TIFF Withdraws ‘Sparta’ Before World Premiere Following Allegations of Impropriety Against Director Ulrich Seidl

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The Toronto International Film Festival has withdrawn the film “Sparta” following allegations of on-set impropriety and child exploitation against Austrian director Ulrich Seidl.

“Sparta” was due to have its world premiere in Toronto on Friday afternoon. However, there had been speculation as to whether the film would remain in the festival after allegations against Seidl and the production were published on Sept. 2 in German news magazine Der Spiegel.

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The investigation alleges that Seidl did not communicate the film’s theme of pedophilia to its young actors, who were between the ages of 9 and 16 and not from professional backgrounds. It’s also alleged that the actors were confronted with alcoholism, nudity and violence during the production without adequate preparation or support.

Der Spiegel says its journalists spent more than six months investigating the production of “Sparta” in Germany, Austria and Romania, and spoke to dozens of crew members, including some actors.

Seidl’s lawyer told Der Spiegel that there is no sexual context nor pornographic or pedophiliac scenes in the film. They also denied that any child was “filmed naked or in a sexualized situation, pose or context.”

In a statement addressing the allegations posted to his official website, Seidl wrote that the film is based on a true story, and follows an Austrian man in his 40s who moves to a remote part of the country to start a new life, and together with a group of young boys from the area, transforms a dilapidated school into a fortress. Throughout the process, however, the man is forced to “confront a truth he has long repressed, one that neither the boys nor the outside world suspect. On the inside he is secretly struggling against his pedophile urges,” writes Seidl.

Commenting on the allegations, the director wrote: “My films are not the product of my manipulating my actors, misrepresenting the film to them, much less abusing them. On the contrary: Without the trust that we build over weeks and months together, the long shooting periods my films require would be impossible. I have the greatest respect for all my actors and would never take a decision that could in any way endanger their physical and psychological wellbeing.”

A brief statement from TIFF on the film’s official festival page simply reads: “This film has been withdrawn from festival. We apologize for any inconvenience. Ticket holders will receive an email from TIFF Customer Relations with more information.” Variety has contacted TIFF for further comment

“Sparta” was scheduled to have five screenings in Toronto, including press and industry screenings.

Seidl is a prominent European director best known for his raw, hard-edged German-language movies that often feature explicit sex scenes. His films “Import Export” (2007) and “Paradise: Love” (2012) both competed for the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

His last film, “Rimini,” screened as part of the Official Competition at the Berlinale earlier this year. The movie centers on has-been singer Richie Bravo who returns to his hometown of Rimini in the dead of winter to find the money demanded from him by his estranged daughter. “Sparta” is positioned as a companion piece to “Rimini,” and follows the brother of Richie Bravo.

In a February interview with Variety discussing the director’s gaze on bodies “of all ages, shapes and sizes,” Seidl said: “I think that this image of a certain type of beauty is imposed on us, and it’s a type of beauty that is impossible for us to escape from. In my films I’m trying to avoid that dictatorship of a certain kind of beauty. I want to depict bodies as they are. I think that the media, in trying to impose this rigid, limited type of beauty, is imposing a kind of censorship.”

Production companies on “Sparta” include Ulrich Seidl Filmproduktion GmbH, Essential Films, Parisienne de Production, Bayerischer Rundfunk and Arte France Cinéma in collaboration with Arte

Variety has contacted Seidl’s production company and international sales agent Coproduction Office for comment.

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