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Matt Damon has been in the press. To say all publicity is good publicity is, we all know, certainly untrue, and this maxim does not apply to Damon.
The actor, a movie star of some significant wattage, recently made waves for several bizarre statements: first, that the era of the movie star is over, but secondly and more fragrantly upsetting, that his daughter only recently taught him the homophobic slur starting with F was indeed a slur. Though he later clarified that he'd never used the word, it only further muddied the waters — why would she need to teach him about a word he never used?
But speaking of muddy waters, his latest controversy comes not from anything he said but from a film in which he stars, and one he produced: Stillwater. The movie is, by the filmmaker's own admissions, inspired by the "Amanda Knox saga".
Stillwater follows an American oil-rig worker Bill (Damon) who heads to Marseille, France, to visit his estranged daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) who is, you guessed it, in prison for a murder she claims she didn't commit. Amanda Knox is certainly not the only person to be wrongly incarcerated — it happens at an alarming rate, particularly to people of colour — but the developments of this film are like a funhouse mirror of Knox's experience.
Allison is charged with murdering her roommate, and she's painted as a woman involved sexually with the victim, as well as a conniving and guilty person without remorse for the hand — however direct or indirect — she had in the crime. In particular, Knox was overtly sexualised by the tabloid press, slut-shaming her into perceived guilt for murder, and Stillwater takes the same tact.
I was accused of being involved in a death orgy, a sex-game gone wrong, when I was nothing but platonic friends with Meredith. But the fictionalized me in #STILLWATER does have a sexual relationship with her murdered roommate.
— Amanda Knox (@amandaknox) July 29, 2021
Stillwater is more concerned with Bill, though, who has to contend with language barriers, the cultural differences between Oklahoma and France, as well as the complicated legal system. But it's still the question around Allison's guilt that drives the narrative and is unquestionably directly ripped from the way Knox's story was presented by the media.
Thus, the problem remains: filmmaker Tom McCarthy and Damon chose not only to capitalise on a very real story but to use it as marketing. As Knox told Variety: "The way that they’ve chosen to use my name as a promotional tool, is going to impact me directly."
The issue has come up before. Former exotic dancer Samantha Barbash whose story inspired Jennifer Lopez's Hustlers movie unsuccessfully sued the distributor STX, Gloria Sanchez Productions, Lopez's Nuyorican Productions, Pole Sisters LLC, and 10 John and Jane Does for defamation.
Barbash's story is in the public domain, and while the courts dismissed her case, it does highlight a sticky issue in the world of fictional adaptations of real people's stories. Knox wrote on Twitter: "I understand that Tom McCarthy and Matt Damon have no moral obligation to consult me when profiting by telling a story that distorts my reputation in negative ways. And I reiterate my offer to interview them on Labyrinths. I bet we could have a fascinating conversation about identity, and public perception, and who should get to exploit a name, face, and story that has entered the public imagination."
While some would (cynically but realistically) assume her motivation is litigious, Knox has said suing is not the point of her speaking out. "That was not even the first thing that came to mind. I didn’t mean this whole issue to be a litigious issue. I’m not arguing legal arguments. I’m arguing human arguments. If anything, I wanted this to be a conversation starter, not a mic drop."
The conversation is, then, how much of real life do we draw on, and at what point do we owe deference, or at least a modicum of respect, towards the people who inspire our stories? For Knox, she says there needs to be some understanding that if you're going to capitalise on her name, she gets to contribute to the conversation.
There are plenty of people who have no say in how their stories are told, but a lot of the time those people are dead. We highly doubt Al Capone would have loved seeing Tom Hardy's portrayal of him as an incontinent, paranoid man despite how true it may have been.
Equally, people whose lives are often morally dubious can be given the Hollywood treatment (Mike Tyson for one), and people who are historically marginalised can be doubly erased, again, from their own stories (see Red Sea Diving Resort, most movies about the emancipation of enslaved people, the list goes on).
This pattern in storytelling is obviously bad (white saviourism, especially, is a deeply problematic trope that needs shelving).
However, what Knox argues for is agency and control over one's own narrative, something that she has been stripped of already and again, particularly as regards Stillwater's blatant use of her recognisability for profit. They made no qualms about using her name, and the instant curiosity that her story garners in the general public.
As of writing, neither McCarthy nor Damon have reached out to Knox, but there's still time. She acknowledges it might be hard, but it's worth it — besides which, she says she's easy enough to get a hold of.
She says: "I do feel like, especially in these cases, a storyteller has more of a responsibility in reaching out and at the very least acknowledging that how they tell that story is not just going to impact the person, but is going to be a continuance of that story that is imposed upon that person.
"That person didn’t choose to go through the experience that they went through, and didn’t choose for you to continue to use that story as content. So any way that you can give back a sense of choice — or, at the very least, acknowledge that lack of choice — is a very, very human thing to do."
Stillwater is out in UK cinemas now. Amanda Knox's podcast Labyrinths is available wherever you get your podcasts.
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