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Film Reviews – Two Jewish Films – Among The Righteous; Look Into My Eyes – (1 of 2)

May 12, 2010

(other film reviews:

Oldies But Goodies – Film Reviews – Zinneman, Fuller, Imamura )

STARZ – the Denver Film Festival that just celebrated its 30th anniversary – occasionally does issue oriented short film festivals to compliment `the big one’ done each October. This year they are putting on a `Human Rights Watch Film Festival’ (May 20-26) at the Tivoli Theater on the Auraria Campus in downtown Denver, with the films chosen by the national human rights organization, Human Rights Watch. The line up looks promising and includes `The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court’‘, `Mrs. Goundo’s Daughter, `Remnants of War”, `Back Home Tomorrow’, `Tapologo’, `Youth Producing Change Short Films’ and `Look Into My Eyes. (For descriptions of each, click on the specific title). Overall it is a very strong program with films from all over the world that deal with different aspects of the series of global human rights tragedies the world will have to face for some time in the future. I intend to see as many of the festival, and to see as many of the films as I can manage to work into my schedule.

With an introduction that like that, I am probably striking something of a dissident chord by writing a critical review of one of the festival choices `Look Into My Eyes’, but that is what I am about to do, that and compare it to another documentary `Among The Righteous’ which after great fanfare and publicity, played on public television last month during Holocaust Week (late April). In different ways, both probe modern-day anti-semitism. Both in different ways are a strange melange of sometimes moving and down right scary manifestations of hatred of Jews mixed with situations taken fundamentally out of context that tend to distort or exaggerate the problem. They find anti-semitism everywhere, sometimes real and as harsh as ever, often out of context (as will be explained below), on occasion imagined. The `lesson’ of both films that viewers are drawn to is that Jews remain the eternal victims – as is the United States as a result of the September 11, 2003 bombing of the Pentagon and World Trade Center.  If selectively these last points are true, `victimhood’ can be and is often manipulated to justify a whole range of US and Israeli foreign policies that stray far from Auschwitz and September 11. But more on this at the end.

Several years ago, a friend gave me a copy of a film he and another filmmaker were putting together on Albanian Moslems, who during World War II, had risked their lives to shelter and save Albanian Jews. The film ran about a half hour, included moving and touching interviews with both saviors and the saved, including as I recall, an emotional reunion. It also had some interesting history about Albania’s role in the war. It was all together a fine piece of film making and social history. I have lost track of the film’s evolution, but remember being surprised to hear that at the time there were problems getting financial backing from major Jewish organizations in the United States that shied away from funding a film showing sympathy among Moslems for Jews that went so far as people risking their lives.

Thoughts of this film came to mind when pre-viewing one of the films to show at the Human Rights Watch film festival,  `Look Into My Eyes’ by Naftaly Ginzberg, an Israeli film maker. As I will explain below, I don’t particularly recommend the film, although, somewhat amusingly, it appears that some major Jewish organizations here in the US won’t sponsor it, not so much because of the film’s actual content (which my hunch is that they would agree with) but because it is sponsored by Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch wrote a damning indictment of Israel’s recent war in Gaza. So the word has spread among mainstream Jewish organizations to informally boycott their activites. Such policies are immature, silly and these days completely predictable. As if an ostrich approach to the reports of Human Rights Watch or the Goldstone Report will undo the horrors that the Israeli Defense Force rained down on Gaza.

In any event, my skeptism about this film comes from another direction…

Let me say for starters that I didn’t `hate’ it, as one friend suggested, simply thought that `Look Into My Eyes’ was a weak and in many ways confusing documentary.

Yes, there are some powerful scenes:

  • the sequence of the Polish Passion Play that teaches little Polish Catholics that Jews killed Christ continues to embed an old kind of Catholic anti-semitism into the minds of Polish kids
  • there is a German Holocaust denier in Berlin
  • going through Nazi music cd’s
  • an interview with an American Christian fundamentalist – the kind who `loves’  Israel but who in many respects is an anti-semite

All these scenes do bring home the fact that anti-semitism is alive in different forms and in many places

There were two main problems with the film however that tend to weaken or neutralize its progressive message. In the first place the transitions from one part of the world to another were very poorly done, so much so that it took awhile to catch that a transition had even taken place. Secondly, and more seriously, the film lacked context. Every situation presented is taken out of an overall historic context so that minor manifestations of anti-semitism are mixed up with the more hard-bitten varieties.

By way of example:

  • Yes, there is a German neo-Nazi openly antisemitic Holocaust denier who is interviewed, but left out or hardly explored is the fact that he is on trial for his racist views. In the same vein there is no mention whatsoever of the laws that exist in Germany today making anti-semitism illegal, or on a deeper level, the efforts that have been taken since to fight the remnants of that philosophy in German schools, churches, broader civil society. The film leaves one with the impression that not much has changed in Germany since Kristallnacht. That Germany today – admittedly there is a neo-Nazi movement among German youth from the East – is the Germany of 1938 or 1942  is inaccurate and unfair
  • Same goes for scenes in the United States. Yes there are rightwing nuts who hate Jews and say stupid things today – especially those a part of the Christian-Identity movement and other extreme right wing elements, but Jews in the United States have made great strides in overcoming past prejudice and if anti-Jewish prejudice still can be founds in the cracks of the country’s social foundation, like other forms of racism, anti-semitism has nowhere near the popularity it had when the likes of Madison Grant and Father Coughlin spewed their vile racist mantras.
  • The same goes for the portrayal of the Paris comedian (from Martinique?). Yes, his act included a cheap stereotypical and anti-semitic sequence, but then he insists that he criticizes all religions in his skit and it is more anti-religious than it is specifically anti-semitic. Problem with that skit is the inference – that anti-semitism is alive and well in France. In France as in Germany, anti-semitism is a punishable crime. There are signs all over Paris about Jewish kids who were shipped to Auschwitz. I would think it would have been appropriate – not to deny that anti-semitism in France is dead – in some ways the spirit that put Dreyfus on Devils Island still lurks beneath the surface – but to explore the ways that anti-semitism in France has been opposed and weakened, legally and institutionally.
  • The segment that was the most disturbing and distorted was Ginzberg’s interview with Blacks in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Yes, the attitudes of Blacks concerning Jews were disturbing, but then had he interviewed Crown Heights Jews and probed their attitudes towards Blacks, it might have revealed a picture not quite so one-sided. Crown Heights in not the Jewish Community’s `finest moment’ by a long shot.
  • Finally, while Ginzberg did not overplay some kind of non-existent Nazi-Palestinian link, he does include a pro-Palestinian remark by a German Nazi as if there is some link between German racists and Palestinians living under the heel of Israeli occupation. This was an especially contrived and cheap shot

Watch this film closely. You’ll see that Ginzberg, the director, basically starts every interview with a pre-conceived notion that anti-semitism is everwhere. It comes through from the very way he asks the questions. The answers simply re-enforce what Ginzberg was looking for in the first place, or so it appeared to me. It is as if he is having a conversation with the audience in which he is saying; `so… you think that anti-semitism has disappeared – let me show you how pervasive it is’. All he does is prove his pre-conceived notion in the first place and in so doing. undercuts the film’s credibility. A shame. Important subject, poorly handled…

A follow up, comparing `Look Into Their Eyes’ with the PBS documentary `Among the Righteous’ will follow in a few days, when I have more time.

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