of the film industry and French feminist groups to call for “profound reform” of the Césars academy. Two weeks before the awards, the entire leadership board collectively resigned—but the nominations didn’t change. This news came out after the board complained about the voting membership and its “elitist and closed” system in which they have “no voice.” Just after that, producer Margaret Menegoz was named as the academy’s interim president, which represented a well-needed change for the César Awards.

But this still wasn’t enough change for feminist organisations who decided to protest against Polanski’s nominations on the night of the awards just outside the venue, trying to pull down safety barriers to get access to the red carpet and storm the theatre. Protesters waved signs that read: “Shame on an industry that protects rapists,” and chanted “lock-up Polanski.” Local newspapers reported that the French police ended up firing tear gas on the crowd in order to stop them from entering the venue.

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The series of events unfolded despite the French-Polish filmmaker announcing in a statement the night before that he would not be attending the ceremony, which didn’t seem to ease the controversy. An Officer and a Spy’s producer Alain Goldman told the Agence France-Presse (AFP) that he and the film’s team had decided not to attend amid “an escalation of inappropriate and violent language and behaviour.”

When Polanski’s name was announced as the winner of the best director award, very few people applauded, but only a few decided to leave the room. Among them was Adèle Haenel, one of France’s most prominent actresses who revealed at the beginning of this year that she had suffered from sexual abuse in the French film industry. As the first one to leave the room, waving her arms in disgust while mouthing the word “shame” and shouting “bravo, paedophilia” in the venue’s hall, she strongly highlighted the need for the #MeToo movement to keep on living. In an interview with The New York Times last month, Haenel said that “France ‘missed the boat’ on #MeToo” and it certainly looks like it did.

In this specific case, is it really possible for people, especially women, to separate the art from the artist? Wouldn’t that be forgetting what Polanski did, to celebrate his work and therefore imply that rape is somehow acceptable under ‘certain circumstances’? Has everyone already forgotten the other accusations of sexual assault he faced? In November 2019, after Haenel became the first high-profile actress to speak out over abuse in France’s movie business, actress, model and photographer Valentine Monnier accused Polanski of raping her in 1975, when she was 18, in a ski chalet in Switzerland, which he denied.

In the wake of these accounts, other French women came forward and highlighted abuse in the film and literature industries. France seems to finally be waking up, and women—from the movie industry, the sports industry and academia—are already protesting. This uproar sparked riots in the streets of Paris, and hopefully, this is only the beginning.