Sunday, November 15, 2009

Yoav Shamir's DEFAMATION: smart about Jews, Israel, the Holocaust -- and more

What an intellectual (and emotional) pleasure it is to be buffeted between laughter, surprise and the kind of thought-provoking intelligence that DEFAMATION (Hashmatsa), the new film by Yoav Shamir, provides! Rather like another documentary on a similar subject -- Look Into My Eyes -- that made its US premiere at the FSLC's Human Rights Watch fest last June, but more profession-

ally handled and inclusive, Shamir's movie offers charm and humor -- visual and verbal -- to spare. Starting off from an inflamatory state-
ment that ends in genocide and soon after introducing us to his granny who utters comments as antisemitic as any we'll be hearing in the film, Shamir (shown, right), who hails from Israel and for that reason claims to have never experienced antisemi-
tism first-hand, explores what the term actually means -- making good fun of it, himself and others along the way.

He often hears, Shamir tells us, three words spoken in the same breath: Holocaust, Nazis and Antisemitism. A Jewish school kid tells him, "We are raised in this spirit. We know we are hated." But is this always true or rather a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, the filmmaker -- along with others whom he profiles -- wonders? He meets with and gets the full cooperation of Abe Foxman and his Anti-Defamation League (ADL) staff, and then attempts to find an actual recent case of antisemitism to follow and use as a kind of template for his movie. No luck. (Though he does speak with a rabbi who offers a keen but not so kind view of Mr. Foxman and his "good work.") So Shamir takes to the streets of Crown Heights, interview-
ing blacks (above), who initially seem wonderfully charming and benign but are soon spouting schlock about The Protocols of Zion and other nonsense -- as though all this were gospel, and why don't we get it? Lest we imagine that Shamir is pointing a finger at blacks exclusively, he also treats us to his very white cab driver, who, when asked about Jews, explains with complete certainty that "they control the world."

For his part, Mr. Foxman (above) assures Shamir that antisemitism is on the rise, though his ADL is neither as powerful as Jews think nor as powerful as its enemies think. Yes, and so...? We travel around the globe with the filmmaker and Foxman, exploring and constantly being brought up short by conflicting views. Looking over the mass graves at Babi Yar, a woman suggests that all this could easily happen again today. In a nice touch of diversity/inclusivity, she adds, "Maybe to gays, maybe to others."

The country of Israel and America's "Israel Lobby" take their licks during the movie's 93-minute runing time, particularly from Norman Finkelstein (right), a brilliant and very angry professor who, because of his views on the Israeli/Palestine conflict and the politics of the Holocaust, was denied tenure at De Paul University, despite a long career there as a fine teacher and scholar. In one telling discussion on the love of American Jews for Israel as opposed to their love for the U.S., one woman compares this to the love you feel for your husband (personified by the U.S.) as opposed to that for your children (Israel). Hmmm. While the movie left me with a better, stronger understanding of the meaning and importance of Israel, it also had me questioning how high in their priorities some Jewish Americans place that little country.

We also meet a group of Israeli students (above) traveling for the first time to Auschwitz. Their youthful vigor, despite their naivete, is a tonic to the movie. Along the way, opinions differ and tempers flare; through it all, Shamir keeps his cool, and his wit and intelligence sharp. Perhaps, he suggests toward the film's finale, "Putting so much emphasis on the past, as horrific as it has been, is holding us back. Maybe it is about time to live in the present and look to the future." How to manage this without losing touch with that past, however, is not explained.

Unlike last week's Holocaust documentary, Four Season Lodge, which offers only more memory, sadness and sentiment, Defamation, by forcing us to confront very differing views, is bracing and salutary. Even at the small auditorium in which I viewed the press screening, there were a number of audience members audibly talking back to the screen. The film opens for a theatrical run via the indispensable First Run Features this Friday, November 20, in New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles. You can find theaters, along with upcoming playdates, here.

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