By turns wry, sly, irreverent and provocative, Defamation asks the question, “What is anti-Semitism today?” Intent on shaking up the ultimate “sacred cow” for modern-day Jews, Israeli-born director Yoav Shamir embarks on an engaging, thought-provoking documentary quest to ascertain whether anti-Semitism remains a clear and immediate, ever-present threat, or is instead more of a scare tactic used by right-wing Zionists to smear their critics.
Spanning several continents, and speaking with an array of individuals from across the political spectrum (including the national director of the Anti-Defamation
League, Abe Foxman, as well as its fiercest critic, professor and author Norman Finkelstein), Shamir bravely, gamely digs into the realities of anti-Semitism today, with curiosity much more of his guide than any predetermined ideological road map. His findings are both enlightening and sometimes shocking. Whether assaying the exhaustive statistical cataloguing of anti-Semitic “acts” that is then in turn used in fund-raising and, by extension, political arm-twisting, or traveling to places like Auschwitz alongside Israeli school kids,
and simply observing the psychological and social effects of how they’re being raised and taught that Jews are hated by almost all other cultures and ethnicities, Shamir eschews simple, pat answers.
While the sense of humor that informs the picture is a welcome,
leavening presence, Shamir’s biggest gift is his flexibility, and
complete lack of assumptions; with Defamation, he creates the
cinematic equivalent of one of those newfangled exercise machines that
targets only the muscles you didn’t really know you had, and certainly
don’t spend any time working out. The film racked up an impressive slate of festival awards — the Stanley Kubrick Award for Bold and Innovative Filmmaking at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival, the prestigious Grierson Award for Best Documentary at the BFI London Film Festival and the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Warsaw Film Festival, among others — and rightly so, for its that sort of arena that is its most natural home.
Audiences expecting the more definitive moral or statistical “outcome” of a filmic lecture will come away disappointed, but those who ponder and more deeply weigh Palestinian suffering alongside an Israeli right to existence and defend itself will likely be smitten with Defamation, because it posits at least the existence of ulterior motives or unintended consequences in the levying of charges of anti-Semitism. One teacher holds forth sourly on the “industry of death and violation” that the ADL encourages, and how its too-frequent cries of victimhood devalue real discrimination and hatred. The ADL’s Foxman seems to tacitly acknowledge this when he ruminates, “How do you fight this sinister, conspiratorial view of Jews without using it?” That is to say, the power of the ADL and broader Jewish-American lobby, exists in part because they are able to pull the levers of power by playing on deeply held beliefs that Jews “control” the media, financial markets and government(s). Slippery slope, that. Without malice, however, Shamir digs into the equally intriguing notion that the ADL is a way for many Jews to exercise Jewish identity without religious practice.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case, Defamation comes to DVD presented in anamorphic widescreen, with an English language stereo track that for the most part more than adequately handles the title’s relatively meager aural demands, except for when a couple of interviewees dip into a secretive whisper, since they’re at a fund-raising event, and don’t want to be overheard. Default English subtitles are also included, since a bit of the movie, understandably, dips into Hebrew. The only DVD bonus features consist of a textual filmmaker statement and biography. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. B+ (Movie) C- (Disc)