Roman Polanski
Credit: Valery Hache/Getty Images

Oscar-winning director Roman Polanski, who was scheduled to receive a lifetime achievement award at this week’s Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, informed the festival’s organizers that he would not attend in light of recent protests. “Dear Friends,” the 80-year-old director wrote in a statement released by the festival. “I am sorry to inform you that having considered the extent to which my planned appearance at the Locarno Festival provokes tensions and controversies among those opposed to my visit, even as I respect their opinions, it is with a heavy heart that I must cancel my visit. I am deeply saddened to disappoint you.”

Polanski is still a fugitive from justice in the United States, where he is wanted for pleading guilty in 1977 to having sex with a minor, a 13-year-old model. He fled to France in 1978 before he could be sentenced, fearing that the judge would opt for jail time over probation. He has carefully avoided extradition ever since, while at the same time directing notable films with major Hollywood stars, like The Pianist, which won him the Oscar for Best Director. U.S. authorities have continued to pursue him, and he was arrested in 2009 at the Zurich Film Festival and placed under house arrest before the Swiss decided against extraditing him. Since being announced as an honored guest at Locarno in July, some Swiss politicians and members of the media have criticized the decision to honor an artist with his personal history.

“The decision of Roman Polanski to decline my invitation saddens me deeply,” said Locarno’s artistic director Carlo Chatrian. “Today I am sad because the participants of the Festival del film Locarno will be deprived of meeting an extraordinary artist, who embraced our proposal of giving a unique Cinema masterclass. … I have the greatest respect for freedom of expression for everyone and I have decided to listen to every criticism with the right attention. I feel that this time some positions have crossed boundaries, and through verbal violence and manipulation of reality, they have become an unacceptable attack to personal dignity. I understand and respect the decision of Roman Polanski. I sincerely hope that this missed opportunity for growth won’t sound like a victory for those who want to bridle the Festival, but becomes a platform to relaunch it as a space for hospitality and freedom.”