By putting himself front and center in his documentaries, filmmaker-provocateur Michael Moore spotlighted important social concerns while simultaneously stealing the limelight from those same issues. The massive success of Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling for Columbine, along with projects like Morgan Spurlocks Super Size Me, have opened the door for documentaries that unabashedly marry ego and inquiry.
The latest such entry is director Marc Levin (Slam, Whiteboyz) and his The Protocols Of Zion, a haphazard and scattered documentary that tackles the alarming post-9/11 resurgence of anti-Semitism in America.
Inspired by the outrageous claims of a New York cabbie that no Jews died during 9/11 because they were forewarned, the filmmaker connects this conspiracy theory to a piece of late-19th century Russian propaganda entitled The Protocol of the Elders of Zion. This preposterously virulent manuscript which supposedly documents secret plans for world domination by an insidious Jewish Illuminati has fueled rabid anti-Semitic views over the last 100 years. It was excerpted by Henry Ford in a series of anti-Semitic articles in his newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, in the 20s; championed by Adolf Hitler; adapted into a big-budget Egyptian TV series, A Horseman Without a Horse, in 2002 (complete with Jews drinking the blood of Christian children); and was, until recently, available at Wal-Marts Web site.
Levin takes to the streets to investigate the roots and resonance of anti-Jewish bigotry, confronting the editor of an Arab-language newspaper that publishes the Protocols in weekly installments, a leader of the white supremacist National Alliance, evangelical Christians, Palestinian-American street toughs (with thick Brooklyn accents) and a Hasidic kabbalist who believes the Jews should just drop the whole conversation.
Its a noble pursuit and great launching point for discourse, but Levin dilutes his investigation with irrelevant and self-aggrandizing side trips involving Daniel Pearls beheading, the reactions of Hollywood Jews to The Passion of the Christ, and his own family history. Worse still are his painfully earnest and poorly reasoned counterarguments to anti-Semitic diatribes. He instigates some fascinating conversations, but seems incapable of finding meaningful answers to his provocative questions.
Despite the films lack of insight and focus, there are many engaging moments. A white supremacists reaction to the theory that Hitler had Jewish roots results in a hilariously moronic exchange. A conversation with inmates at a maximum-security prison, though far too brief, generates some intriguing sparks. The strongest segment is an interview with a Hassidic medical examiner who helped identify the bits and fragments of 9/11 victims. Coupled with accounts from a Jewish woman who lost her husband in the attack, Levin simultaneously debunks the shameful myth and captures the incredible heartache of that terrible event.
Ultimately, The Protocols of Zion deserves credit for its head-on look at a despicable mindset. Though Levin misses the target as often as he hits it, his film effectively depicts the ways in which scapegoats are contrived and fiction can lead to irrational intolerance.
Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111).
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.