by Cherie Spaulding
Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart. ~Anne Frank
In all honesty, I had not quite prepared myself for the film Defamation by Yoav Shamir. A friend of mine had an extra ticket so we met downtown at a busy riverside restaurant, enjoyed a drink and then walked the short distance to the Old Town Playhouse to catch this Israeli documentary, Thursday evening. Since our meeting was impromptu, we rushed away having only tasted a light appetizer. Anti-Semitism was an unexpected main course, followed by a dessert of thoughtful regard. (Can you see how I would have been unprepared for such food for thought?)
So, after the drink, I’m sitting in the theater and right away, the film goes straight for the meat–are the Jewish people hated or not? Gulp. So first, the director interviews his grandmother. She is proud and strong; still living in Israel, she sees herself separate from Jewish people living in America and elsewhere. Right away the viewer realizes that this film-maker is willing to spare nothing to examine his question–from far corners of the globe and the deep interior of the heart. Though he begins at home, he spans the gamut of opinions on the matter, from New York City to the gates of Auschwitz.
Luckily, the director was both witty and compassionate enough to approach this delicate subject with thoughtfulness, care, and an ounce or two of humor. He champions the extreme right and left wings with equal bravado. He listens to their arguments, finds the heart of their passions, and then digs deeper. As the film transpired, I became more and more aware of the delicate nature of this topic. In part because the wounds are generations deep. Fear of atrocity has become so woven into the fabric of the Jewish culture that it seemed to define their existence. One of the teachers interviewed on a field-trip with a group of Israeli teens at a concentration camp in Poland, wonders whether or not he is participating in the perpetuation of a deep cultural fear, leaving one to consider if it is indeed fear–or a kind of love–a deep desire to protect their living families, hence, their futures.
Gradually, while viewing the film, I grew more and more aware of my deep inclinations toward foreign documentaries, or foreign movies in general. Instead of handing the viewer an opinion on a silver platter, the director pours a selection of fine Cabernet and allows the tannins to mellow so those dining on the film can wet their inquisitiveness with distinction. If the film has depth, a viewer will appreciate how the subtleties add surprising notes and contrast. And like fine wine, ultimately, it is up to the viewer to determine how successful the artist’s attempt, after battling the elements, was at producing a fine film.
Surprisingly the film had a sense of humor, and whether he came up with style on his own or borrowed a slice or two from Michael Moore, Yoav Shamir, presented a documentary that challenged cultural assumptions, past and present, with apparent hope and a deep regard the future.
Photo: Director Yoav Shamir by festivals gallery
Here’s the Defamation trailer…