'Leaving Neverland': How a Documentary Took Down Michael Jackson in the Post-truth Era

HBO's 'Leaving Neverland' doesn’t really occupy itself with Michael Jackson’s character, only with the damage he caused

Nettanel Slyomovics
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Michael Jackson with Wade Robson and his family.
Michael Jackson with Wade Robson and his family.
Nettanel Slyomovics

Viewers of a recent “CBS This Morning” were treated to a fascinating argument between a documentary filmmaker and four experienced journalists. The show’s anchor, Gayle King, hurled rough questions at Dan Reed, the director of “Leaving Neverland,” his documentary on Michael Jackson, concerning his decision to serve up a one-sided, even engaged narrative. Didn’t Reed think it was essential to get a response from the family or from Jackson’s lawyers to the specific allegations?

To which Reed replied, “This is not a film about Michael Jackson, it’s a film about Wade Robson and James Safechuck, the two little boys to whom this dreadful thing happened long ago.” In his brief reply, Reed tried to explain that he had chosen to divert the camera from the king of pop to his victims. Documentary cinema might look like a journalistic investigation, but its goal is different.

“Leaving Neverland,” which is being broadcast on Yes VOD, tells the story of Wade Robson, 41, and James Safechuck, 36, from the time they first met Jackson at ages 7 and 9, respectively, down to the present. Reed made a conscious decision to present a narrative from their point of view exclusively. The film doesn’t really occupy itself with Jackson’s character, only with the damage he caused. Nor are there archival segments of Jackson at the height of his fame, unless they’re relevant to the narrative about the two men. For example, a segment from the “Thriller” clip is back-voiced by Robson relating how his admiration for Jackson blinded him. Jackson’s role in the film is secondary to the focus on the two men and the two families. Jackson moves in and out of the film the way he moved in and out of the lives of Robson and Safechuck. If there are villains in this story, it’s the parents.

Reed’s narrative drew praise, but also criticism. During four grueling hours, he delivers a tale of abuse in a repetitive, tormenting style, with Safechuck and Robson recounting everything in harrowing detail. Assault after assault. Room after room in Neverland, Jackson’s estate, which was built as a kind of fairground and children’s zoo, only with a great many hidden bedrooms. Every sleepover that ends with a shocking sexual act is depicted horrifically, with a powerful effect on viewers.

A megastorm has developed over the film and the singer, with many radio stations in the United States choosing not to broadcast songs by Jackson. His heirs, as was to be expected, have sued HBO, the film’s distributor, demanding $100 million in damages. The chief critique relates to the lack of balance and the decision not to solicit a reaction from the family, as is customary in the news media.

Both Reed’s film and the series “Surviving R. Kelly,” which documents women’s complaints against the musician, have been hailed as accomplishments for the #MeToo movement. Still, it’s of interest to dwell on a watershed moment in the history of documentary cinema. In the media, in the social networks and in metaphoric water-cooler chats, a consistent rise is apparent not only in the popularity of documentary works but also in the way viewers are approaching them. In recent years, at least from the viewers’ standpoint, the boundary between journalism and documentary cinema has become blurred, or has disappeared altogether. Even the journalists who clash with Reed expect him to abide by journalistic standards in regard to the seemingly simple question: What is the truth?

“The way in which you, as a filmmaker, choose to tell how things happened has great power, which journalistic reportage isn’t always able to generate,” says Mika Timor, a co-producer of the 2016 true-crime documentary television series “,” about the 2006 murder of a 13-year-old Israeli girl, , whose body was found in the bathroom of a Golan Heights school. She adds, “As filmmakers, we have our own tools for telling a story. Why did Dan Reed show over and over every location in which [abuse] happened? The director wanted you to know that it happened in this room, and also in this room and this room – the repetition heightens the effect he wanted to create in you. So you’d understand just how shocking this story is.”

Gut feelings

The “golden age of documentary filmmaking” was the subject of a program broadcast last month on National Public Radio in the United States. The program sought to understand what there is about the 21st century that has made documentary cinema bigger than ever in terms of profits, worldwide distribution and growing influence. The program didn’t offer a good answer, but the numbers speak for themselves. Documentaries are drawing larger audiences than ever before, on Netflix certainly, but also at the box office. At present, for example, screenings in Israel of Tomer Heymann’s documentary, “,” are drawing people from the sofa to the movie theater – an exceptional phenomenon in Israeli documentary filmmaking, as elsewhere in the world.

However, the rising tension between journalism and documentary filmmaking became a major issue in Israel with the broadcast of “Shadow of Truth” in 2016. For weeks, Roman Zadarov, who was convicted of Rada’s murder, became a hot topic of conversation in family dinners and infuriated a good many journalists, such as the investigative reporter Raviv Drucker.

“A journalist expresses an aspiration to investigate the truth, whereas a filmmaker asks questions about the truth,” says director Ari Pines, who is currently working, with his associates Mika Timor and Yotam Guendelman, on their next documentary series, “Shadow of Truth: The Coastal Road Killer,” which Hot 8 will broadcast in June. “As a documentarist, you have more possibility to ask questions about the truth at the meta level; to deal with issues that are more philosophical and less journalistic.”

The three filmmakers themselves manifest the tension that exists between journalism and the cinema, having adopted journalistic working tools, and also because of their background. “Ari comes from journalism, but Yotam and I come from the cinema,” Timor notes. Pines, for his part, emphasizes that they chose to follow the journalistic method of work, which is in many senses restricting. “We suggested to A.K. [a woman whose ex-boyfriend claimed she had confessed to the murder of Tair Rada] to be interviewed and respond to the allegations against her. We also confronted the prosecution with what was being maintained against them. The press has a fear of libel suits, and there’s no difference from our point of view. Documentarists are also committed to the same working methods, such as cross-checking sources and not presenting one source as absolute truth. That protects both journalists and filmmakers from being sued.”

At the same time, Pines points out that journalistic ethics, which involve clear rules for every published item, is a matter of personal choice in film production. The fact that the makers of “Shadow of Truth” adhered to the rules of journalism doesn’t alter the fact that this was a calculated choice, which could have been different. “We presented the other side, but that doesn’t mean you have to do that. Nothing is written in stone. It’s the director’s choice. Because I come from journalism, I chose to follow its rules, but as a filmmaker, you know that as soon as you juxtapose two shots, you’re already not objective. There is no such thing as objectivity – you make decisions.”

‘We look at reality’

However, this approach is precisely what differentiates the creators of “Shadow of Truth” from many documentarists, such as Britain’s Dan Reed, who doesn’t disavow the method he chose, or Israel’s Tomer Heymann. For Heymann, the boundary line between documentary and journalism is clear, because a filmmaker is committed to telling his story in his own way. In other words, it’s a thrust toward a truth that is larger than facts and deals with the human situation as such. Accordingly, in an era in which there is a growing expectation among viewers for documentaries to resemble the press, Heymann declines to accept this. “I don’t abide by that expectation, and I don’t want to abide by it,” he says. “It’s an expectation that I dissociate myself from, unequivocally. Documentary filmmaking is a choice by directors; we look at reality, and there is nothing objective about it.”

In an era that has been termed “post-truth,” in which “my truth” overcomes “the truth,” the rise of the documentary is understandable, as it doesn’t shackle itself to the rules of journalistic balance – about which entire population groups are skeptical. According to Timor, it’s precisely the absence of clear rules and guidelines on the way to uncovering the truth – in the freedom to choose a narrative and stick to it – that gives documentary filmmaking an advantage over journalism. Indeed, together with the fierce debate over the facts that are mentioned in “Leaving Neverland,” Timor was herself surprised by the film’s effectiveness.

“Actually, we knew all that, do you understand? All the photographs of him with children – I remember that. The writing was on the wall,” she recalls. In her view, it’s an exemplary expression of the power of documentary cinema as an art that intertwines facts to persuade people who until then had been given only facts, without cinematic expression.

“‘Neverland’ could have been a journalistic report 20 minutes long. But the director let us hear the whole story and didn’t spare a single detail. It’s a choice,” Timor emphasizes, singling out a particularly significant element that is absent from journalism: emotion. “The cinema plucks on strings that are more emotional and less rational. The viewer’s experience is different from journalism, and it’s very powerful. It’s not so much a matter of the truth, as it is the way you can relate it. The broad scope and the freedom to go into detail work in favor of film. Because there’s a truth you know and a truth you feel. There’s reason, and there’s a gut feeling and instincts. Journalists aspire to hide emotion and are committed to a certain way of reporting, but cinema can also work according to emotions, according to hunches.”

Dan Reed voiced this approach in an array of interviews, including one to the journalist Piers Morgan on “Good Morning Britain.” There, too, Morgan and other journalists questioned Reed for his lack of objectivity, failing to present new information and taking a one-sided approach in favor of the two victims. “This is a case of what happened in the dark, behind closed doors,” Reed said. “I believe these two young men and their accounts. I think that to concoct a whole charade – of your mom going on TV and your mom going on TV, and your sister and your brother, all being devastated, and your wives being devastated – I mean, it just beggars belief.” He added that dry facts and journalistic skepticism are not appropriate tools for understanding the psychology of victims of sexual assault – a mental approach that prompted them to protect Jackson his whole life and to process the assault internally only after his death.

Morgan, still insisting on concrete proof, asked, “Why do you believe these guys so emphatically?” Reed, in contrast to a journalist, was able to intertwine the dry facts with intuition, a gut feeling. “Why should I not believe them?” he shot back.