Louis Theroux On The 'Long Road' To Making A Film About Sexual Assault And Consent

The Night In Question has been over a year in the making, but the filmmaker almost pulled the plug on it.
Saifullah Khan and Louis Theroux
Saifullah Khan and Louis Theroux
BBC Pictures

Saifullah Khan has been accused of rape and acquitted in a Connecticut court, but due to a piece of anti-gender discrimination legislation, he remains suspended from the university he was studying at prior to his arrest.

His Yale suspension is the result of Title IX proceedings, which require schools and universities in the US to carry out a fair investigation into sexual misconduct or assault allegations, separate to those undertaken by law enforcement.

The proceedings have evidence requirements different to those in a court of law, which is why Khan finds himself sitting in front of Louis Theroux, explaining his suspension and point of view; that legislation and processes it dictates are denying acquitted men the right to their education.

Many of Theroux’s films deal with ongoing crises and his latest, The Night In Question, contributes to an unprecedented, global dialogue on sexual misconduct and consent.

Speaking to HuffPost UK, the filmmaker details how he set about telling such a “high stakes story”, admitting that at one point he struggled with a “weird feeling of apprehension about doing the story at all”.

Theroux first considered making a documentary on the topic “about a year ago, maybe even slight longer”, emailing his series producer a New York Times article on how sexual assault is being investigated in America.

“I wasn’t really sure how I would cover it, because I knew it would be a difficult, very difficult, world to get into,” Theroux tells HuffPost UK. “I just knew that there was something about it I was really interested in, and it was the sort of difficult tension between taking sexual assault as seriously as it deserves to be and at the same time respecting due process.”

He decided to “find a student who has been accused” and follow them as they fight against the Title IX ruling which has excluded them from study. This is where Khan comes in, effectively becoming the main character in the documentary.

His alleged victim declined to take part in the film and Theroux admits that her decision “definitely” made him reconsider whether to include the case.

“I think we went through it thinking, ‘Well we will give her time and space to think about it’, and my hope was that she would come on board,” he tells HuffPost UK. “In the end, she didn’t.”

In the absence of an interview with her, the job of providing a counter narrative to Khan’s version of events falls to the interviewer. Theroux does this frequently in his talks with Khan, questioning him on the finer points of the police investigation and challenging him when the production team receives some startling information about another allegation.

While they aren’t telling different sides of the same story, the number of accused men featured in The Night In Question is matched by the number of victims, with Mollie Johnson and Emma Sulkowicz recalling their own, separate experiences of sexual assault.

“I suppose I also thought that if we have other victims in the film, that will support the victim perspective,” Theroux reasons. “In addition, if I sort of interrogate Saif’s version of events with enough focus and the necessary forensic attitude, then this can still hold together as a film.

“And I won’t say that it was easy or we didn’t have wobbles or moments where we were thinking whether it would work, but I’d like to think we got there in the end.”

Interviewing Johnson and Sulkowicz, Theroux says, was “harder in the sense that I was aware that I didn’t want to re-traumatise them, but I was also aware that I wasn’t there as a social worker”.

“I was there as a journalist, whose job it is, in an appropriate and sensitive way, to challenge and question and elicit the facts,” he says.

During the editing process, the production team found other ways to include the viewpoint of Khan’s alleged victim.

“One of the things we ended up doing, which we’d never done before, was intercutting interviews with the accused men with graphics of interviews with victims. I think that was quite effective in order to support the counter narrative.

“[There were] techniques we could use to make sure we were giving the material the balance that it needed.”

It doesn’t take long for our conversation to turn to Harvey Weinstein.

Theroux is the one who brings up the disgraced Hollywood producer, just after pointing out there are “so many conversations today around the issues of sexual assault and consent”.

“A week doesn’t go by without someone in the headlines, whether it’s Michael Jackson or Harvey Weinstein or Louis CK, whoever it is,” it says.

And having previously spent time with celebrities – or attempted to in the case of Michael Jackson – for films, Theroux says he did consider Weinstein as a candidate for a documentary.

“Yeah, in fact early on, there were conversations about should we approach Harvey Weinstein,” he says. “I think I even did make a couple of calls on it.

“I think I would have… I think in my own mind there’s always this question of how do you balance the need of the victims to be heard against whatever you’re doing that’s in that area and I really think this is a very finely judged thing.

“My heart goes out to whoever does that first Harvey Weinstein interview, I’m sure it will happen sooner or later.”

He adds: “They will have to be absolutely on their mettle to hold him to account because that’s what’s needed and actually, I think the necessity is always to remember that victims have been historically silenced.”

Theroux says the recent wave of powerful, mostly US-based men being accused of sexual misconduct has felt “really reminiscent of five years earlier” when people in the UK came forward to accuse Jimmy Savile, Rolf Harris and Max Clifford (the latter two were jailed for sex offences).

“[It was] that sort of domino effect of other high profile figures tumbling over,” he says. “I felt like I was living through a similar cultural moment and it’s fascinating to see how that then takes over the conversation at parties or when you’re with friends.

“Although occasionally you hear from people who might be more critical of it, but definitely my feeling from the get go was that actually what we were seeing was a long and overdue taking down of over-entitled men.”

It’s perhaps because of how these conversations are shaping headlines in the British press, and taking place at our dinner tables too, that The Night In Question feels closer to home than his Dark States and Altered States episodes, despite also being filmed thousands of miles away and focused on a piece of law that only applies in the US.

Then there’s Khan and Will Norris – a second student in a similar situation, who appears in the film to explain his story. These aren’t aren’t men living on the fringes of society, in small town America with tigers in their backyards; they’re educated, privileged, middle to upper class individuals.

“It’s a change of pace from stories in the hood or about trafficked women in the bad side of Houston,” Louis adds.

Since Donald Trump’s switch from reality TV to politics, Theroux has made six documentaries in the US, but he says The Night In Question is the first to “bear the imprint of Trump” and his administration.

He explains: “Sometimes people assume that because we’ve got this complicated and rather troubling figure in the White House, and because the landscape has changed so much politically, that it therefore means that my subject choice is different or people I formerly viewed as fringe are now mainstream.

“But actually, I don’t know that that has necessarily been the case so far.”

Murder In Milwaukee, released in 2017, showed “a murder rate [that] had skyrocketed under Obama, to be completely honest”, and the same can be said for the opioid epidemic in Heroin Town, “not to say Trump is doing anything about it”.

But “they were sort of so extreme that they were immune to the vagaries of presidential politics”, Theroux continues.

“In this [The Night In Question], what you see is a sort of resurgent men’s rights movement is in the background, kind of galvanising and encouraging those students who’ve been accused of sexual misconduct.”

Theroux in Milwaukee
Theroux in Milwaukee

Referring to Betsy Davos’ efforts to limit the powers of Title IX in cases like Khan’s, he adds: “And actually, there’s this attempt by the Trump administration to roll back some of the protocols used to deal with sexual misconduct.”

Politics isn’t something Theroux asks Khan about and he doesn’t broach the topic with Norris either, though he does know the latter’s “mum was a registered Democrat, and I think they had a sign for Beto [O’Rourke], the progressive senatorial candidate”.

“And so it’s not that it’s explicitly party-political down the line,” he continues. “But I do think Trump and his supporters have clearly influenced the culture and that this [the two men’s appeals] is in part being egged on, or at least Trump and the cultural warriors in his wake are influencing the debate.”

Theroux has previously said he’d like to make a documentary that directly confronts Trump’s America, with the Guardian reporting in 2017 that one on the president’s supporters was in the works.

Fast-forward to 2019 though and he admits this is subject he’s struggled to grapple with.

“Basically, [I] have not yet found a way of doing it,” he says. “It’s so hard because he keeps changing and also he’s so much the focus of everyone’s journalistic attention.

“It would be a challenge to bring something new to the party, I’ve got a couple of ideas but I don’t know whether I’ll do them or not.

“For a while, I thought there was something in the world of the alt-right characters like Milo Yiannopoulos. I suppose there’s a whole bunch of them, Richard Spencer is another one. That was about a year and a half ago, that I was sort of looking at that.

“And then in the year and a half since, they’re still around but there’s been quite a few things done on them and I don’t know if that’s where the story is right now.”

A year and a half ago Weinstein was still a lauded movie mogul and Trump was yet to complete his first year in the White House, while the Charlottesville rallies and attack were a month away.

A lot can change in the time it takes for Theroux and his team to create a documentary as complex as this one, but despite his unsureness, his track record speaks for itself.

Wherever Theroux decides the story is right now, there’ll be plenty of fans waiting to watch him tackle it.

Louis Theroux: The Night In Question airs on Monday 4 March on BBC2, at 9pm.


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