The Ms. Q&A: What Ursula Macfarlane Learned by Investigating the Harvey Weinstein Scandal

Ursula Macfarlane is a UK-based filmmaker whose candid documentaries have gained multiple wins and nominations for the BAFTA, Grierson and Royal Television Society Awards—including 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.

Macfarlane’s latest is a documentary that rewinds the clock on the #MeToo movement’s viral explosion—exposing the institutions and individuals who enabled Harvey Weinstein’s career of sexual misconduct, and mapping its impact on women’s lives.

Untouchable: The Inside Story of the Harvey Weinstein Scandal, now streaming on Hulu, weaves the harrowing stories of Weinstein’s victims into a larger narrative about corruption, misogyny and the women who toppled one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. Macfarlane talked to Ms. about what it took to tell this urgent story—and what she learned as a filmmaker and a feminist in the process.

Where does Untouchable begin? Where does the process of making this film start, and how did it take shape from there?

As soon as the Weinstein expose appeared in the New York Times and New Yorker, it ignited a conversation between me and my friends. Not a single one of us hadn’t experienced a #MeToo encounter, some more traumatic than others. So the story felt very personal to me, and as the avalanche of accusations continued, it felt to me that this was a story of our times that had to be documented. So when producer Simon Chinn—Searching For Sugar ManMan On Wire–called me to ask if I would collaborate with him on a feature documentary, I immediately said yes. How could I not?  

It felt like such a privilege to be able to tell the story, which was still in its infancy, the ending not yet written. Was it a watershed marking huge cultural change?  A reckoning? What was the extent of the collateral damage wrought on women by these allegations? How did he get away with it for so long? And what was the culture of complicity that allowed him to hide in plain sight for so many decades?

We wanted to make a timeless, universal film, widely viewed even by people who don’t know or particularly care who Harvey Weinstein is, but who care deeply about the prevalence of abuse in our culture. So we decided to put the accusations of abuse in the context of a man’s rise to power, his fatal flaw and his spectacular fall—almost like a Greek tragedy.

In the end, this is a film about the abuse of power, a story as old as time, abuse which reverberates through all cultures, industries and communities.

After the high-profile accusations against Weinstein came to light, the firestorm that followed was chased by a widespread call for an inclusive fight—for a culture that values all survivors, and that refuses to privilege famous or notable survivors over other victims.

This documentary was lauded for giving equitable screen time to some of Weinstein’s most prominent accusers, as well as some of the lesser-known women who have come forward. Why did that decision matter for you as a filmmaker, and what other intentions did you bring to this process as a storyteller? 

It was very important to us to tell a wide of stories which demonstrated Weinstein’s modus operandi amongst both the famous and the unknown. We were thrilled when Rosanna Arquette and Paz De La Huerta agreed to take part, but we treated their interviews and stories in exactly the same way as the other women’s. That is to say, spending time before the interviews to gain their trust, and giving them plenty of time to recount their experiences. We wove the stories together in such a way that, I hope, the audience doesn’t really notice who’s telling the story—it’s the content of the story that matters. Clearly, all the women have subtly different experiences throughout the decades, but a pattern emerges which binds them all together.

The accusations against Weinstein, and the sheer volume of how many there were, cracked something open—not just in Hollywood, but across sectors and around the world. The #MeToo movement’s viral explosion that followed the New York Times exposé on Weinstein has launched a renewed fight against rape culture. What did examining the “conspiracy” of Harvey Weinstein show you about what it will take for us to win that fight? 

I feel that rape and sexual violence is so embedded in our culture that it will take much more than the expose of a Weinstein to begin the process of stamping it out.  We know that the percentage of convictions for rape and sexual assault is very low.  The complicity of the Hollywood community, which allowed Weinstein to act with impunity, is echoed throughout our culture: look at the Catholic Church, sports and many other industries.  So until we can start to call out and dismantle complicity, predators will continue to stalk their victims.  Speaking out is the first step, but it will take a long time.  

You’re an accomplished documentary filmmaker, and you’ve watched the reverberations that storytelling can have unfold. What impact do you hope this film has—on viewers, on the culture-at-large, for survivors—now that it’s widely available?

My hope is that everyone watching this film is inspired to speak out—either about their own trauma, or on behalf of other survivors. Speaking out, being listened to and most importantly, being believed, is the first step to outing predators and making them pariahs. I know that people watching the film are very moved, if not devastated, by the testimonies, and I hope that will act as a call to arms.

Watch it, be shocked, but also be inspired by their courage. And adopt their bravery into our own lives.  

For you personally, what was the impact of making Untouchable? Was there a shift for you—as a filmmaker, as a feminist—that came from directing the doc?

I was humbled every time I sat in that chair and interviewed a new survivor.  To be honest, I and other crew members were often brought to tears, hearing about what the women had suffered.  One of the press reviews in the UK described the film as “quietly furious,” and I think that’s a good appraisal. I’m not a particularly loud person, and my films convey their ideas and emotions in a subtle way, but this has taught me the power of personally speaking out, loud and clear.

In a way, I think I’ve found my voice too.

About

Carmen Rios is the Managing Digital Editor at Ms. and has spent over a decade raising hell in feminist media. Her work has been published by outlets like the Atlantic's CityLab, BuzzFeed, ElixHER, Feministing, Girlboss, Mic, MEL and Everyday Feminism; and she also spent six years writing and editing for Autostraddle, was a founding blogger and activist with the SPARK Movement and was the inaugural managing editor of THE LINE Campaign blog. Carmen is additionally a co-founder of Webby-nominated Argot Magazine.