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.
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.
Earlier this month, after a long and traumatising court case in Cyprus, a young British rape victim was finally allowed to return home. This event sparked international outrage and opened up the conversation concerning the many ways in which the justice system fails women and victims of rape. But the outrage is now beginning to slowly fizzle out, and it is important that we carry on the conversation around justice and women’s rights, to ensure that situations like these do not happen again.
In case you’re not aware of what happened, in the summer of 2019, while on a working holiday, a nineteen-year-old British woman reported being raped by twelve men in Ayia Napa, Cyprus. The woman said she met an Israeli man with whom she got romantically involved on this holiday, and one night, while in the room with him, his friends came and took turns assaulting her and filming it. But a little over a week later, she was the one to get arrested, charged for mischief and jailed for a month.
The victim later revealed that the police had forced her to change her account, leaving her with no choice but to retract her original statement. The woman admitted that she only signed the retraction after hours of unrecorded questioning, without a lawyer present. The next day, the men accused were released and flew back to Tel Aviv, where they were greeted with champagne, celebrating their release while chanting ‘the Brit is a whore’. While this is immensely appalling, what’s more terrifying is how the justice system dealt with the situation and failed the victim.
The court completely dismissed all the defence witnesses, including a statement from a forensic specialist proving she had thirty-five bruises over her body, exerted by force—disregarding them as jellyfish stings. The court also reportedly dismissed a statement from the teenager’s psychologist that proved she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The district judge dismissed her testimony as “childish lies.” Of course, the case is complex but it is uncertain why the police made her retract her statement with no legal expert present, and it is also not the first time that the Cypriot police fails foreign women.
In April 2019, Cyprus dealt with the arrest of its first known and discovered serial killer, a man who only seemed to target immigrant working women, killing a total of seven. Many of these murders could have been easily avoided, as some of his victims were reported missing to the police in 2016, nearly three years prior to discovering their remains, and yet, nothing was done to look for them. This case yet again sparked international outrage, calling the country out for its treatment of immigrant women.
In the British woman’s case, after enduring a long trial full of victim-blaming and humiliation, the court decided to release her and let her return home, with the court’s judge ruling it as a “second chance.” And while for many this can be seen as a resolution and the end to the young girl’s trial, it is really only the beginning of a lifetime of trauma and PTSD caused by both the sexual assault and this trial.
Having grown up in Cyprus as a woman myself, the way the woman was treated did not come as a shock. My friends and I started getting catcalled on the streets at the age of eleven, we have been followed, flashed and masturbated to on public beaches in broad daylight as teenagers on separate occasions, and many of my acquaintances have endured similar sexual assault horror stories, such as this one.
Many of these assaults have gone unreported, and when they have, they had been dismissed as something that simply happens because “you are a girl,” and which you should therefore get over. But these issues are not exclusive to a single country, and sexism, sexual harassment and abuse of any sex or gender exist in every part of the world. And this is the problem, the fact that the Cypriot rape case is just another reminder of many other cases like it.
The justice system is flawed in every country, and trusting that it always makes the right decisions would be naive and inaccurate. But we need to keep calling these situations out: they happen everywhere, in small countries like Cyprus or major ones like the US—just remember the Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh case. This specific incident is now being forgotten, and perhaps it is a good thing to finally let the woman out of public sight. But this doesn’t mean we should let our justice systems get away with how badly these cases are often handled.