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PARK CITY, Utah (Reuters) - Thirty years after director Roman Polanski fled the United States and a conviction for unlawful sex with a minor, a U.S. filmmaker has reopened the sensational case in a documentary that is shaking up the Sundance Film Festival.
"Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired" debuted this weekend at Sundance, the top U.S. event for independent movies, and already director Marina Zenovich's nonfiction film has secured a worldwide distribution deal from the powerful Weinstein Co.
Show business newspaper Daily Variety reported on Sunday that the documentary division of U.S. cable television channel HBO acquired North American rights, and the film is seen as a top contender in the Sundance documentary competition.
Zenovich told Reuters her documentary does not apologize for the French-Polish director, but her take on the murky justice and media hype around the Polanski case might make Americans see him in a different light after he was vilified in the 1970s for having sex with a 13-year-old girl.
While Polanski has gone on to rebuild his life and career in France and won the highest U.S honor for a filmmaker with the 2003 Academy Award for best director for "The Pianist," he has never returned to the United States nor cleared his name.
The film opens with an archival interview of Polanski admitting to his penchant for young women, something he believes he shares with most men.
Zenovich quickly takes the action to fabulous late 1960s-1970s Hollywood, where a thick-accented Polanski was the toast of the town for his avant-garde films like "Rosemary's Baby."
"It's kind of like a dream, a dream from the seventies, for me," said Zenovich, who pieced together archival footage and interviews to create a hazy, glamorous aura around the era that also saw the brutal murder of Polanski's wife, Sharon Tate.
"It is a timeless story because of him being a celebrity and the sensational aspects of the case," she added.
Zenovich was drawn to Polanski's story in 2003 when he was nominated for the Oscar, and speculation ran high about whether he might return to Los Angeles. Zenovich then saw an interview with the girl, now a woman, and her lawyer who suggested Polanski had been wronged by justice.
While Polanski admitted to unlawful conduct, psychiatric experts did not consider him a sexual predator and both the defense and prosecution believed probation would be sufficient punishment rather than jail.
Zenovich was determined to get to the truth and tracked down Polanski's lawyer, the victim, her attorney, law enforcement officials, film industry colleagues and reporters who covered the case, among others.
They all revealed troubling behavior by the judge, now deceased, who was so driven by media coverage that he kept a scrapbook of clippings. Polanski presumably fled because he feared unfair treatment amid the media frenzy.
Polanski, now 74, declined to be interviewed by Zenovich.
"I met with him," said Zenovich. "He appreciated that I was trying to tell the story, but felt that it would look like self-promotion, and I think his instincts were right."
Zenovich concludes by showing how Polanski is revered and "desired" in France. And while she believes he would not move back to the United States if his legal limbo was resolved, he probably would like to travel there and to countries that have extradition treaties with the United States, like Britain.
"I think this story is a real 'Catch 22,"' said Zenovich. "It is my understanding that he doesn't want to come back unless there is a deal in place. They (law enforcement officials) don't want to make a deal until he comes back."
But at the film's end, the audience will find out why that deal may never materialize.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Vicki Allen