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It must have come as a surprise to director Amy Berg two years ago when film festivals declined to screen her documentary An Open Secret. Her previous film Deliver Us from Evil had been universally praised by critics and nominated for an Academy Award. Now, she and her team couldn’t even get a distribution deal. But then again, her earlier documentary dealt with pedophilia in the Catholic Church, not in Hollywood.
Perhaps now that one of Open Secret’s peripheral subjects—X-Men and Superman Returns director Bryan Singer—has became the latest in a long line of Hollywood heavyweights to face public fallout stemming from sexual abuse charges, the film’s time has finally come. Certainly the producers hope so: They recently made the documentary free to stream on Vimeo in a bid to bring attention to the issue of child molestation in Hollywood.
The systemic abuse detailed in the PG-13 film, with descriptions of the rape and molestation of 11- to 15-year-old boys, is more horrifying than just about anything we’ve seen in the headlines over the last few months. One young man said he was only 12 when his manager began showing him gay pornography and told him the behavior onscreen was typical of manager-client relations in the movie business: “He just told me this is normal. This is what you have to do.” Most disturbing, though, is hearing about the inner guilt and confusion the victim experienced because he couldn’t help having natural, physical responses to his victimizer—something the victimizer later cites as proof the boy “wanted it.”
Upsetting as such details are to hear, the stripping away of the euphemisms people often use when discussing abuse forces the viewer to consider not just the predators, but those who facilitate their crimes. Powerful pedophiles can have a network of lawyers and studio sycophants in place protecting them. Listening to former detective-turned-Vanity-Fair-reporter John Connolly describe how his exposé on child abuse in Hollywood was killed by Details magazine can’t help but call to mind what Ronan Farrow experienced this year when trying to get NBC to air his reporting on Harvey Weinstein.
Even more infuriating is when the founder and former chair of the SAG-AFTRA Young Performers Committee tries to downplay the crimes committed against children in his industry. “I’m not sure how horrible they really are,” Michael Harrah tells Berg. “This is not a terrible thing unless you think it is. It’s just something that happens to you in your life.”
But if it seems that this warped thinking is being swept away in our current national demand for reckoning, consider that one of the strongest early Oscar contenders right now centers on a sexual relationship between a graduate student in his mid-20s and a 17-year-boy. Call Me By Your Name is being hailed by the Los Angeles Times as a “powerfully erotic and affecting love story,” and USA Today says its depiction of first love is “worth savoring.”
Despite dealing directly with horrific crimes, the tone of An Open Secret is not all dispiriting. The courage a few of the boys exhibit, risking their careers in order to expose their abusers, makes you want to stand up and cheer. Maddeningly, though, the resulting convictions often mean little, as in the case of an acting coach who continued working at top kids’ shows such as The Suite Life of Zack & Cody even after he was convicted on multiple counts of child molesting.
The public is calling for justice for those who’ve suffered from sexual abuse, and no group of victims should demand our attention more than children. Over the years the media have been dismissive and even sneering toward down-and-out former child stars because they exhibit the very kind of troubled behavior you’d expect from anyone who endured such trauma at a young age.
But as we’ve seen in recent months, titans can fall. Now is a perfect time to return attention to this searing documentary.