Toronto Film Festival Pulls Ulrich Seidl’s ‘Sparta’ After Accusations of Child Exploitation on Set

Austrian director is accused of exposing minors to violence and nudity — and keeping cast in the dark about film’s pedophilia story line

Sparta TIFF
Courtesy of TIFF

The Toronto International Film Festival abruptly withdrew the German-language drama “Sparta” from its lineup ahead of its planned Friday world premiere after the film’s Austrian director, Ulrich Seidl, was accused of child exploitation in connection to the film.

The festival apologized “for any inconvenience” and said ticket holders would receive an email with more information.

Last week, the German magazine Der Spiegel reported allegations children on the set of his film were exposed to violence and nudity — and were not notified in advance of the film’s pedophilia-themed storyline. “Sparta,” which has yet to screen publicly, follows the story of a pedophile who teaches judo to young boys in an abandoned school building.

TIFF said the article “raised concerns that official guidelines established to protect children and keep their guardians informed when making films were not followed.”

The original TIFF listing for the film says that the participation of the young boys and non-professional actors in the film was consented to by their parents and that the themes were “meticulously monitored.”

“Sparta had been scheduled to premiere in TIFF’s Contemporary World Cinema section, but given these allegations, we will no longer present the film,” the festival said. “We consider Mr. Seidl to be an important contemporary filmmaker and we look forward to further clarity being brought to the issues of the film’s production raised by Der Spiegel.”

But the Der Spiegel article claims that the many actors in the film were not made aware of the themes of the film ahead of time and were “confronted with alcoholism, violence and nudity without sufficient preparation and adequate support.”

A rep for Seidl said the director was not available for comment at press time but referred to a prior lengthy statement made by Seidl in response to the Der Spiegel article.

“Incorrect descriptions, rumors and events on the set of ‘Sparta’ taken out of context have been woven into a distorted picture that in no way corresponds to the facts,” Seidl wrote. The journalists, without bothering to take into account the film itself, vilify my method of working and ascribe to me intentions that could not be further from the truth.

Lawyers for Seidl told Spiegel that all the parents and underage amateurs in the project were informed that the film is about an adult man “who feels attracted to boys and takes on a kind of fatherly role.”

“If the parents had had any concerns about the filming, or had the children … felt uncomfortable, they likely would not have, over such a long time period … remained involved,” the statement says.

However, Der Spiegel says the lawyers’ statement refers to a period of time between winter 2018 and summer 2019, but Der Spiegel’s investigation involves the end of the shooting period on the film from summer 2019.

Seidl’s other films include “Dog Days” (2001), “Import Export” (2007) and “Paradise: Love” (2012). His movie “Rimini” from earlier this year is the first part of the story that was then split into two with “Sparta.”