Ursula Macfarlane is a UK-based filmmaker whose candid documentaries have gained multiple wins andnominations for the BAFTA, Grierson and Royal Television Society Awards.
Her films include One Deadly Weekend in America, a feature documentary tracking gun violence over one July weekend;Captive for Netflix, Charlie Hebdo: Three Days That Shook Paris and Breaking Up With The Joneses, a feature documentary about a couple going through a divorce.
We sat down with Macfarlane to discuss Untouchable, a new documentary from Hulu that gives a voice to many of the survivors of producer Harvey Weinstein’s decades of alleged abuse, and tackles the entertainment industry’s long overdue cultural reckoning with sexual harassment and assault.
What sparked the creation of a documentary about Weinstein’s abuse?
As soon as the scandal broke, I was struck by the overwhelming number of friends and acquaintances who began talking about their own #MeToo experiences. For me, this felt personal, a story of our times, perhaps a reckoning. And then I was contacted by producer Simon Chinn (Man On Wire, Searching for Sugar Man) who had some initial investment from the BBC for a feature-length documentary. I didn’t hesitate. It felt like one of the most important stories in the world to tell at that time, and I felt privileged to be able to tell it. But at the beginning, we wrestled with what shape the film could take, given there had been so much coverage already in the 24-hour news cycle. We decided that we would present the women’s stories within the context of this man’s rise to power. We wanted to explore how this man was able to carry out these alleged abuses for decades with impunity, and how it was that the Hollywood community maintained a silence that allowed this.
Why do you believe Weinstein’s sexual assaults were able to continue, unchecked, for decades?
On one level, it was simply his power. Power meant that people didn’t tell, for fear of repercussions. Power meant that he could buy people’s silence. Power meant that the allure of Oscars and riches encouraged people to turn a blind eye. But it was also our culture. The powerful preying on the vulnerable, particularly in the entertainment industry but in many others too, had become normalized.
If anything good can come out of these shattering experiences, it will be that we become more compassionate towards people who struggle to tell us of the abuse they have suffered, and we really listen to them and, most importantly, believe them.
What was it like to hear from the brave survivors who are featured in this documentary?
It was humbling and very emotional to be in the room with them. You can see the palpable pain on their faces as they recall their encounters with Weinstein. And so I want to send them my heartfelt thanks for opening themselves up in such a candid way. The film’s power lies in their testimonies and we literally could never have made the film without them. One thing I want to mention is how moved the men in our crew were. After one particularly harrowing account, a crew member said he wanted to thank me for giving him the opportunity to hear the women’s stories. “We men,” he said, “never get the chance to hear how women suffer, and for that I am grateful to you.” That remark has stayed with me ever since and made me glad that we had included some men in our creative team. Men need to be part of this conversation too.
What do you hope this documentary and the conversation around it accomplish?
If anything good can come out of these shattering experiences, it will be that we become more compassionate towards people who struggle to tell us of the abuse they have suffered, and we really listen to them and, most importantly, believe them. And that we teach our children the importance of calling out harassment or bullying, wherever they see it. We are at the very beginning of a huge and long-lasting conversation about how we manage relationships between the powerful and the vulnerable, between men and women. We have a long way to go, but this is a start.
What is the biggest lesson you hope that people learn from this film?
I hope that people learn that speaking out is tremendously powerful, both for the individual, and for our society. As one of the survivors told me, once you say it, it loses its power. So tell someone. And equally, if you see it happening around you, tell someone.
Finally, tell us a little bit about you Ursula. What brought you to documentary directing?
I’m a mother of two boys, a pianist, keen amateur photographer, voracious reader, appalling at all things tech, and lover of disco dancing. I make documentaries because I’m endlessly curious about people and the stories they tell. People often ask me, “How on earth did you get that person to open up and tell their story?” I believe that it’s because many of us don’t really feel listened to, so when someone comes along and says, “You and your story are valuable and meaningful to the world, I’m listening” – then you feel empowered to speak. There is a truthfulness and immediacy to documentary that I believe no other art form quite matches, and when that authenticity combines with cinematic poetry, it can create magic.
Untouchable premiered on Hulu on September 2nd and is now available for streaming. If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault and is seeking help, get confidential support by calling 1-800-656-4673.
*NO MORE is not a financial beneficiary of Untouchable and this is not sponsored content.