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The Shrinking World of Roman Polanski

Part One


Roman Polanski (photo courtesy of Jacob Freeze) The arrest of acclaimed 76-year-old Polish director Roman Polanski in Zurich Airport on Saturday 26th September 2009 created an international sensation – and provoked an outcry from a number of sources around the world. Polanski was wanted by US authorities for fleeing charges of unlawful sexual conduct with a 13-year-old girl in 1977, and was arrested by Swiss police at America’s request. The Swiss Justice Ministry confirmed that US authorities had actively sought Polanski’s arrest around the world since 2005. ‘There was a valid arrest request, and we knew when he was coming,’ Justice Ministry spokesman Guido Balmer told the Associated Press. ‘That's why he was taken into custody.’

The U.S. had 60 days from the date of Polanski’s arrest to file a formal request for his transfer to the States, and Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf confirmed the director would remain in Zurich until extradition proceedings were concluded.  Polanski had flown into Zurich to attend the 5th Zurich Film Festival where he was scheduled to receive the festival’s Golden Eye Award for lifetime achievement. The festival’s organisers said they were ‘shocked and dismayed’ by the arrest, but decided to hold the awards ceremony and a retrospective of his work regardless.

Karl Spoerri, the festival organiser told the audience of 650 that attended the tribute to Polanski, ‘Obviously we had no knowledge whatsoever of the plans to arrest Roman Polanski. The jury decided months ago to honour Roman Polanski. There was never any suggestion at any time from Polanski's management or from Swiss authorities that Polanski would be detained.’ Outside the theatre, protestors brandished placards proclaiming ‘Free Polanski’ and ‘Polanski’s arrest is a disgrace for culture in Switzerland.’

The director had recently failed to have the charge overturned in the States after the presiding judge ruled that he must attend court proceedings in that country. Although the judge’s comments strongly suggested the charges would be thrown out, Polanski dropped his bid, fearing he would be arrested and imprisoned if he returned to America. Samantha Geimer, Polanski’s victim in the 32-year-old case, also supported his dismissal attempt having previously settled legal action with the director for an undisclosed sum. Polanski fled America in 1978 when he suspected the judge was about to renege on a plea-bargain deal in which a 42-day ‘evaluation’ prison term would be the entire length of his sentence. Since then, he had avoided travelling to countries he believed were likely to extradite him, and had lived in France with his wife, actress Emanuelle Seigner, and their two young children, since the Eighties. Ironically, Polanski had spent much of the summer at his house in Switzerland, working with the best-selling author Robert Harris on a film adaptation of his novel, The Ghost.

Upon his arrest, Polanski was reportedly permitted two telephone calls. The first was to his wife, who immediately travelled to Switzerland; the second was to the organisers of the Zurich Festival to apologise for his failure to attend.

His arrest sparked a frenzy of protests from various organisations. As Polanski’s French lawyer confirmed that he would fight any extradition attempt, American actress Debra Winger, the Zurich Film Festival jury president, criticised the Swiss authorities’ ‘philistine collusion’ in Polanski’s arrest. ‘This fledgling festival has been unfairly exploited and whenever this happens the whole art world suffers. We hope today this latest (arrest) order will be dropped. It is based on a three-decades-old case that is dead but for minor technicalities. We stand by him and await his release and his next masterpiece.   We came to Zurich to honour Roman Polanski as a great artist but under these sad and arcane circumstances we can only think of him today as a human being uncertain of the year ahead. His life has always informed his art and it always will.’

The Swiss Association of Directors condemned the situation as a ‘grotesque judicial farce and a monstrous cultural scandal,’ While the Association of Film Directors and Script Writers described it as ‘a slap in the face for the entire cultural community in Switzerland.’

Frederic Mitterand, France’s culture minister: ‘Seeing him alone, imprisoned while he was heading to an event that was due to offer him praise and recognition is awful. He was trapped. In the same way that there is a generous America that we like, there is also a scary America, and that has just shown its face.’

Berlin Film Festival: ‘The Berlinale protests the arbitrary treatment of one of the world's most outstanding film directors. We declare our deep respect for Roman Polanski and we demand his immediate release.’

German Film Academy presidents Senta Berger and Guenter Rohrbach:  ‘The German Film Academy finds it revolting that Roman Polanski has been arrested for an act committed more than 30 years ago.’

Herve Temime, Polanski’s French lawyer, said, ‘He is in a fighting mood and determined to defend himself.   We have begun by requesting his release. There is no legal reason based on the facts or the most basic principles of justice to keep Roman Polanski in prison for even a single day.’



A petition demanding the immediate release of 76-year-old Polish film director Roman Polanski was quickly circulated following his arrest on Saturday 26th September 2009. It was co-ordinated by film industry organisation Société des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques (SACD), and stated that, ‘Film-makers in France, in Europe, in the United States and around the world are dismayed by this decision… It seems inadmissible to them that an international cultural event, paying homage to one of the greatest contemporary film-makers, is used by police to apprehend him.’

Over 70 people had signed the petition by the 29th September. Among them were such notable names as Michael Mann, Wim Wenders, Pedro Almodóvar, Darren Aronofsky, Terry Gilliam, Julian Schnabel, the Dardenne brothers, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Wong Kar-Wai, Walter Salles, Jonathan Demme, Harvey Weinstein, Tilda Swinton, Monica Bellucci and Asia Argento.

Producer Henning Molfenter became the first jury member to announce he would boycott the 5th Zurich Film Festival, saying ‘There is no way I'd go to Switzerland now. You can't watch films knowing Roman Polanski is sitting in a cell 5km away.’

Meanwhile, the Swiss Federal Criminal Court announced that Polanski’s lawyers had filed a request for his release from jail. Some of his supporters had suggested he could be placed under house arrest at his home in the ski resort of Gstaad until his fate was decided. Release on bail was permissible under Swiss law, but such a request was rarely granted, especially as Polanski wasn’t a Swiss citizen and could be considered a flight risk.

Part Two









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