In the wake of #MeToo, tributes to Claude Lanzmann raise uneasy questions
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The death of French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann led to an outpouring of tributes. But it's also raised uneasy questions about claims of sexual harrasment made by women against the director and how the media frames the legacy of 'great' men.
Homages from politicians and artists have spoken to the extraordinary life and artistic achievements of Lanzmann, the man behind the searing Holocaust documentary ‘Shoah’, that many critics say changed the history of cinema. Amid the acclaim, however, some feminists and female journalists have expressed a disquiet and frustration over what they view as the media’s singular reverence for a man who throughout his career was dogged by allegations of sexual harassment.
Among those critical of the media’s handling of Lanzmann’s legacy is French journalist and feminist Alice Coffin, who published a blog about the French media’s failure to acknowledge those allegations in the numerous obituaries penned since his death. She says the silence surrounding these aspects of the filmmaker’s life have proven even more glaring in the wake of the #MeToo movement and its exposure of the prevalence of abuses of power, many of them by high-profile men.
“There is a reticence in the French press when it comes to the issue of #MeToo,” Coffin said. “There are men, particularly those in editorial leadership positions, who find that all this is a little exaggerated.”
French journalists' whitewash
She reserves her strongest criticism for the language French journalists used to describe Lanzmann’s relationships with women, which she says whitewashes the more damning claims of abuse made against him. Coffin points to phrases such as a ‘seducer of women’ and a ‘man who loved women’, that she says are little more than euphemisms that mask widely publicised incidents of inappropriate behaviour towards women.
“The journalists could have chosen to solely focus on his works and his accomplishments as a filmmaker and intellectual,” she said in a statement written to FRANCE 24. “But it’s inexcusable and incomprehensible that they also chose to talk about his relationships with women without once mentioning these allegations.”
In 2017, Dutch journalist Joyce Roodnat wrote an article claiming she was groped and harassed by Lanzmann during an interview with him in Paris in 1985. She said she was so overawed by the director and was concerned about losing her job at the newspaper that she didn’t complain at the time.
Then last year, Roodnat was emboldened by the #MeToo movement to speak publicly of this ordeal during a panel discussion on Amsterdam television. Since telling her story, Roodnat says there have been times when she’s been villified.
“Sometimes a man will come up to me without introducing himself and say, ‘Lanzmann is a great filmmaker. Just so you know it’. Another once said to me, ‘I don’t consider you a victim’.”
She told FRANCE 24 that like the media in France, the Dutch press had overlooked the many stories about Lanzmann’s treatment of women and how her own newspaper, NRC, initially ommitted from an obituary any mention of past allegations of harrassment, even though the newspaper had published Roodnat’s own story of her encounter with the director. She said a female editor-in-chief later called her to apologise: the obituary was amended to include a link to Roodnat’s story and a line stating that insofar as women were concerned “it did not always end up well” for Lanzmann.
Admiration leads to silence
Roodnat does not believe the media were necessarily deliberate in circumventing pernicious details relating to women’s claims of harassment, but she believes it is because these stories stain the admiration of important men, like Lanzmann, that they are often handled with silence.
“So people might feel something deeply because the man or artist they admire has helped them know their feelings, and then suddenly he has a stain [against his name] and they just don’t want to know about it because they would have to forget how this person helped them connect with these feelings,” she explains.
Coffin believes there is still much work to be done to change attitudes in France and particularly within the media. She concedes the importance of treating the body of an individual’s work and the biographical details of their life with sensitivity, but says it’s a moral imperative to ensure there’s no covering up or censuring of the misdeeds or transgressions of ‘great’ artistic men.
“The moral of the story becomes one of not caring about women; that we only care about a man’s reputation. But what about his humanity? It’s these artists who control our stories and yet they have a diminished connection to their own humanity and somehow we don’t seem to mind.”