Zentropa, Lars Von Trier and sexual harassment

Producer of the investigative work on wartime sexual violence 'Zero Impunity', I was the guest of the production company Zentropa created by Lars Van Trier and Peter Aalbaek Jensen. I witnessed a corporate culture glorifying sexual harassment and the denial of free speech for the victims. I called out those responsible for this and shared my indignation with them. I and ten other producers have decided to write an account in support of the victims of harassment at Zentropa but also victims across the entire cinema industry.

On 26th October, as part of a delegation of 70 international film producers & industry in Copenhagen for a producers workshop, we were invited to Film City, the home of Zentropa, Denmark’s most celebrated independent film production company founded by Peter Aalbaek Jensen and Lars Van Trier.

The week before Icelandic musician Björk had issued a statement accusing Lars Von Trier of sexual harassment during the filming of Dancer in the Dark in which she starred. This was the first instance of its kind to be attributed to a European filmmaker in the wake of Hollywood’s Harvey Weinstein revelations. However, the full magnitude of these revelations were not yet known, not yet at the epidemic proportions we know today.

The evening commenced with the usual pleasantries as we were welcomed by one of Zentropa’s female producers. On stage Aalbaek Jensen and band preformed cover songs, above them a wall of the most esteemed of industry accolades and awards sparkled down at us.

Aalbaek Jensen smiled benevolently, whilst introducing us to his penis, which is displayed in a naked picture of himself on the walls of the premises on a poster.

First came a film—a short film of about ten minutes opening with a swimming, naked Peter and Lars—recounting some highlights and idiosyncrasies from the first 12 years of Zentropa, including tales of Bjork’s ‘difficult’ behaviour on Dancer in the Dark.

Then followed numerous crude jokes, on sexual harassment and its recent association with Zentropa.

The producer MC called on the interns – who all stood up and waved to identify themselves – and mockingly invited us to approach them over the course of the evening, to reveal to us their experience of Zentropa, whether they had any personal experience or insight into sexual harassment there. We were then invited to indulge – in their food, drink and hospitality, to swim in their pool, to sample their sauna.

We had started the evening intrigued but conflicted to be at Zentropa. A place that has been portrayed as an alternative, liberated film institution. A place that claims true creative innovation. What we experienced could certainly be classified by some as alternative, but it was anything but liberating or innovative. Instead we encountered a brazen display of toxic masculinity.

That evening at Zentropa, we felt trapped. We were in a room with colleagues and industry professionals, and suddenly, in this warm and welcoming place, we began to feel afraid. Afraid because we were absolutely infuriated by the mockery and disrespect that we witnessed, but that our shock immobilised us from confronting it. Individually we questioned ourselves, “Is anyone else seeing this?” “Am I over-reacting?”

Sexual harassment is a sequence of hostile actions of a sexual nature. The actions—as well as their repetition and intensity—weakens the victim on a psychological level. Harassment seeks to intimidate the victim or to dominate. Sometimes, the aim is obtain a sexual act. Sexual harassment also refers to solicitations of sexual favors at work under threat of sanction. We believe it is important to work on a process of verbalisation, to be able to use words to describe the bad things. Sexual harassment is violence that we can’t minimise or deny.

By mocking sexual harassment we minimise the voice of the victim. It becomes a mopping up of the situation. It’s what perpetrators do to all of their victims. They don’t exist anymore. They are disparaged and mocked in a sort of soulless objectification. And then the victim falls apart. All victims fall apart as their stories are disparaged.

And Bjork? Her testimony is neither trivial nor simple. It required courage and dignity. Björk freed up her voice.

We, as a group of film producers, were shocked and upset by the disrespect displayed at Zentropa that night. Not least to Bjork, but to all victims of sexual harassment, assault and abuse. So we started to rise up. First with a discussion amongst some of us on the night, growing over the days and weeks that followed. We returned to our home countries, our own film communities and spoke about what we saw there.

We then heard of the further claims of sexual harassment, degradation and bullying by 9 former staffers at Zentropa disclosed by Politiken.

Today, we refuse to be quiet: in keeping quiet, in ignoring the voices of victims and letting the perpetrators speak, we risk being complicit. The example of Zentropa’s denial only perpetuates a culture of inequality. We don’t accept what we saw and heard the night of October 26th on their premises. We don’t accept what we see and hear in our own countries, in our own film communities.

We want to say to victims of sexual harassment and sexual violence that we are listening to them and we hear them. That the world is changing. As film producers, we believe it’s our responsibility to listen, to hear and to understand. It’s our responsibility to lead the change in our work environments, on our film sets.

We stand for zero tolerance of any form of discrimination and harassment. We stand with the victims. Stand with us.

Stéphane Hueber-Blies, a_BAHN, France / Luxembourg
Rosie Crerar, barry crerar, Scotland
Cait Pansegrouw, Urucu Media, South Africa
Jérémy Forni, Chevaldeuxtrois, Belgium / France
Alba Sotorra, Alba Sotorra SL, Spain
Julia Tal, 2:1 Film, Switzerland
Federico Sande Novo, Le Tiro Cine, Argentina
Muge Ozen, Solis Film, Turkey
Sabine Gruber, FlairFilm, Austria
Karen Harnisch, Film Forge, Canada
Juan Pablo Richter Paz, Bolivia

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