Lyin' 'bout Zion: Marc Levin's 'Protocols' Debunks Anti-Semitic Tract
By Tom White
It all started with a lie. It was perpetuated in the post-9/11 cauldron, when, after the shock, devastation and grief, the conspiracy theories began to emerge. One night in New York City, filmmaker Marc Levin got into a cab, and the driver started talking about how no Jews died in the destruction of the World Trade Center, and then referenced The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the sensationalist tract circulated in the early 20th century about a so-called Jewish master plan to rule the world; in the wake of 9/11, the book was being peddled among certain communities as gospel.
The driver, it turned out, was originally from Alexandria, Egypt, and he loved hip-hop and American movies--much to the disdain of the Islamic fundamentalists in his neighborhood, who made life unbearable enough for him to flee for New York, and pursue his dream of getting into the music business. "I'm thinking, this is so bizarre," says Levin. "The guy only half an hour ago was repeating the most reactionary madness, and now it turns out that he himself is a victim of this fanaticism, and Muslim fanaticism, and it drove him from his own home!"
That's what inspired Levin to investigate this undercurrent of anti-Semitism and intolerance and mistrust that was coursing through New York and around the world. "That was the original goal: preemptive engagement and dialogue," he says. "No naïve fantasies of conversion or convincing; just an inchoate sense that somehow in that moment that in the conversation, something more is revealed and something more happens."
Levin set out on a journey, intent on talking not just to Jews, but to Muslims, evangelical Christians, Palestinians, Arab-Americans and neo-Nazis. Having trolled troubling territory before in such films as Back in the Hood: Gang War 2 (2004); Gladiator Days: Anatomy of a Prison Murder (2002), Soldiers in the Army of God (2001) and Thug Life in DC (1999), Levin was inured to engaging people of extreme views and lifestyles. "I've had a lot of experience dealing with extremists, zealots, death row gangs and anti-abortion terrorists," he maintains. "So in many ways I often thought that when I was in situations like [meeting neo-Nazi] Shaun Walker or Frank Weltner [a Holocaust denier] on the radio, or with the Palestinian community in Sunset Park, I felt like I had prepared my whole life--I wasn't conscious of it--to finally take it and personalize it."
Protocols of Zion (Steve Kalafer, prod.), which opens in October through THINKFilm, marks a departure from Levin's previous documentaries, in which he never actually appears on camera. Here, he's not only on camera; he's the protagonist of the film, engaging people in conversations that are at times confrontational and sharing his impressions both on and off camera. He showed some footage to Sheila Nevins at HBO, expecting that she'd object strongly to this choice he had made. "She reacted the total opposite way," he notes. "She said, 'This isn't just you as a director, Marc, or as a journalist, or as a filmmaker. This is personal. And there's something about you engaging these people that's part of the story--seeing that.' So that gave me the confidence."
Nonetheless, he was still skittish about making his presence felt and known in the film, preferring instead to defer to his interview subjects. A few months later he showed another assembly to a group of friends. "What was interesting about showing it to some people was that it was too much of an overdose of extremism. And they started asking me, Marc, why are you doing this? What's your background? We know you're Jewish, but this was never something you seemed to make many movies about or think much about. What's your family's background? Where's this coming from?" So, he incorporated his father, Al Levin, also a filmmaker, into the film, to lend an even more personal dynamic to it. His father accompanies Marc to an anti-war demonstration, to a maximum security prison to talk to Nation of Islam inmates, to Al's old neighborhood and, finally, to the cemetery where Al's father is buried.
"That's how it ended up," Levin reflects. "I'm sure that some people will feel it's too personal, but you needed a spine, you needed to find the rhythm. It goes to so many places that it could be just fragmented overload coming from all directions. So it was also, with the music [by John Zorn], a way to try to unify it. We always came back. But that emerged in the process."
Engaging people with views so counter to one's own takes a certain finesse and a special brand of diplomacy to keep the conversation going. "There's a dance," Levin explains. "Somebody at the San Francisco screening said something fascinating--a music professor, who claims to have studied the art of listening. He was saying, 'Because you listened in a certain way, it actually changes, almost biologically, the people you're talking to. It doesn't change their opinion, it doesn't make them like you necessarily, but there is something about the fact that they know that they're really being listened to.'"
Along Levin's journey, he offers context--excerpts of an Arab television broadcast of a miniseries based on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, footage from the US-led war in Iraq, Malaysian Prime Minster Mahathir Mohamad railing against Jewish global domination, the opening of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ and the video of the beheading of journalist Daniel Pearl, which Levin watches, on camera. "I heard that the video was on one of these Islamic websites," Levin recalls. "I just said, I'm ready to look at it. I don't know if it'll be part of the film, but let's shoot it. Then the question was, Would we use any of it in the film? Obviously there's a moment where you see Daniel and I felt that was fine. You don't see the horror; that was played off my reaction to it. It comes down to a single life--somebody not unlike you or me, just a journalist out there trying to get the story, could end up being beheaded like that. It's paralyzing."
Along the festival circuit and at special screenings, reaction to the film has been strong enough, from audience members of many different faiths and cultures, for Levin to want to keep the dialogue going. The challenge is not to have Protocols of Zion stigmatized as a "Jewish film." "How does it go beyond the Jewish ghetto to people of all faiths who are interested in tolerance, who are interested in humanism, secular humanism, understanding, enlightenment, the ideas of the enlightenment?" Levin muses.
And there are also the anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist communities represented in the film. After a screening for Arab-American students, for example, who initially deemed the film one-sided, according to Levin, "These students started debating amongst themselves: 'Do we really want to peddle this medieval shit? Because it makes us look like idiots. And if our agenda is to fight Israel and get a Palestinian state, this is retarding our cause.' All of a sudden it started to be a strategic debate over 'How do we look at the Jews--we know they're powerful, we know we're engaged in a war with Israel and Zionism, but if we buy into this facile analysis, maybe it is actually hurting us.' That was fascinating, and I think that my mission is going to be, how do I get this film to these places that believe it? How do I engage them?"
In this post-9/11 world, in which fundamentalism and intolerance threaten to subsume faith and tolerance, Levin made this film, finally, to try to understand where he is in this troubling new world. "We woke up on September 11, and we took a step back to the Middle Ages almost, to a religious war, a holy war, all over the world. So I think that's the big picture, if this film is one of the early attempts at just sensing--what's the topography? What's going to be the language of that conversation? And it's not a conversation of just politicians or religious scholars or religious authorities. It's all of us."
Thomas White is editor of Documentary.