PARK CITY, Utah ― The premiere of a searing four-hour documentary about Michael Jackson’s history of alleged sexual abuse cast a somber shadow at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday.
“Leaving Neverland,” which will air on HBO later this year, left audience members shellshocked. Unlike the recent Lifetime series on the serial sexual misconduct allegations lodged against singer R. Kelly, which dives into Kelly’s career and art, “Neverland” does little to examine Jackson’s legacy. Instead, the film focuses almost entirely on the harrowing accounts of two accusers, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who both say Jackson abused them when they were children.
The only footage of Jackson’s music videos and live concerts included in the documentary are directly related to Robson and Safechuck’s recounting of their time with the internationally famous pop star, who died in 2009.
The festival’s director, John Cooper, introduced the mammoth documentary with a trigger warning, and told attendees that mental health professionals would be available to speak to them in the lobby.
Sundance’s John Cooper offers a trigger winning prior to the beginning of #LeavingNeverland “we have health care professionals waiting in the lobby should you need some help.” #Sundance19— Nicole Sperling (@nicsperling) January 25, 2019
Midway through the Sundance screening, which was divided into two parts, reporters and film critics remarked at the documentary’s emotional intensity. Audience members spent intermission walking around in shock.
Feel sick to my stomach after watching Part 1 of #LeavingNeverland doc. Michael Jackson witnesses/sex abuse victims coming off very credible. It’s so sexually explicit that counselors are in the lobby. #SundanceFilmFestival2019— Mara Reinstein (@MaraReinstein) January 25, 2019
JFC what do you even say at the midway point of #LEAVINGNEVERLAND which has already been two hours of devastation and will only get worse.— Kate Erbland (@katerbland) January 25, 2019
At the midpoint of LEAVING NEVERLAND, audience seems slightly shellshocked. There are not enough Silkwood showers in the world to get rid of the feeling I have watching this. #Sundance19— David Fear (@davidlfear) January 25, 2019
Some screening attendees reported not being able to stay for the post-event Q&A, which featured Robson and Safechuck.
Gotta be honest. I didn’t have anymore strength to stay for the q&a. Follow along with @AmyKinLA who is still there #LeavingNeverland https://t.co/JbR4gxBCJ7— Gerrick D. Kennedy (@GerrickKennedy) January 25, 2019
The lead-up to the premiere was fraught with tension. Angry fans of the singer unsuccessfully tried to get the documentary pulled from the festival.
Jackson’s estate tried to discredit the film, issuing a statement calling it a “lurid production in an outrageous and pathetic attempt to exploit and cash in on Michael Jackson,” and criticizing filmmaker Dan Reed. Reed also received threats, according to Deadline.
Ahead of the screening, festival organizers mounted a heavy police presence in anticipation of protests. But only a few protesters showed up, holding signs of Jackson’s face with the word “INNOCENT” stamped over it, telling people who talked to them to “do your research.”
Audience members for “Leaving Neverland” received security screenings before the film’s premiere.
During the Q&A, Safechuck emphasized that he and Robson weren’t compensated for participating in the documentary, as some protesters have suggested. He participated, he said, to provide “comfort” for anyone who has experienced similar horrors.
Robson said that he hopes the movie “validates” sexual abuse survivors’ stories.
An audience member who said that he had been sexually abused as a child stood up during the Q&A and declared that Robson and Safechuck “are going to do a lot more fucking good in the world than Michael fucking Jackson.”
Among the attendees was Me Too movement founder Tarana Burke.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.
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