The ghost of 1977 still haunts Polish master director Roman Polanski. In 1977, he pleaded guilty of having sex with a 13-year-old girl in the US, but escaped from the country before being sentenced. He has never set foot in America since then, but in this #MeToo era, he is hardly ever going to find support or sympathy – although the girl herself had pardoned him and asked that legal proceedings be dropped.
When Polanski won the Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay Awards at the French Cesars (France's equivalent of the Oscars) the other evening for An Officer and a Spy, there were protests and booing. Several actresses walked out. French star Adele Haenel who revealed last year that she had been sexually molested when she was a child by another director shouted "shame".
Polanski, now 86, did not attend the function fearing public lynching.
He has not had an easy life. As a child he lost his family in the Holocaust, and in 1969, his young and pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was brutally murdered by the Manson Family – a day in August that America thought was the end of the Golden Era of Hollywood. Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which premiered at Cannes 2019, touches upon this, though he glosses over the actual murder.
When Polanski's movie, An Officer and a Spy, was picked to compete at the Venice Film Festival last September, there was uproar. But Festival Director Alberto Barbera said he was not going to judge the man, but only his creative efforts. "When you go to see a painting by Caravaggio, you are seeing a work by an assassin who, after killing a man, had to escape to Palermo. It's ridiculous. If you can't make a distinction between the culpability of a person and that person's value as an artist, you aren't going to get anywhere."
Polanski's Cesar clincher talks about the Dreyfus affair, the infamous late 1800 scandal. The French Jewish Army Captain, Alfred Dreyfus, was accused of spying for Germany, convicted in an awfully biased trial and sentenced to life imprisonment in the notorious Devil's Island. He was eventually exonerated in trials which laid bare anti-semitism in the French army and Government.
Interestingly, Polanski's work comes at a time when the world finds itself polarised. A strong anti-Jewish sentiment is emerging in Europe, and elsewhere in places like India, there is clear hostility between communities.
But An Officer and a Spy conveys that it is possible to overcome such biases with rational thinking and a sense of 'live and let live.'