Leaving Neverland won Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special at last weekend’s Creative Arts Emmys. First screened on M-Net and now streaming on Showmax in Nigeria, the controversial documentary follows the separate but parallel experiences of two young boys, 10-year-old James Safechuck and seven-year-old Wade Robson, who were befriended by Michael Jackson.
Through gut-wrenching interviews with Safechuck, now 40, and Robson, now 36, as well as their mothers, wives and siblings, the film crafts a portrait of sustained abuse, exploring the complicated feelings that led both men to confront their experiences after both had young sons of their own. Director Dan Reed, four-time BAFTA winner, opened up on the controversial documentary.
Why did you want to get involved?
I initially didn’t. I didn’t know anything about Michael Jackson and I had no view about whether he was guilty or innocent and I knew very little of the details. My subject area was terrorism, war and crime etc, so I don’t come from that field. I stumbled across the story because I was looking for a way to make documentaries with fewer dead bodies in them. So, someone said, ‘Why don’t you do the Michael Jackson controversy? That’s a big story that no one’s ever really got to the bottom of?’ I thought that was interesting but I wasn’t that keen. Channel4 in the UK gave me a small amount of money to hire a researcher and somewhere in the research were the names of these guys, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who I’d never heard of, and a ridiculous idea crossed my mind that if they were willing to stand up in court and say things and tell their stories, perhaps they might go in front of the camera. I remember thinking that’s never going to happen – and now here we are.
You came into this neutrally. At what point did you believe them?
I started to believe them during the master interviews. I met Wade and James and we immediately did very, very long multi-day interviews. This is always a hard thing to say, but I realised when listening to Wade’s story, that as a seven-year-old, he kind of entered into a relationship that was like a twisted seven-year-old version of a romantic relationship – an adult relationship with Michael Jackson. He’d kind of fallen in love with the star. Jackson told him that he loved him and he was in love with him. This was something I never expected to hear. Like most people, I thought child sexual abuse was when some kind of a predator in a stained raincoat grabs a kid from outside school and drags him to an alley and does something violent. And that’s not how it happens 80% of the time: it’s a trusted close friend; it’s someone you admire and would come to, someone who gains the confidence and grooms the child and his family… If he was trying to bamboozle me, he wouldn’t have needed to say, ‘I fell in love with Michael Jackson when he was abusing me at the age of seven’. That made it much more credible for me and then of course we did a huge amount of background research on whether it was possible for them to have experienced the things they said they did.
Dave Chappelle has come out and spoken against the accusers. Do you have a response to that?
Obviously I know these guys and I believe their stories and I know they were basically raped as kids and taken advantage of. I think that mocking the victims of child sexual assault is not a particularly clever thing to do. It obviously got some laughs because it became part of the antagonism against the ‘cancel this, cancel that’ movement. I never said to cancel Michael. There’s nothing in my documentary that says don’t listen to his music or cancel his work. Chappelle is riding on a wave of being contrary and being controversial. To me it was revolting. I felt physically sick listening to what he was saying. It wasn’t just off the cuff. It was a sustained attack on these guys. Child sexual abuse is a pretty nasty crime and anyone who’s come close to it, anyone who knows anybody who’s been a victim of it; it’s a stretch to use that. You can make comedy out of so many other things; why not do something brave instead of crapping on some victims of child rape?
The Jackson estate released a statement after the awards. “For a film that is a complete fiction to be honoured in a nonfiction Emmy category is a complete farce,” they wrote. “Not one shred of proof supports this completely one-sided, so-called documentary which was made in secrecy and for which not one person outside of the two subjects and their families were interviewed.”