The Time To Do Better Is Now

In 2016, not long before Trump’s election, film criticism had a proto-MeToo era reckoning of their own. Devin Faraci, one of the founding online critics and the editor-in-chief of Birth. Movies. Death., was summarily outed as an abuser. The fallout was more or less immediate: Faraci left the website, and a number of editors, writers, and critics commented on how the critical community in general needed to “do better” when it came to sexual harassment and abuse. The Faraci debacle ebbed and then receded, and was replaced with more immediate concerns about the rapist in the White House. Then, in 2017, prior to the opening of Fantastic Fest in Austin, it came out that Tim League, the owner of Alamo Drafthouse and Birth. Movies. Death., had quietly rehired Faraci to work on materials for Fantastic Fest. Again, the outpouring of anger was immediate and once again, for the second time, Faraci had to leave.

But the second Faraci scandal, involving the same players, came at the same time that another “founding film blogger” also connected to Alamo and Fantastic Fest was outed as an abuser. A number of women accused Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool News of sexual harassment. The accusations exposed a culture of enabling at Alamo Drafthouse, Fantastic Fest, and many of its affiliates, as women had apparently informed the Leagues of the abuse and had their concerns minimized or, ultimately, swept under the rug. The combination of the two events revealed a culture of systemic sexism and abuse within the film community—one that many already knew about.

These reports started in September; by October, Ronan Farrow broke the Harvey Weinstein story.

When Fantastic Fest went ahead in Austin that same year, there were promises from the management, the Leagues, and the various editors-in-chief of film websites, including Birth. Movies. Death., that they would, once more, “do better.” As women in film across the world raged about systemic sexual harassment and the inherent sexism of the film critical community, Fantastic Fest went ahead. According to a number of female critics who attended, there were promises that the management would listen; there were closed door meetings between female critics, the results of which were not reported, but others were assured that they had “taken steps.” A number of female critics spoke out in support of both Fantastic Fest and in support of women in film criticism. The results were mixed, not least because these women appeared to believe that they were empowered to speak for the entirety of the female film critic community, that the rest could not comment because they “were not there.”

Regardless, following the 2017 Fantastic Fest, things went back to “normal.” The focus turned more on Weinstein and the cascading series of allegations against high-profile men in Hollywood and indie film. Sexual harassment problems within the critical community remained on the back burner, although the online presence of female film critics only increased, together with a challenging from all sides of the straight white male status quo. This podcast, in fact, partially grew out of the anger of lack of representation of…well, anyone who is not straight, white, and male.

Fast forward to 2020. The most recent report from The Daily Beast concerning indie producer Adam Donaghey, the producer of A Ghost Story (remember the allegations about Casey Affleck?), who has had long-term relationship with the right-wing studio Cinestate since 2017 (the same year as the Knowles, Faraci, and Weinstein events). Donaghey has now been exposed as a serial predator, accused of the rape of a sixteen-year-old girl, and of multiple counts of sexual harassment, both on and off the set. The Daily Beast article outlines a culture within Cinestate of enabling, of sweeping harassment and abuse under the rug, of protecting Donaghey as the “Harvey Weinstein of indie film.” Cinestate also happens to own horror mag Fangoria, alt-right film criticism website Rebeller, and—wait for it—recently acquired the site Birth. Movies. Death.

Unlike the Faraci and Knowles scandals, the Cinestate/Donaghey scandal is somewhat removed from directly impacting film criticism. Cinestate only owns Fangoria and Birth. Movies. Death. (the latter having just been acquired not long before the Donaghey allegations broke this week). Cinestate has also already had several public issues, including the apparent racism and transphobia of beloved host Joe Bob Briggs, who has written for Rebeller. But many of the same players from the Faraci/Knowles scandals have come to the front on the film criticism side. Phil Nobile, Jr., formerly of Birth. Movies. Death., and Meredith Borders run Fangoria now. Scott Wampler runs Birth. Movies. Death. The three recently released a letter about their demands of Cinestate, a good beginning but hardly a thorough call for systemic change.

The relationship between Cinestate/Donaghey and Faraci/Knowles is less about the similarities between the cases and more about the similarities in the reactions from many in the film critical community. When the Faraci/Knowles scandals broke, a number of critics and editors rushed to, on the one hand, reassure women in film that they were dedicated to doing better and, on the other, to reinforce the brand identities and importance of Alamo Drafthouse, Birth. Movies. Death., and Fantastic Fest. Fantastic Fest and Alamo in particular received an outpouring of support from critics, male and female, as they proclaimed that you can’t throw out the good things because of the bad. When the Cinestate/Donaghey scandal broke, just this week, a number of critics and editors rushed to reassure women in film that they were dedicated to doing better, and to reinforce the brand identities and the importance of Fangoria and Birth. Movies. Death. Don’t throw out the good things because of the bad.

Hmm.

This repetition of rhetoric indicates that nothing, really, has changed in the online critical community. We’re seeing the same points made, the same problems discussed, the same promises made to “do better,” that “steps are being taken,” that “important conversations have been had.” Rarely do we see the results of those conversations, those steps, those promises. What we see are promises without tangible results, often defensive reassurances that this particular brand or website is “not like that.” We support women. We believe victims. And then a month, two months, or three years from now, another abuse scandal will break many of the same players will have the same words for.

There is an inherent belief that because we cannot do everything, we must do nothing. We cannot cure all the ills of patriarchal repression, so why try to reform our own systems for reporting abuse? Now, it would be unfair to expect the editors at Fangoria to make meaningful change in Cinestate as a whole. It might even be unfair to expect them to quit in solidarity with the women whom Donaghey hurt. But the critical community as a whole, and at the very least, needs to have a deeper reckoning with the bad actors and systems of abuse within itself. Women are suffering, women are being driven from film production, from film criticism, and from film in general, rather than continue to work within not only a community that contains abusers, but a community that quietly enables them.

And that is the crux. The critical community enables the abusers in our midst, just as Weinstein was enabled, just as Donaghey was enabled, just as Faraci and Knowles were enabled. Women are often the worst enablers – Weinstein’s assistants protected him, a female lawyer represented him; Donaghey’s abuse was enabled by Dallas Sonnier (the male head of Cinestate), and Amanda Presmyck; some of the loudest defenders of Faraci were women, some of the loudest voices in unambiguous support of Fantastic Fest were female critics. Whisper networks try to protect women, but they do nothing to drive out the bad men. Neither do platitudes about doing better.

What we should have learned in 2016 was that the system needed changing. What we need to learn in 2020, after all that we have seen in the MeToo movement, is that the system still has not changed, and that that’s not acceptable. It changes not by promises, platitudes, or letters to the editor. It changes by speaking up about abuse even when it does not directly involve us. It changes by not enabling the bad men (or women), but calling them out, publicly, explicitly, and with a multitude of voices. It changes by taking allegations seriously, by reforming the process of reporting abuse and sexual harassment, by establishing no-tolerance policies, regardless of whether you’re a big production company, a film set, or a film blog. It changes by not claiming that “it’s not my problem,” but by acknowledging that you’re a part of the system and working to change your part of it.

This might indeed require throwing out the good with the bad. This might mean the death of websites, magazines, movie studios, and movie theaters that we love, in the service of a better, more equitable society. One of the refrains of 2020 is that we cannot return to normal, that we don’t want to return to normal. I don’t care about the future of your film festival, your magazine, your movie studio, if it means that more women must be hurt, if more people must suffer, if more bad men must be coddled and protected. In three years, I don’t want to be writing another article about another scandal, repeating once more “we need to do better.”

The time to do better is now.

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