New documentary on Louis C.K.’s sexual misconduct puts women center stage

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TORONTO — Back in November 2017, when five women accused Louis C.K. of sexual misconduct in the New York Times, he was one of the biggest comedians in the world, the beloved star of an Emmy-winning show about being a divorced dad whose material often concentrated on the gross behavior of men that women have to put up with.

The pushback from his fans was often that the women, most of whom were comedians, simply weren’t funny. So what if they’d accused him of masturbating in front of them or while on the phone with them? Missed career opportunities because they didn’t want to be in the room with him, or because they feared recrimination from his powerful manager, Dave Becky (who no longer works with C.K. and who has apologized for his actions that were “perceived as a threat to cover up sexual misconduct”), were immaterial.

A new documentary, “Sorry/Not Sorry” — which is produced by the Times and which premiered late Sunday night at the Toronto International Film Festival — aims to dispel that, simply by letting the women speak. Each has a different view, a different scale by which they’re measuring the offenses perpetrated against them. “We wanted to show them as people who you might be friends with or might know,” Caroline Suh, who directed the film with Cara Mones, told The Washington Post after the screening. “This is all very, ‘They’re not victims.’”

Anyone looking for explosive new allegations about C.K. won’t find them here. In many ways, the film is instead an exploration about how sexual harassment isn’t black and white, how it can really happen to anyone, and how, just because C.K. hasn’t been accused of drugging and raping multiple women, as Bill Cosby has been, doesn’t make what he did okay. (C.K. admitted that “these stories are true” in a written response the day after the article came out.)

Suh, who’s part of Gen X, said that when she first started exploring the topic, she wrestled with her generation’s tolerance of bad behavior by men. “When the New York Times story came out, I was surprised, and I also, to be honest, which I’m not proud of, was like: ‘Is it that bad? I don’t know,’” Suh said. (The film features many comedians talking about how C.K. didn’t touch the women and asked permission before masturbating.) It was through those conversations that she brought on Mones, who calls herself “a geriatric millennial,” for a different perspective.

The question isn’t about how bad it is or whether C.K. masturbating in front of women was legal, Mones said. “It’s: ‘Was this fair? Is it fair to subject people to this behavior?’ … It doesn’t really matter how traumatic something is. It’s just not okay.”

The film’s premiere at Toronto isn’t a coincidence. The festival hosted the splashy 2017 premiere of C.K.’s risqué “I Love You, Daddy,” in which he starred in and directed what is essentially a treatise about men in entertainment getting away with terrible behavior — the only time it played publicly. “It’s a way of making up for something that we wished we knew in 2017,” Thom Powers, director of the festival’s documentary team, told The Post.

The Monday morning after the screening, an announcement went out that the film had been acquired by Greenwich Entertainment and will be released next year, after getting dropped by Showtime during company restructuring. C.K. did not respond to requests for comment in the film — or to The Post’s request via his lawyer at the time of publication.

Rather than start with C.K. or a summary of what happened to him, the film instead opens in the New York apartment of artist and comedian Abby Schachner as she hangs out with her dog and puts on a comically large number of cardigans to leave the house. “This is how you keep the men away,” she jokes.

Schachner told the Times that she’d called C.K. to invite him to a show and could hear him close the blinds and masturbate while she was on the phone with him. A couple of months later, world-famous comedian Dave Chappelle made fun of Schachner, saying she has “a brittle-ass spirit” in his December 2017 Netflix special, for noting that her encounter with C.K. is part of what destroyed her comedy dreams. “B—-, you don’t know how to hang up a phone?” Chappelle said. “How the f— are you going to survive in show business if this is an actual obstacle to your dreams?”

The most prominent new interview in the film is with comedian Jen Kirkman. She’s considered the first woman in the comedy world to talk publicly about C.K.’s behavior, but when the Times approached her in 2017, she says in the film, she didn’t feel as if what she’d experienced measured up, or like she wanted to dredge it up again. He hadn’t masturbated in front of her, after all.

For a long time, she says in the film, she’d considered C.K. a friend, and even a bit of a mentor, but she’d noticed a pattern of creepy behavior over the years that had made her uncomfortable: asking her what she’d do if a guy asked to pull his penis out in front of her, which she thought was a bit at the time, and putting his hand on the back of her neck and whispering that they’d “f— someday.” She was in her early 20s during the encounters with C.K. and didn’t have a baseline for what was acceptable behavior, especially in the comedy world. Maybe this was just how it was. “It’s not like when it’s happening you’re taking notes because you’re going to talk about this 25 years from now,” she said.

One day, in 2015, frustrated with reviews that called her stand-up act “dirty,” she went on her podcast, which she says had maybe 1,000 listeners, and talked about how perverted men in the industry get away with things all the time — and how she had even turned down a chance to go on the road with a famous comedian because she’d heard rumors about his sexual misconduct. The podcast got picked up, with articles immediately linking Kirkman’s comments to C.K., and she says the subsequent harassment stopped her from talking about it more, or relaying her own experience.

Privately, she said, C.K. called her, and they had a rational conversation about how to handle it. She agreed with him that it would be best not to talk about it more and deleted the podcast. For years, she did fewer interviews for her comedy work than she wanted to, because the media would talk to her only if she talked about C.K. At one point, she said publicly that she hadn’t been referencing C.K. “I just needed it to stop,” she says in the film.

Other powerful interviews include comedian and writer Megan Koester, who spoke about how the comedy world protected C.K. She relays the story about how she went on the red carpet for the 2015 Just For Laughs festival in Montreal — the biggest in comedy — and asked A-listers to comment on the C.K. rumors, only to get yelled at by Bruce Hillis, the festival’s chief operating officer, for attacking “a friend of the festival,” to the point where he made her cry. (Hillis defended himself in a statement to Vice.) She has retreated from comedy and sells things on eBay to make ends meet.

Also in the film are men reckoning with their complicity. Noam Dworman, owner of the Comedy Cellar, reflects on why he let C.K. back onstage for the first time nine months after the article came out. (He said in the film that it wasn’t his place to police people who wanted to pay to come and see C.K. “in a free country.”) Comedian Michael Ian Black discusses his controversial, now-deleted tweet defending C.K.’s return and musing about when we could start talking about a path to redemption for canceled men. Perhaps the most reflective is “Parks and Recreation” creator Michael Schur, who talks about how he heard rumors about C.K. after he’d played a guest part on the show, then invited him back anyway. “The fact that I thought it wasn’t my problem is exactly the problem,” he said.

Notably absent from the film, though, are several women prominent in the article, including comedy duo Dana Min Goodman and Julia Wolov, who told the Times that C.K. got naked and masturbated in front of them after inviting them to his hotel room during the Aspen Comedy Festival. As Suh explains, the women expressed just wanting to get on with their work, for C.K.’s misconduct not to be the only thing they’re known for. (Schachner jokes that it’ll be in her obituary.)

“We’re looking back at the #MeToo movement now in the rearview mirror and everyone’s always asking: ‘Are things better? Are things worse?’” said producer Kathleen Lingo, who works for the Times. “It’s really hard to have a blanket assessment, but just the fact that the women who felt a sense of promise at that moment now don’t feel it anymore — I think is quite stark.”

correction

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Bill Cosby had been charged with drugging and raping multiple women. Cosby’s criminal case involved only the allegations made by one woman. Also, an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that “I Love You, Daddy” was the comedian’s directorial debut. The article has been corrected.

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