A one-time screening of Leaving Neverland at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday took the air out of curious festivalgoers who were willing to sit through four hours of harrowing abuse allegations against Michael Jackson.
The documentary from Dan Reed was expected to draw a fair amount of pro-Jackson protestors — there was an attempt to get the film pulled from the festival — but few actually showed up to picket the film, which reportedly drew the likes of black-ish creator Kenya Barris and Time’s Up founder Tarana Burke. The movie, which will air on HBO this spring as a two-parter, zeroes in on longtime accusations of sexual abuse by Wade Robson, 36, and James Safechuck, 40.
Before the screening, festival director John Cooper warned attendees that the film might be quite upsetting, so mental health professionals would be in the lobby afterward for counsel.
The film didn’t waste any time talking about Jackson’s extraordinary career; rather, the spotlight was cast primarily on the two men who claim Jackson abused them when they were children. Robson, who hails from Australia and is now a successful choreographer, met Jackson when he was 5 and ended up visiting him at his Neverland Ranch in California. That’s where the abuse allegedly began and didn’t stop until he went through puberty, according to a Vanity Fair report about the documentary.
Safechuck, who works as a computer programmer, met Jackson after performing with him in a 1987 Pepsi commercial. He toured with the megastar and also allegedly endured abuse.
In a question-and-answer session after the screening, the two men reportedly said they were not paid to do the documentary, which was filmed over a three-day period. “We are just trying to tell the story, to shine light on it,” said Safechuck, as reported by Vanity Fair. “The same way, knowing Wade went through this, we can give other people the connection and comfort that we’ve received.”
“I was really scared for my mother to see [Leaving Neverland],” added Robson. The mothers of both men are included in the film. “Each of us watched it by ourselves, and there are things that I said, things my brother said, that have never been communicated within the family dynamic. It was an intense experience for them. My hope is that while this is not the usual way to healing — for a movie that goes out to the world — hopefully, this can open new doors for them. This is an important story to tell.”
Jackson died in 2009 at the age of 50. A representative of Jackson’s estate told Deadline Hollywood that the doc is “just another rehash of dated and discredited allegations” against Jackson.
Meanwhile, someone managed to briefly hijack the documentary’s IMDB page Friday, retitling it Liar, Liar 2: The Wade Robson and James Safechuck Story. The page has since been fixed.
Read more reactions to the film below.