PARK CITY, Utah — Amid breathless reports of protests, disruptions and personal threats, news outlets swarmed to the Sundance Film Festival premiere of “Leaving Neverland,” a new documentary mini-series detailing accusations of sexual abuse against the pop star Michael Jackson. But the protesters outside the Egyptian Theater found themselves vastly outnumbered by reporters, photographers and camera crews, as teams from Variety, “Extra,” and, yes, The Times waited patiently for their turns to interview the poster-carrying Michael Jackson defenders. All two of them.
Brenda Jenkyns and Catherine Van Tighem said they drove 13 hours from Alberta, Canada, to protest the debut of the docu-series, which HBO will broadcast this spring. Though three more protesters showed up after the screening, the two friends said but they felt compelled to speak out. “I’ve never actually heard of Sundance before that,” Jenkyns said. “I just know about Michael Jackson, and we also know about the two people who are featured in this film. So we knew that it would be not true, basically.”
Van Tighem added that the film was “not a voice for victims,” saying, “There’s another side to the story. The information is there for people, if they want to take the time to look at it.” She carried a cardboard poster featuring a photo of Jackson, as well as copies of a pamphlet titled “Protect Michael,” with a storybook-style illustration of the pop singer leading a group of children through a garden of flowers.
“Leaving Neverland,” directed by Dan Reed, paints quite a different picture of Jackson’s interactions with young people. In two parts running nearly four hours, it details the singer’s history with Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who both spent time with Jackson in the late 1980s, at the height of his post-“Thriller” fame.
Under 10 at the time they began their “friendships” with the pop star, they say that they were showered with gifts, trips, and backstage passes; slowly isolated from their families; and “groomed” for sexual abuse that lasted several years. The now-adult Robson and Safechuck describe their sexual interactions with Jackson in graphic detail — far more explicit than the euphemisms typical of earlier news reports and documentary accounts.
In 2003, Jackson was indicted on child molestation charges when a young cancer patient accused the singer of groping him at the Neverland estate in California. Jackson was acquitted of all charges. He died six years later at the age of 50.
Jackson supporters like Jenkyns and Van Tighem question the credibility of the documentary’s accounts, noting that the men had previously defended Jackson from accusations by other young men, and that their subsequent efforts to sue Jackson’s companies were dismissed by courts. “I don’t feel any requirement to see it, I don’t feel any desire to see it or to benefit anybody who’s trying to make money,” Jenkyns said of the documentary. “ I don’t have respect for people who do things without a pure heart.”
And that, to her, includes Robson and Safechuck: “I feel it’s taking advantage of real victims of child abuse, because it does not respect them, who should be believed, when someone like this who shouldn’t be believed is representing them.”
At the Q&A after the screening, Robson said with a hint of sadness that he understood it was hard for them to believe “because in a way, not that long ago, I was in the same position they are. Even though it happened to me, I still couldn’t believe it. I still couldn’t believe that what Michael did was a bad thing.”
He added, “We can only accept and understand something when we’re ready, and maybe we’ll never be ready, and maybe we will. But that’s their journey.”
The women said they were not disappointed by the meager turnout for the protest. “I just knew in my heart that I had to be here and speak out,” Van Tighem said, adding, “A friend came to join me; there’s only two of us that I know that are here today. If there’s others that are coming, that’s great, but there’s no organized protest.”
The news cameras were long gone when the other protesters showed up. “I’ve never been to a protest, so I didn’t have any idea what to expect at all,” Jenkyns said. “I believe it was made to sound bigger than it was, with huge police and angry fans. So we wanted to be here to show that a real Michael Jackson fan is about love and not about fighting.”