IDFA 2020 review: The Case You (Alison Kuhn)

Throughout history art has been one of the great boundary pushers in society. But just how far can we go in pushing those boundaries, and who decides what lines to cross? Especially in an artform like cinema or theater, which by nature is collaborative but also virtually always dependent on power structures, just who draws the line in the sand can become an issue, certainly in a time when abuse of those power structures is held up to the light. German actress Alison Kuhn was a victim of such abuse, along with five other actresses (and probably many more). Now, several years later, the six women come together to work through their harrowing experience. With Kuhn behind the camera, thereby turning the neutral gaze of the viewer into a supportive gaze of a fellow victim, this allows them to be frank about their experience. The Case You is a firsthand report of sexual assault in the industry and how it traumatizes women (or men, as one of the women points out).

In 2015 around 300 to 400 young actresses were invited to a casting call, including inexperienced minors. All of them knew that it would be an audition for a film dealing with incest made by a controversial director (the film never actually mentions his name, likely for legal reasons). During the audition they were forced to take their clothes off, groped and beaten while a camera was rolling, all of this without permission or consent. The perpetrator who acted out the scene with them was sometimes a man, sometimes a woman. These actors behaved as if this was normal conduct when creating ‘art’, but for the victims it was anything but. Bewildered, some of them acted through it, confused about whether it was just them or if this really was way out of line (which it obviously was). Psychological manipulation can go a long way. Afterwards all of them felt, understandably, violated. But their ordeal was not over. A few years later footage of those auditions was used without their consent in a documentary, which even got a slot at a festival. It was withdrawn at the last moment, but the women’s fight is not over. The courts will decide, but six of the women have decided to join in telling their side of the story, to show that there are boundaries to art.

The Case You sees five of the women (Kuhn stays behind the camera) working through grief, anger, and disbelief as they recall their experiences on those fateful casting days. Sharing their experiences for the first time with women who have been through the same ordeal creates a strong bond and a sense of camaraderie in what is an extremely personal and disarming documentary. What is essentially a group therapy session becomes interesting for the audience, however, because their stories provide very direct insight into how this power abuse can creep into art, and the effect it has on its victims both at the time and in the years-long aftermath. What separates this from, say, a Harvey Weinstein situation is that this casting was intentionally set up to create ‘art’, whatever that may mean to its makers. But not communicating with the actresses in question beforehand about the intimate and disturbing nature of the act and springing it on them suggests a sinister hidden agenda behind that casting. This makes you wonder how often incidents like this occur, certainly when one of the women says that something similar has happened to her since. The Case You is thus a somber reminder that the industry is still a toxic environment for women. And by laying all of the emotions bare, with Kuhn registering the women within one bare space (the place where the original casting took place), it becomes all the more powerful as a document and as a warning.