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On the Scene: Read the Book, See the Film?
"The whole concept was to take it to the streets," he says of his street theater of a film that opens on Friday, Nov. 25 at Ritz theaters.
Handicam at hand, the documentary-maker addressed the concerns of anti-Semitism in post-9/11 America while using the infamous - and barbaric - "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," a long discredited swamp of anti-Semitism, as his jumping-off point.
Jump-cutting between scholars, radicals, Arabs, Jews, black nationalists, Aryan nations of skinheads and Holocaust revisionists, the film is fulsomely fearful and tirelessly threatening. The fact, says Levin, that so many so-called intelligent people still make book on the century-old screed that has them accepting bigoted babble shows that prejudice preys on the unprepared.
Prepared Levin certainly was as he mastered his moves to put on film why so many believe that Jews are out to own and enslave the world.
And it all started with a cab ride.
Before the driver could even put down the flag on the meter, he had flagged Jewish history as a diabolical Jewish scheme to run the world and run outsiders off its edges.
The Egyptian driver "made the claim that no Jews were killed on 9/11, that they had been warned off from being near the World Trade Center that day. And when I asked him how he could say this, he answered, 'It's in the book.' "
That book - whose final chapters helped seal Hitler's plans for the Final Solution and which is still sold on Amazon.com - has had an amazing impact worldwide.
Book of the month? Book for the weak.
"My whole idea was to employ a gonzo kind of dialogue with those who believe in the book, and come out and end the film on the third anniversary of 9/11," says Levin.
But the proudly Jewish New Yorker, whose secular roots felt muddied by the disgusting dirt the bigots tossed on his path, knew that hatred is timeless.
The passion of the cruds he encountered helped him realize that making a Jewish film was making a mistake. "I didn't want to ghettoize it as a Jewish film," says the award-winning documentarian, whose "Slam" slammed its way to top honors at the Sundance Film Festival seven years ago. "This is more about hate and the world we live in."
So why is the world falling off its axis so often these days? How to right wrongs when anti-Semitic rites are practiced every day everywhere?
There are more than four questions to pass over before coming up with answers for Jews and others. One dictates an anti-bigotry battle plan. "How do people who believe hate is holy … how do you combat that?" asks Levin about the unenlightened.
"Protocols" won't lighten the load, especially a scene at a Midwestern talk-radio station where the host and his callers riddle guileless guest Levin with Third Reich rantings and air their Aryan assumptions with fire-and-brimstone broadsides.
Despite all this, and the street encounters Levin faced with those who think the "Jewnited" States is one bank deal away from default - with the Jews at fault as they connive their way to riches and plunder other people's posterity - the filmmaker makes no excuse for the fact that "I am still optimistic - in a strange way."
"The shock and trauma of 9/11 has worn off somewhat, and the fear and the disorientation, for all of us. We are beginning to come out of our stupor."
But are we able to recognize the stupid ravings of those who find "Protocols" ageless in its examples?
"We all realize that such prejudice will not be solved by armies," says Levin on the eve of flying off to Paris to promote his film amid the French firestorm and incendiary protests of the rioting members of some of that nation's Muslim community.
"This is all a battle of beliefs."
We Are the World?
Hate is its own howitzer and the ammo is aimed at Jewish hearts these days worldwide. But Levin "blames" his optimism on his DNA. "Maybe I was born that way," he says, citing with love and affection for the spirit of his father and grandfather, who both play key roles in the film on "my personal journey."
"I still believe one mitzvah can save the world."
Pollyanna want a cracker? No, Levin's not parroting others' ingenuous inclinations, but thinking through what the world has become and can be again.
Let the sun shine in - even amid the clouds? A sign of disenchantment. "I'm a child of the '60s. Where's the Age of Aquarius?"
"Hair" today; heresy tomorrow: "We're in the Middle Ages again."
Ultimately, this middle-aged man on a mission can see the writing on the wall - and it is Semitic in its semiotics. "We are all children of Abraham," says Levin, seeing Islam and Judaism as religions with shared roots if brittle branches.
But is Levin the one to pull it off - to show on film and to detractors there is no anteroom for anti-Semitism in people trying to live together?
"Some thought that maybe I would need an Adam Sandler, Billy Crystal - a Jewish celebrity - to get people to see this film," says Levin, who is its "star," director and producer. "But, what was I going to call it [to attract more attention] - 'Dude, Where's my Shul?' "
Like, no way. He had to appeal to a congregation of one - his inner soul. And that soul has since soared. "I've reconnected with my temple and heritage on a deeper level" since taking on "Protocols," says Levin.
And instead of questioning his faith, it has made him more secure in it even as it has taught Levin the filmmaker to question the cosmos for the very existence of hate and prejudice.