Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg in "Cafe Society." Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios
Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg in "Cafe Society." Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios

On March 19, Seattle told the tale of two Thursdays and two SIFFs. It told the tale of two Woody Allens, too.

One tale was told at 7 p.m. in Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, packed to the gills with filmgoers who had at least $100 to burn on admission to opening night of the 42nd Seattle International Film Festival. And maybe a couple bucks more to get nicely toasted before filing into the theater to watch and heap praise upon (though not necessarily in that order) the North American premiere of “Cafe Society,” the latest cinematic offering from a man who has built a career on aesthetically pleasing, dialectically clever romps featuring nebbish and neurotic Mary Sue protagonists.

The other tale was told a few hours earlier, at 4 p.m. in the smallest theater of the Northwest Film Forum on Capitol Hill, modestly filled with filmmakers, activists and others concerned by the apparent honor that was about to be bestowed on a man once accused of repeatedly molesting his 7-year-old adoptive daughter. A man who, though never prosecuted, saw those allegations reaffirmed in 2014 in a New York Times blog written by the then-grown daughter, Dylan Farrow, who recounted being led up to an attic and made to lay on her stomach, staring at a toy train set while she was assaulted.

To be fair to any discussion about its size, it should be said the latter tale had less time to be written. Expanding on a May 17 Seattle Times column by Nicole Brodeur, “Why SIFF should not be celebrating Woody Allen's 'Cafe Society,'” after-school education nonprofit Reel Grrls hastily devised the Twitter hashtag #WhoAreWeCelebrating to publicize an open discussion on what the arts community could – or even should – do to combat a culture that celebrates the work of an artist who may have victimized a child.

Brodeur joined Reel Grrls Executive Director Nancy Chang for a filmed and live-tweeted discussion that included Northwest Film Forum Artistic Director Courtney Sheehan (since named the new executive director), Longhouse Media Executive Director Tracy Rector and Megan Griffiths — whose suspense film about real-life serial killer Richard Ramirez, “The Night Stalker,” will premiere at SIFF.

They were not there to bash the festival or its programming, Chang said. She said it consistently screened diverse work and supported Seattle filmmakers like Griffiths.

“We love SIFF,” she said.

Sheehan also noted it was valid to ask whether or not it was the job of an organization presenting films to engage with the politics of the art, or to present the work and let audiences decide for themselves.

Brodeur and Griffiths agreed that it was, at least when a screening was as high profile as “Cafe Society’s.”

Rector, an artist and activist for Native Americans’ and women’s rights, described being disturbed by the news that the Allen film would open the festival.

“It felt like a sucker punch to my gut,” she said.

Virginia Bogert, a community liaison for Women In Film, said she thought the movie’s inclusion in the festival at all wasn’t necessarily a problem, but it’s assignment as SIFF’s first movie of the festival was problematic.

“SIFF can screen his movies, you just choose to go or not go,” she said. “But the fact that it’s a showcase and an honor … that’s what I don’t understand.”

As a contributing filmmaker, Griffiths said she felt conflicted.

On the one hand, the festival would be premiering her film “The Night Stalker,” which presents the inner conflict of a lawyer and sexual abuse survivor as she attempts to elicit a confession from Ramirez, an unrepentant rapist.

On the other, that same festival had chosen to put the work of an alleged rapist front and center. She said she felt that choice ran counter to the spirit of support and inclusion in the Seattle film community.

“I’m attending opening night,” she said. “My plan for tonight is to go and support my film and the programs. But I’ll be leaving for the movie and I and other filmmakers will probably find someplace else to celebrate on our own. Unfortunately.”

As Festival Artistic Director Carl Spence introduced “Cafe Society,” he described the film as “An utterly charming romantic comedy … set in 1930s Hollywood.”

He got boos. Not many. Certainly not enough to carry across a 2,900-seat auditorium, over a sea of attendees’ ambient conversation and through the low-level electric hum of speakers to be heard as anything more than an indistinct buzz.

Later — after a tribute to late festival founder Dan Ireland, a performance from musician/documentary subject Princess Shaw and a shout-out to the National Endowment of the Arts — Spence took a moment to note that 62 of the films screening at SIFF had been directed by women. Approximately 27 percent of the festival’s films were directed by women — nearly four times the industry average, Spence said. Spence was referring to the percentage of female directors of the top-grossing 250 films of 2014, festival spokesperson Sara Huey clarified, a figure observed in a 2015 study of women in the film industry conducted by San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.

[Editor's note: A more recent study by the organization, of women in independent film, observed that women made up 28 percent of directors across 23 high-profile festivals held in 2015 and 2016 — dropping SIFF just below the current average]

After a speech from SIFF Board President Brian LaMacchia and the presentation of the Mayor’s Award to Washington Filmworks, the lights in the auditorium dimmed and the opening credits of “Cafe Society” rolled. The applause was thunderous.

Looking up from the front right corner of the room, it could be seen that very few people had left at all.

Bogert said she had asked festival leaders to participate in an open discussion about what went into the decision to feature “Cafe Society” on opening night.

“The answer I got … is they will have an open forum at one point but after [the festival’s over],” Bogert said. “So, in June. ...

“... I think they need to regroup. I don’t know why they didn’t expect this backlash, but they didn’t.”

Other participants said they suspected SIFF leaders knew what to expect — but just why they were willing to bear the controversy was harder to pin down.

“Maybe they were just excited to be able to present this film,” Brodeur said. “... I wonder if to have the North American premiere is something they wanted badly.”

But Brodeur discussed one potential suspect at greater length than others: money.

In the middle of his opening statements, Spence also thanked several of SIFF’s sponsors. The mention of some of the largest companies, such as Vulcan Productions and CTI BioPharma, elicited applause from employees who had taken advantage of their sponsor passes.

One of the largest rounds of applause came at the mention of Amazon Studios, a new sponsor for the festival and, significantly, a co-distributor of “Cafe Society” and two more films screening at SIFF.

Amazon acquired “Cafe Society” for $20 million in February, working out a deal with Lionsgate to distribute the film in limited release July 15, followed by a wide release July 29. The film will be the first movie by Allen to see wide release since his 2003 flop “Anything Else.”

The film acquisition was preceded by another deal announced in January 2015, in which Amazon tapped Allen to create, write and direct a one-season television series for the Amazon Video streaming service.

The untitled series is scheduled for release sometime in 2016 and Allen said in an interview appearing May 4 on the Hollywood Reporter website that editing had already wrapped.

In keeping with the moderators’ desire to open the forum to online users, as discussion continued in the Northwest Film Forum, comments on Twitter rolled in from users both remote and in the theater.

@totallymorgan: “Art made by criminals can be good, sure, but it also becomes a psychological profile of a criminal.”

@normajeanstraw: “Can we move on from tired ol’ #woody? Lets celebrate and shine light on the survivor-warriors, please. #whoarewecelebrating #siff”

@StephCHoover: “Continuing to ignore accusations such as the one against Woody Allen allows rape culture to thrive. #WhoAreWeCelebrating”

@TrigglePuff: “@reelgrrls We don’t live in a rape culture! Go to Saudi Arabia if you want to live in a rape culture! Educate yourself please :)”

@mailemae: “Calling for edu around #rapeculture at the #WhoAreWeCelebrating convo at @nwfilmforum. People who say it doesn’t exist don’t know what it is”

Discussing how so many people could shrug aside the allegations against Allen, moderators and participants in the forum repeatedly returned to the idea of rape culture.

The term refers to a concept in feminist theory which describes any place where rape has been made to seem normal as a result of pervasive sexist attitudes — particularly those that contribute to the sexual objectification of women.

Kaya Axelsson of the Community Consent Project boiled the definition down to anything that feeds a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, whether that leads to unsolicited comments on a woman’s appearance or physical sexual violence.

For some people participating in the forum via Twitter, the very idea of rape culture was a tough sell. One user, who later deleted their tweet, commented that “rape culture doesn’t exist.”

Chang said she was frustrated with people who thought that way. She pointed to sexual assault statistics, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figure that one in every six women had been the victim of attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. Or that nine out of 10 victims of rape were women, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

“Men don’t just have the right to take women,” Chang said. “We’re living in 2016. For people to say that rape culture doesn’t exist…”
Vivian Hua, a Los Angeles-based artist attending the forum during a visit to Seattle, said she believed much of the problem came down to a misunderstanding of the concept.

“I think there’s a degree of education on rape culture that has to happen concurrently with this conversation,” she said.

Several participants said the evidence of rape culture was plain in the relative immunity enjoyed by figures like Allen. Michelle Hippler described the “sickening feeling” of seeing pictures of Allen standing between young actresses Kristen Stewart and Blake Lively at “Cafe Society’s” Cannes premiere.

“The reason he is still being celebrated is because of the power he has,” she said. “It’s not just him. Cosby got away for years because of who he was.”
For the forum participants, identifying rape culture was easy. More complicated was determining how to respond.

One attendee suggesting “voting with dollars,” refusing to attend SIFF programs.

Lacey Leavitt, whose short film “Escape” is screening with SIFF’s “Northern Tales” program May 29, said she wanted to challenge SIFF Opening Night attendees to match their $100 admission with commensurate donations to Reel Grrls, Northwest Film Forum or Longhouse Media.

As an artist on Capitol Hill, Axelsson said she uses her work to educate women on the power and importance of their consent in all sexual encounters.
She said she was preparing for a community rally, Make Art For Consent, at the old Capitol Hill Value Village storefront June 2.

Liz Shepherd wasn’t so sure. The youth programs director for Northwest Film Forum recalled the “daily sexual harassment” she encountered working in the entertainment industry in New York City as a young woman.

“When there is such a disparity of power … the issue of consent becomes incredibly problematic,” Shepherd said. “Consent is a strange word when you’re a 23-year-old professional approached by a 45-year-old guy who’s famous and pretends he’s really into you. Then discards you.”

Shepherd’s scenario replays itself, in a warped way, in the opening act of “Cafe Society” via Kristen Stewart.

Stewart plays a young love interest to lead actor and Allen stand-in du jour Jesse Eisenberg, presenting herself as a free spirit contemptuous of Hollywood glitz. But she’s also involved with an older hotshot who discards and courts her at will. She passively accepts both, sacrificing her ideals easily.

Eisenberg moves on, resenting her, making stoic faces as he literally and figuratively shops for other lovers.
It's hard to sympathize. But consider: His sadness, badness and self-loathing alike were conscious choices by the real Allen.

“I’m going to put it out there: I don't think Woody Allen’s a monster,” Chang said. “I think he’s a person and his choices are questionable.”

Griffiths added that she didn’t think Allen’s defenders were monsters, either. Treating them as such wouldn’t lead to a discussion, she said.

“You have to meet people in this calm, empathetic way to make change,” she said.

But Chang said the celebration of Allen also reminded her of the experience of a friend, who told her she and her siblings thought it was normal for dads to beat their wives. And how they kept thinking it was normal until the day a friend witnessed the behavior and immediately fled to call the police.

More than anything, the victims of violence need a safe space for support and perspective, she said.

“I don’t call for any boycotts of SIFF and I don’t think SIFF is [trying to fuel] rape culture in any way,” she said. “I don’t think I’m angry. I think more of it is my duty to channel people’s thoughts.

“I think I will definitely get some hate mail. But that doesn’t matter, because this room is full of love.”