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Content warning: discussions of sexual harassment and assault
In December 2008, Casey Affleck allegedly entered the bedroom where cinematographer Magdalena Gorka was sleeping. He allegedly wore only underwear and a t-shirt. He allegedly got in the bed, put his arm around her, and caressed her back until she woke up after an indeterminate amount of time. She allegedly told him to leave and he allegedly asked why. “Because you are married and you are my boss,” she allegedly said. He allegedly argued with her before leaving in anger. Gorka quit their film.
At the time of this alleged incident, Gorka was the only woman working on Affleck’s mockumentary I’m Still Here about the supposed rap career of his at-the-time brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix. From the beginning of production, Gorka claims the harassment was endless — Affleck and other members of the crew frequently talking about having sex with her among other inappropriate comments. After she left the production, producer Amanda White was hired. White alleges similar experiences including being shown a crew member’s penis and being physically threatened when she refused to share a hotel room with Affleck.
White was instructed to try and rehire Gorka. Unable to find other work — and hoping the presence of another woman would change the environment — Gorka returned. The environment did not change. And Gorka quit once again.
White filed a $2 million lawsuit against Affleck in Los Angeles Superior Court on July 23, 2010. Gorka filed a $2.25 million lawsuit one week later. They both settled out of court.
I’m Still Here is the last feature film White produced. She is now the co-owner of iam8bit, a production company that crafts “unique and memorable experiences for a wide spectrum of brands.” They are currently working on developing IPs for feature films and television projects, but none have been produced yet. Gorka has continued to work as a cinematographer. Paranormal Activity 3 and a low-budget horror film titled The Levenger Tapes were her only feature credits in the four years following her work on I’m Still Here.
Affleck, on the other hand, appeared in big-budget comedy Tower Heist and received raves for acclaimed indies Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Out of the Furnace. He was cast as the lead in Kenneth Lonnergan’s Manchester by the Sea and immediately received Oscar buzz when the film premiered at Sundance five years ago. Mention of Affleck’s harassment suits were brief until Amy Zimmerman covered them for The Daily Beast. Affleck denied the allegations and the internet began the type of conversation that would become all too familiar less than a year later when a movement was sparked by allegations about Harvey Weinstein, a producer who often used women-led and queer-led projects to cover his abuse.
But conversation is not action, and on February 26, 2017, Casey Affleck won an Academy Award. Less than a year later he was back at Sundance in the acclaimed film A Ghost Story. Two years later he was at the Berlin International Film Festival with his narrative directorial debut Light of My Life, the first film released under his production company Sea Change Media. And now he’s back at Sundance, as an actor and producer, with Sea Change Media’s second film, The World to Come directed by Mona Fastvold.
This will likely be the first time many people are learning about Mona Fastvold, but I’ve been a fan of hers for years. I stumbled into a mid-day screening of her debut The Sleepwalker in 2014 and became obsessed. This quiet chamber drama about two sisters and their volatile male partners captured my attention with its total formal control and unnerving performances. It was a relationship drama, a family drama, and a horror movie all at once. And yet it was so much more — it was uncategorizable. It showed the promise of a true talent who had only just begun.
After graduating from film school in 2016, I realized my job prospects were limited by my total lack of industry connections. My first job was working for an abusive male theatre director and I decided if I was going to work in this industry it had to be on my own terms. The only solution I could think of was to start randomly messaging artists I admired — mostly women. I messaged and emailed dozens of theatre and film artists telling them what their work meant to me and saying I was looking for a job. I only heard back from two people — one was Mona.
Her life and creative partner, Brady Corbet, had just released his own debut feature, co-written with Mona. I messaged her to tell her how much I appreciated it and to gush about The Sleepwalker. Not only did she respond, but she asked to watch my last short film. Not only did she ask to watch my last short film, she suggested we get coffee so she could talk to me about it. She was incredibly generous with her time and her wisdom and provided me a much needed boost to my spirits in that post-grad trudge.
As the years passed, I kept waiting to hear word of her next project, as someone who wanted to work for her and as a fan. But I heard nothing. Corbet, however, released his second film — also written with Mona — the Natalie Portman-starring Vox Lux in 2018. Once I transitioned I stopped talking to most of my former professional contacts, so I’m not sure what the last five years have been like for Mona. I can’t say how many projects she hoped to direct that were never made. I can’t say how many pitch meetings she had or how she was received. But what I do know is that by the time Casey Affleck’s Sea Change Media approached her with the script for The World to Come it had been years since her last directorial feature.
The World to Come has a premise readymade for lesbian film nerd eye-rolls. It’s a period piece set in mid-19th century New York with an all-white, all-cis cast including two ostensibly heterosexual actresses who play characters in unhappy heterosexual marriages. But what the film lacks in originality of story, it makes up for in Mona’s direction. All the promise of The Sleepwalker is on full display with this more ambitious palette. The cinematography, the sound design, the direction of the actors — it all culminates in a remarkable cinematic experience. And yet every time Affleck was on-screen, I felt chilled.
This is a film about the suffocation of women. Katherine Waterston’s Abigail is bursting with intellectual curiosity and Vanessa Kirby’s Tallie matches her interiority with a vibrant spirit. Watching them connect amidst their harsh landscape and harsher husbands feels like the ultimate relief. The film’s repeated tragedy is meant to show just how limited options were for women during this time and it’s felt with a sting.
“Thinking about these women and the options that they had,” Mona said in the Q&A. “Thinking about how we stand on their shoulders and here I am today and I get to direct this film and be the boss of all these people. That is connected and that is a beautiful thing.”
It is a beautiful thing. And our progress should be celebrated. And Mona should be celebrated for her work on this film. But I wonder what she could’ve done with a different story. I wonder what she could’ve done with a script in her own words. I wonder what she could’ve done if she didn’t need the financial support of someone with a famous last name and a history of alleged abuse.
“As is the case with any period movie there’s some comfort in — look how it was then and we made it through that too,” Affleck said in the Q&A wearing a pink beanie. “Look how hard these women’s lives were. And now here we are and things are better.” I will give him that — things are better. But as I stared at him through my computer screen, thinking about Magdalena Gorka and Amanda White, thinking about my own experiences on set with abusive men, thinking about every woman and person with a marginalized identity whose talents have been kept from us or dulled by an industry still made for men like Affleck, the word “better” turned my stomach. Fuck better. I’m tired of waiting for the world to come. We’re all so tired of waiting. We’re all so tired of fighting. We’re all so tired.