The controversial Michael Jackson-focused documentary Leaving Neverland made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday. The four-hour film details the accounts of two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who claim Jackson abused them as children, according to The Hollywood Reporter, and left many in attendance at the premiere shaken. After stunned and disturbed reactions flooded social media following the film’s screening, and after the Sundance audience reportedly gave it a standing ovation, the late pop star's estate issued a thorough rebuke.
“Leaving Neverland isn’t a documentary, it is the kind of tabloid character assassination Michael Jackson endured in life, and now in death. The film takes uncorroborated allegations that supposedly happened 20 years ago and treats them as fact,” an official statement from the estate reads. “The two accusers testified under oath that these events never occurred," the statement continues. Indeed, while both Safechuck and Robson testified in Jackson's defense in other cases while he was alive, after Jackson's 2009 death, they each filed complaints alleging sexual abuse, both of which were dismissed in court. The statement continues, "They have provided no independent evidence and absolutely no proof in support of their accusations, which means the entire film hinges solely on the word of two perjurers."
The statement also attempts to discredit the film’s director, Dan Reed, claiming that he "intentionally avoided interviewing numerous people over the years who spent significant time with Michael Jackson and have unambiguously stated that he treated children with respect and did nothing hurtful to them.” The Jackson estate accuses Reed of neglecting to properly fact-check so that he could “craft a narrative so blatantly one-sided that viewers never get anything close to a balanced portrait."
In a Q&A after the premiere, Robson and Safechuck reportedly told the audience that they weren't paid or expecting to receive any other incentive to appear in the documentary, and only hoped their coming forward could help other survivors of abuse. "We can't change what happened to us. And we can't do anything about Michael," Robson said.
For his part, Reed told Vulture that he did take several steps to verify Robson and Safechuck's stories. "We have to make sure that their accounts stack up. That they were in, you know, Budapest when they claim they were, and that Jackson did play a concert where he claims this happened, that sort of basic fact-checking, which we were very diligent with," he said. "I also interviewed experts on child sexual abuse. 'Does this match the pattern of a pedophile?' A hundred percent it does. I went to see an LAPD detective specializing in child sexual abuse who's been involved with more than 4,000 investigations. And he said, you know, Jackson’s modus operandi was absolutely typical, and kind of cookie-cutter perfect."
Despite the best efforts of Jackson’s estate, the film—which will debut on HBO sometime this spring—already appears to be swaying opinions of the late singer, judging by the emotional responses viewers shared online. After the hotly anticipated premiere—which required a police presence to help manage a small contingent of protesters—there were counselors on hand at the screening to help anyone who felt overly distressed by what they had seen.