On January 25, Sundance was home to a screening of Leaving Neverland, a four-hour documentary detailing the sexual assault allegations that have surrounded Michael Jackson since the 90s. Directed by Dan Reed, the documentary tells the story of James Safechuck and Wade Robson, two men who claim they were sexually abused by the singer as children.
In a statement obtained by The Hollywood Reporter on the day of the screening, Michael Jackson's estate denounced the film, calling it a "tabloid character assassination" and “public lynching of the singer’s legacy,” while alleging that the accusers were "perjurers."
Yesterday, in a new interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Reed defended the film’s characterization of the situation. "I didn't characterize Jackson at all in the film—I think if you watch it you'll have noticed that it's a story about these two families and Jackson is an element of that story," Reed says. "But I don't seek to characterize him at all. I don't comment on Jackson. […] The film is an account of sexual abuse, how sexual abuse happens, and then how consequences play out later in life."
In Leaving Neverland, Robson alleges that he was sexually abused by the singer from the ages of 7 to 14. Safechuck, who starred in a Pepsi ad with Jackson when he was a child, alleges that he was also molested by the singer, starting at age 10.
When Jackson was still alive, both Robson and Safechuck claimed under oath, on different occasions, that their relationship with the singer was never sexual in nature. In 1993, Safechuck acted as a witness for Jackson’s civil suit after an unidentified 14-year-old boy accused Jackson of sexual abuse. Robson also testified as a witness in Jackson’s 2005 criminal investigation for child molestation. Both men recanted their statements years after the singer's death, and again for Leaving Neverland’s cameras. Since Jackson’s death in 2009, both Robson and Safechuck filed lawsuits for stress and trauma and both were denied by a judge. Now, the two are in the process of appealing those dismissals.
At the Sundance screening of the first two hours of the film last week, mental health experts were present on-site to help the crowd process the documentary. Slate's review of the film was a glimpse into some of the content captured in the film:
In the first two hours of Dan Reed’s documentary, Wade Robson and James Safechuck had already recounted in exacting detail their memories of how Michael Jackson sexually abused them when they were children: how, they said, he groomed them and their parents until the boys were allowed to sleep over in his bedroom alone; how he began with a touch on the thigh and moved on to their crotches, reaching inside their pajamas to fondle their genitals and telling them to follow suit on his own body; how he instructed them to spread their buttocks so he could see their anuses as he masturbated to completion.
Leaving Neverland is slated for a spring release on HBO.
Kristin Corry is a staff writer for Noisey. Follow her on Twitter .