'It was really an investigation': inside HBO's explosive Allen v Farrow documentary

In a new four-part series, the allegations of sexual abuse aimed at Woody Allen are dissected and examined in exhaustive detail

When film-makers Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick first met Dylan Farrow in January 2018, they were skeptical about how much could be added to the record seared in the public memory of her family’s infamous division, arguably the most publicized and scrutinized case of alleged incest in recent American history. The directors behind some of the decade’s most incisive documentaries on sexual assault and the cultures which permit and abet it, including On The Record, The Hunting Ground and The Invisible War, were familiar with the broad strokes of Dylan’s story: that in August 1992, at age seven, she claims that her adoptive father, the superstar director Woody Allen, sexually assaulted her in an attic. Allen denied ever molesting Dylan, and cast the allegations – in public and in an acrimonious, highly scrutinized 1993 custody suit against Dylan’s mother, Mia Farrow – as the machinations of a scorned woman (Mia had recently discovered Allen’s sexual relationship with adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, then 21).

By 2018, the story had a polarized cementation in public memory: either you believed Allen, as much of Hollywood appeared to until the #MeToo movement curdled interest in working with him, or you believed Dylan and, by extension, Mia. But as they listened to Dylan recall her memories and its ongoing trauma – an experience she’d shared publicly in an open letter in 2014, then in a 2017 essay in the Los Angeles Times, then in a 2018 television interview with CBS – the film-makers sensed that there was much more to the story than the vindicated he-said, bitter she-said narrative they’d absorbed in the 1990s.

The two were impressed by “how strong [Dylan’s] interview was”, Dick told the Guardian, and that she was willing to address “how so much of her life had played out in the public, and was debated in the public, and how she was disbelieved”. Still, the duo weren’t sure that enough could be found to warrant a deeper look into a notorious case, until lead investigator Amy Herdy obtained court files from the 1993 custody trial, with a wealth of previously unseen details. “As it became more obvious that there were a lot of things Amy Herdy was finding, we wanted to continue exploring,” Ziering told the Guardian.

The result is Allen v Farrow, a lucid, exhaustively researched four-part HBO documentary series that reviews extensive trails of documentation and personal trauma with a fine-tooth comb. Over the course of four hours, Ziering and Dick parse through Herdy’s mountain of evidence, from archival photos to court documents, police investigation files to numerous social workers’ notes. The series includes lengthy first-person interviews with Dylan and Mia, speaking publicly about her romantic and creative partner of 12 years for the first time in decades, as well as Dylan’s brother, the New Yorker journalist Ronan Farrow, and numerous cultural, psychological and legal experts.

The guiding intention was “to go back and say, let’s unpack this, let’s understand what’s going on, and let’s understand the biases that we have as a culture and individual that prevent survivors of incest from coming forward and speaking”, said Dick. Although, at least in the series, they do not explicitly land on a conclusion for Allen v Farrow, the centering of Dylan’s story all but blares the verdict of their investigation. (Allen and Previn did not respond to multiple requests for participation.)

The film bears patient, open witness to Dylan’s account, though Ziering, Dick and Herdy were clear that doing so did not preclude investigative rigor. “This was not a collaboration or anything like that with her or the family,” said Ziering. “It was really an investigation,” one whose thoroughness ultimately convinced reluctant members of the Farrow family to participate.

Mia was particularly reluctant to revisit the past, and only agreed to participate after specific requests from Dylan. “This is not something she was eager to go back and revisit, for multiple reasons,” said Ziering, “and not something she felt comfortable publicly trusting her story to, because she’s gotten a very unfair presentation in the press so far.” It was Herdy, a veteran trauma reporter who spearheaded the investigations for the pair’s previous films, who first introduced Dylan to the directors, and whose discovery of previously unseen court documents convinced both Dylan and the film-makers to pursue the series.

“I had started my investigation with Dylan, treating her like a subject of an investigation and saying, ‘All right, I need names, I need details, I need dates – you say that this happened, help me find the proof,’” Herdy said. The search took Herdy to Mia’s basement, where she found photos and video submitted to court; she then obtained and peered through thousands of pages of court records (“eyeball-stabbing work”), as well as hours of phone conversations between Allen and Mia (he started recording her, then she recorded him; snippets culled from court evidence are played throughout the series), and police records from separate investigations in Connecticut and New York.

Dylan Farrow.
Dylan Farrow. Photograph: HBO

Several revelations appear damning for the Allen argument – numerous child psychologists discredit the re-traumatizing methods used in the 1993 Yale-New Haven study long cited by Allen defenders as proof of his innocence, which claimed seven-year-old Dylan demonstrated “inconsistencies” over nine interviews and cast doubt on Mia’s intentions. Newly uncovered files reveal that the New York social worker tasked with investigating the case believed Dylan’s testimony, and was suspiciously fired (a judge later found it to be an unfair dismissal and he was reinstated).

The series’ most explosive addition to the record are home videos, known but not yet seen by the public, taken of Dylan by Mia in the days after the alleged assault, in which she describes (according to Mia, unprompted) what happened in the attic. The footage – Dylan, with a child’s vocabulary, gesturing how “Daddy” touched her “private parts” – is graphic and disturbing, and included only at the specific behest of the now adult Dylan. “The fact that we have that tape was a decision made by an adult woman allowing us to view this very painful, personal, private part of her child self,” Herdy said. The series depicts several child psychologists, unassociated with the case, viewing the footage; all attesting to its consistency with their experience with children reporting sexual abuse.

After months of poring over detail after detail, and weaving together disparate strands of investigations, Herdy saw a clear picture: “When you look at the records, the documents, the police investigation, and social workers’ investigations, and that’s plural, combined with the statements of the subjects that we have – all of that, in my opinion, points to the fact that Woody Allen absolutely did molest Dylan.”

Allen continues to deny all allegations. “Even though the Farrow family is cynically using the opportunity afforded by the Time’s Up movement to repeat this discredited allegation, that doesn’t make it any more true today than it was in the past,” he said in response to Dylan’s 2018 CBS interview. “I never molested my daughter – as all investigations concluded a quarter of a century ago.”

Woody Allen, Mia Farrow and family in 1990.
Woody Allen, Mia Farrow and family in 1990. Photograph: Globe Photos/Mediapunch/Shutterstock

Though the film-makers quote liberally from his 2020 memoir, Apropos of Nothing, the series overwhelmingly presents the Farrow side. The fourth episode briefly addresses allegations against Mia of physical abuse, bullying and coaching, made by the only two siblings to decline participation, Previn and Moses. In a 2018 blogpost, Moses accused Mia of slapping him repeatedly as a child, dragging physically and emotionally disabled siblings down stairs, and “brainwashing”. (In the same blogpost, he accused Dylan and Mia of lying, and claimed the train set she remembered fixating on during the alleged assault was a detail added to make her story more credible; a 1992 police sketch of the attic presented in the series includes a model train set track). Mia Farrow denied Moses’s claims to the New York Times, as did Ronan Farrow, who rejects them again in the series. Dylan Farrow, in a statement posted on Twitter, called them “part of a larger effort to discredit and distract from my assault”.

In a 2018 interview with New York magazine, Previn (along with Allen, who was present for much of the interview) said that “[Mia] has taken advantage of the #MeToo movement and paraded Dylan as a victim”, and accused her adoptive mother of bullying and extreme favoritism. “It’s hard for someone to imagine, but I really can’t come up with a pleasant memory,” she said of her time with Mia (Farrow and her other children have also denied claims of abuse).

Ziering, Dick and Herdy said those allegations were pursued and investigated as any others in the series. “We don’t shy away from anything,” said Ziering. “If there’s something there, we’ll report. So we looked into all of that, and presented what we thought was appropriate, and what we were able to legally. And if we found something otherwise, we would’ve presented it.” Herdy said she pursued the claims through interviews with family members and all living siblings save Previn and Moses, who declined interviews, and found that records of “multiple investigations by multiple different agencies indicated that Mia was a very loving and attentive and caring mother”.

“I found no evidence to support those claims, Herdy said. “I found mounting evidence that disputes those claims.” The idea that Dylan’s story was coached as “a vengeful act by an unhinged woman” is “not reflected in the records”, she added. “That’s not reflected in the interviews, that’s not reflected anywhere other than by [Allen’s] PR machine.”

The saga of Allen v Farrow will probably remain divisive, not least because of the benefit of the doubt afforded to Allen by his legendary – though, given Amazon’s recent reneging on their film deal, waning – cultural status. “When you have a public figure who’s been revered for decades, and that reverence conferred him a lot of privilege, it also allowed us to make assumptions about other people that now, in retrospect, look really wrong and unfair, and have severe consequences on their lives,” said Ziering.

The film-makers said they hoped for a “reckoning” over Dylan’s story and its handling for nearly two decades, as well as greater recognition for and willingness to confront cases of incest. “Taking these cases and exposing them to sunlight cures infection, and I think that will help people heal,” said Herdy. “It’s important for people to realize that they’re not alone. I think there’s an entire survivor community that’s going to be inspired by this series.”

  • Allen v Farrow starts on HBO on 21 February with a UK date to be announced

Contributor

Adrian Horton

The GuardianTramp