Sundance 2020: On The Record undeniably a complete, substantial story that leads to deeper thinking about the stories of sexual assault victims

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Setting aside the pre-Sundance controversy surrounding the film, On The Record, directed and written by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, is undeniably a complete, substantial story that leads to deeper thinking about the focus on the stories of Drew Dixon and Sil Lai Abrams, who accused Russell Simmons of raping them, and the other victims who have come forth recently.

The approach the award-winning directors take in the documentary rightly amplifies the isolation, trauma, and concerns about black women in other professional roles who have been vilified and intimidated for their willingness to speak honestly about the abuses they have suffered as #MeToo victims. Focusing on Dixon, a music producer who worked with, among others, 2Pac, Method Man, and Mary J. Blige on the way toward achieving success after success in the always complex and risky realm of A&R representation, On The Record allows the viewer to glimpse the enormous sense of isolation she felt in her position. And, then as Abrams’ story is told, the viewer begins to comprehend the scope that Dixon, Abrams and many other women are not alone in the stories that implicate Simmons along with L. A. Reid, the former head of Sony Music and Epic Records who now heads Hitco Entertainment.

A still from Chasing the Fade by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Martyna Starosta.

Initially, the film was destined to have its Sundance premiere with Oprah Winfrey on board as executive producer and a proposed Apple distribution deal, which collapsed after Winfrey pulled out of the project. Speculation about pressure from Simmons or his supporters leading to Winfrey’s exit and the collapse of the distribution deal remains. In one interview prior to its premiere, Abrams suggested that Simmons never hesitates to intimidate her, Dixon or other victims. The film’s premiere at the festival has brought a good deal of attention from potential distributors, with reports indicating that representatives from Focus Features, Roadside Attractions, Amazon, CNN Films, IFC, Showtime, HBO Max and Netflix attended screenings. The directors previously won a Peabody Award for their film The Invisible War, which premiered eight years ago at Sundance, and have won two Emmy Awards as well as being nominated twice for an Academy Award.

On The Record, in fact, establishes important context as a companion piece to The Hunting Ground, a documentary by Dick and Ziering which premiered at Sundance in 2015 and the failure of university and college administrators to deal sufficiently and responsibly with reports of sexual assault on campus. Some critics for the directors’ most recent film already have disparaged On The Record as hasty, an incomplete story, or merely an example of outrage cinema. The opposite is the case. The viewer sees a measured presentation that nevertheless captures the deep emotional impact without it seeming gratuitous or becoming exploitive. It is the same work that viewers have become accustomed to from the directors, who have set rigorous standards of documentary journalism.

Critics, and not just from conservative publications such as The National Review but also Harvard law professors, similarly did so with The Hunting Ground five years ago, as Dick and Ziering chronicled the post-traumatic stress disorder effects suffered by sexual victims on the campuses of Berkeley, Harvard and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the unbelievable callousness in the responses by university administrators who feared more the public relations fallout than the welfare of students who were victimized. Florida State University hired G.F. Bunting + Co., a public relations firm specializing in crisis management to lobby on the university’s behalf not to air the film, which aired on CNN in November 2015, months after its Sundance premiere. That documentary was released on Netflix 14 months after its premiere. Incidentally, for The Hunting Ground, the song Til It Happens to You, by Diane Warren and recorded by Lady Gaga, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song.

A still from Chasing the Fade by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Omar Mullick.

For On The Record, the directors turned to Terence Blanchard (whose musical credits include the films BlacKkKlansman, The 25th Hour, Inside Man, Malcolm X and Harriet) who composed the original score, which sets the sincere, serious and understated tone framing the film.

It seems that some quarters will be intent on trying to lay the ground for questioning On The Record’s accuracy, balance and fairness, an indefensible claim. At the end of the film, the viewer learns that Simmons and Reid denied any requests for interviews. Also, Simmons has moved to Bali, Indonesia, as of 2018, a country which does not have an extradition treaty with the U.S. Like The Hunting Ground, On The Record cuts through the deeply entrenched illusion that attempts to claim sexual violence, abuse and assault are not common in the C-suites of the entertainment industry. And, critics will still try to discredit such important, essential films without evidence to substantiate their claims.

On The Record is a project that received a Utah Film Center‘s fiscal sponsorship and the center’s co-founder Geralyn Dreyfous is one of the film’s executive producers.

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Les Roka
I am a native of Toledo, Ohio, having received my Ph.D. in journalism and mass communication from Ohio University's Scripps School of Journalism in 2002. In addition to teaching at Utah State University and the University of Utah, I have worked extensively in public relations for a variety of organizations including a major metropolitan university, college of osteopathic medicine, and community college. When it comes to intellectual curiosity, I venture into as many areas as possible, whether it’s about music criticism, the history of journalism, the practice of public relations in a Web 2.0 world and the soon-to-arrive Web 3.0 landscape, or how public debates are formed about many issues especially in the political arena. As a Salt Lake City resident, I currently write and edit a blog called The Selective Echo that provides an entertaining, informative, and provocative look at Salt Lake City and its cosmopolitan best. I also have been the U.S. editorial advisor for an online publication Art Design Publicity based in The Netherlands. And, I use social media tools such as Twitter for blogging, networking with journalists and experts, and staying current on the latest trends in culture and news. I also have been a regular monthly contributor to a Utah business magazine, and I have recently conducted a variety of editing projects involving authors and researchers throughout the country and the world, including Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Lebanon, Cyprus, the United Kingdom, France, and Japan. I’m also a classically trained musician who spent more than 15 years in a string quartet, being involved in more than 400 performances.

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