Only words? Director Yoav Shamir speaks with a Chabad Lubavicher rabbi in "Defamation," opening at the Roxie. (Photo courtesy First Run Features)

Shamir's 'Defamation' a Vintage Documentary Dust-up

Michael Fox November 19, 2009

Reminiscent of Marcel Ophuls’ fearless provocations in Hotel Terminus (1988), Yoav Shamir breaks every rule of polite documentary filmmaking in Defamation. The Israeli director audibly challenges his subjects’ statements (off-camera, but still palpably present) and keeps the camera running beyond a "natural" cut-off point until the audience becomes uncomfortable and the interviewees reveal their lunacy or idiocy. The irony is that Ophuls was chiseling away at the lies and complacency obscuring Klaus Barbie’s career as Gestapo chief in Lyon and postwar U.S. agent, while Shamir is questioning whether Jews today use the Holocaust to define themselves to an unhealthy degree. In both cases, the result is an endlessly entertaining and discomfiting film.

From the first frame, Shamir positions Defamation (opening Friday at the Roxie Theatre) as a globe-trotting inquiry into anti-Semitism, an amorphous phenomenon of which he has no direct experience (living in a Jewish state) that Israeli newspapers, paradoxically, cite on a regular basis. He strikes a bit of a smart-aleck tone with his narration, adding a note of "gotcha" irreverence by introducing his subjects with unflattering freeze-frames. Adopting the guise of a journalist, the filmmaker insinuates himself in order to push past press-release platitudes and received wisdom in pursuit of raw, candid revelation. A contemporary reference point would be Nick Broomfield (Aileen Wournos: The Selling of a Serial Killer), who happened to be a member of the London Film Festival jury that gave Defamation the Grierson Award for best documentary a few weeks ago and is, Shamir said when he accepted the prize, "one of my favorite directors."

Like Broomfield, Shamir has no qualms about purporting to investigate one thing while actually probing another. In Defamation, he speaks almost exclusively with Jews, from the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman to left-wing author and professor Norman Finkelstein. There are no Midwestern neo-Nazis, Egyptian propagandists or French ultra-nationalists in his movie. (Marc Levin took that road in his uneven 2005 doc, Protocols of Zion.) Shamir isn’t remotely interested in measuring or analyzing anti-Semitism; what interests him are the various ways in which anti-Semitism has become a central component of Jewish identity, and the dangers inherent in that thinking.

One of the central threads is a trip Shamir takes with a group of Israeli high school students to a concentration camp in Poland. In his day, the 39-year-old filmmaker says, 500 students made this outing each year; now the number is 30,000. The kids’ main takeaway is that the whole world hates Jews, and Shamir asks us to ponder whether or not it’s a good idea to instill deep distrust (in the guise of education) in young Israelis.

The filmmaker suggests that the impression-making Auschwitz field trip will have ramifications for these future soldiers when their time comes to serve in the Occupied Territories. Shamir makes no pretense of objectivity; his left-of-center P.O.V. is perhaps most clearly in evidence when he cuts to one of the touring students acknowledging that she views the demolition of a Palestinian house as a minor event compared to the Holocaust.

is guaranteed to push the buttons of Jewish viewers all along the political spectrum, which is what makes it so valuable. Is Abe Foxman selflessly manning the barricades night and day while the rest of us go about our daily lives free from concern?
Or is he using a negligible threat as a tool for fundraising? Is anti-Semitism a handy way for American Jews to hang onto the victim card despite extraordinary success in every field? Or should we never forget that German Jews felt just as embedded in the warp and weave of their country after World War I?

Shamir’s fourth documentary, following Checkpoint, 5 Days and Flipping Out, is a guaranteed conversation-starter about Jewish identity—if viewers can get put aside their entrenched positions. And the film’s essence is expressed in a sequence that’s almost a throwaway. An Israeli adult on the Auschwitz trip is sitting with Shamir, grappling with contemporary Jewish attitudes toward death and the Holocaust. An Israeli tour guide comes up and reprimands them for sitting on a stone slab denoting where 20 Jews died. His well-meaning intercession spotlights the crux of the matter: Is it more important to honor the dead and fetishize a plaque, or to engage in the ongoing discussion over the most constructive and productive way to live in the present?

Odd as it sounds, Defamation would make an intriguing double bill with A Serious Man. Both films aim to illuminate, with a combination of laughter, pathos, embarrassment and hard truths, the covert and overt warfare waged among Jews. I must confess that I had the same reaction to Defamation and A Serious Man: Every Jew should see them, but I can’t imagine what non-Jews will take away. Maybe, in the case of Shamir’s compulsively watchable documentary, it’s the great pleasure of witnessing a self-confident filmmaker walk into a fray, give the combatants ample rope and stroll out without a scratch. And to be reminded, as Marcel Ophuls did so well and so often, that we’re kidding ourselves if we think we’re detached outsiders.