PARK CITY — It was a late entry to the festival, but the much-anticipated documentary "Leaving Neverland," which chronicles the stories of two men's sex abuse allegations against pop idol Michael Jackson, had an early impact on the second day of the Sundance Film Festival.
With news that Jackson fans were planning to protest the film at its Friday premiere at Park City's Egyptian Theatre, reporters and media showed up to find not a mass of protesters, but instead a quiet scene on Main Street. Salt Lake resident Aaron Madsen, one of the few protesters in attendance, said their small numbers did not indicate a lack of interest among fans.
"A lot of people can't come here because of distance. I live here so it wasn't hard for me," he said.
The film, a four-hour documentary directed by Dan Reed, features interviews with two men who knew Jackson when they were boys. Wade Robson and James Safechuck each filed separate lawsuits against the Jackson estate after the singer's death, claiming that the pop star had molested them as children.
Both men attended the "Leaving Neverland" première.
When Sundance announced in January that they had accepted "Leaving Neverland" as an official 2019 selection, Jackson's brother Jermaine Jackson posted on Facebook that the documentary "is based on the falsified claims of molestation by the hands of Michael Jackson," and urged fans to sign an online petition against the film. The petition currently has over 52,000 signatures.
In response, Sundance issued a statement to its corporate sponsors indicating that it planned to screen the film at the festival, stating that the "Sundance Institute supports artists in enabling them to fully tell bold, independent stories, stories on topics which can be provocative or challenging."
Rumors that a protest at the film's première was in the works prompted Park City police and Sundance to take extra security precautions.
"To the best of my knowledge, this is the most tightened security that we've had at this venue," said Tela Moss, Egyptian Theatre manager and festival volunteer.
But when the protestors arrived, they found more security officers than protesters.
The protesters, who did not coordinate as a group, arrived separately. Brenda Jenkyns and Catherine Van Tighem drove 13 hours from Calgary, Canada, to show their support for Jackson.
"If he was alive, he could defend himself but he can't. So we are here," Jenkyns said.
Robson, who testified at the singer's 2005 sexual misconduct trial, stated at the time that Jackson never molested him, and Jackson was eventually acquitted of all charges. In 2013, Robson, a dancer who has worked on the show "So You Think You Can Dance," filed a claim that Jackson had in fact molested him over a seven-year-time period, but a court ruled that Robson filed his lawsuit too late to receive funds from the singer's estate.
Madsen is skeptical of Robson's changing account of his relationship with Jackson.5 comments on this story
"I am here to defend the honor of Michael Jackson," said Madsen, "who was a purely decent and honorable human being who deserved absolutely none of the lies that he has had to put up with."
There have been no reports that either Robson or Safecheck received payment for their role in the documentary, nor have they received a settlement from the Jackson estate.
Following the "Leaving Neverland" première and the Q&A with Reed, Robson and Safecheck, moviegoer Debbie Sanlorenzo, of Park City, was visibly moved by the film and disturbed by what the film revealed.
"It's so sad," she said.