Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Knowledge Is Power

Protocols of Zion
(Marc Levin, US, 2005, 93 min.)

As promised by the title, Marc Levin's provocative documentary examines the infamous Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. But it isn't the first or last word on the racist tract.

Mostly, he uses the widely-discredited document as a framing device for a discussion about the rise of anti-Semitism in the wake of 9/11. It's a big subject and Levin, director of Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner Slam, plunges right in--eyes open, gloves off. Consequently, Protocols of Zion is, as The Boston Globe's Ty Burr has put it, "Simultaneously enraging, depressing, necessary, and frustrating." It's also been described as "rambling" and "scattershot," and there's truth to those claims, too.

Levin talks to a variety of interested parties: Christians, Muslims, African-Americans, Arab-Americans, rabbis, and convicts (surprisingly, the inmates at Trenton State Prison are some of the most articulate). His father Al, also a documentarian, accompanies him on many of his New York and New Jersey-based rounds. They get to hear some pretty hateful stuff, and Levin argues against the most vitriolic. This can be difficult to watch. Not because Levin isn't able to hold his own, but because there isn't much of a point. The anti-Semites of the world have already made up their minds, and you can tell they're not listening to anything he has to say.

Levin starts by exploring the origins of Protocols before moving on to the easily-disproved notion that no Jews died in the World Trade Center to the furor over The Passion of the Christ to the execution of Daniel Pearl, with a number of other stops along the way. He's as brave as he is foolish to enter closed communities where Jews are clearly not welcome, yet a few of the individuals he meets are surprisingly open and, in some cases, downright friendly. Perhaps they're so eager for publicity they don't care who's providing it. That said, I can't imagine that fans of the website "Jew Watch" will seek this film out in order to catch Frank Weltner in action.

Then there's the white shirt and tie-sporting Shaun Walker from the West Virginia-based National Alliance. He shows Levin around his stockroom and discusses sales of Protocols, Mein Kampf, and boots with swastika-patterned soles. Their conversation is cordial. Walker explains rather than defends his work, so Levin lets him have his say, and he comes up with some patently ridiculous stuff. When Levin asks the former skinhead if he owns a pair of those Nazi boots, for instance, he replies--without a trace of irony--that he doesn't, as he prefers tan to black leather. There are many other moments of unintentional humor, albeit of the creepiest kind.

In the end, Protocols of Zion is more of a feel-bad than a feel-good film, but I agree that it's a "necessary" one. While Levin doesn't propose any solutions, his everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach suggests that exploring the roots of anti-Semitism, as painful--and exhausting--as that may be, is necessary in order to begin formulating ways to combat it.

Music alert: John Zorn provides the soundtrack. Hasidic reggae artist Matisyahu also puts in an appearance--if you blink, you'll miss Lou Reed celebrating Passover, which begins this Wednesday, at the same seder.

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****
Protocols of Zion plays the Northwest Film Forum April 21-27, Fri.-Wed. at 7 and 9pm and Thurs. at 7pm. Thurs., 4/27, screening followed by a panel discussion with Rabbi Anson Laytner of the American Jewish Committee Seattle, Rob Jacobs of the Anti-Defamation League, and filmmaker Gregg Lachow. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. between Pike and Pine. For more information, please visit www.nwfilmforum.org. You can also call 206-329-2629 for general info and 206-267-5380 for show times.

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