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Defamation: Let the Debate Continue

After sparking intense debate at film festivals around the world (including TFF 2009), Yoav Shamir's controversial documentary about anti-Semitism will reach everyday audiences this week.

Defamation: High Schoolers Visit Auschwitz

Note: These pieces
were originally published as Discover: Defamation and Faces of the Festival: Yoav Shamir during the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival.

Defamation: Director Yoav Shamir and a Chabad Lubavicher Rabbi

Discover: Defamation

By Zachary Wigon

Congratulations to Yoav Shamir, director of Defamation, which won a TFF 2009 Special Jury Prize. Defamation is a film designed to raise questions and provoke discussion. Shamir, a young Israeli filmmaker, adopts a deceptively simple pose as he ventures into addressing the issue of contemporary anti-Semitism. "What is anti-Semitism?" he asks his Israeli grandmother. "I've lived in Israel all my life. I don't know."

So Shamir journeys out into the world to try to understand the nature of anti-Semitism today. What is it? Where does it pop up most often? Who is afraid of it? His journeys take him to a far-flung assortment of places, meeting a wide variety of people who provide this film with a startlingly wide web of different opinions on the issue. He gets unprecedented access to Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, and later follows him on a trip to Europe. He goes with a class of Israeli high school students to Poland, to survey the remains of concentration camps and the museums within. He interviews African-American residents of Crown Heights, a Brooklyn neighborhood that has had tension between African-Americans and Jews for years. He talks with Norman Finkelstein, a professor and author who has published extensively on Israel, all of his work highly critical of that nation.

As Shamir presents so many different views of this intricate issue, one begins to see its many facets materialize, almost presenting itself as a physical structure. The issue of anti-Semitism is such a sensitive subject, brought up so often, that to hear it dealt with so thoroughly is, in fact, thoroughly refreshing. One of the things that lends the film credibility is that Shamir is so clearly without an agenda; if he has one, it has been disguised extremely well. He's an Israeli Jew who is extremely inquisitive, and extremely good at playing the devil's advocate. He argues the opposing side to Foxman, but then also argues the opposing side to Finkelstein, who is 180 degrees removed, philosophically, from Foxman. He questions the residents of Crown Heights when they bring up The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in a positive light during an on-the-street interview.

The most harrowing and insightful section of the film is Shamir's footage of the Israeli students in Poland, who are constantly told to fear for themselves and be extremely careful, as they are in perpetual danger from neo-Nazis. The neo-Nazis never appear, but the young kids do seem to buy the line, and appear understanding when they are told that they cannot leave their hotel room at night. This makes their emotional responses to the truly horrific sights at the concentration camp museums all the more intense. Without giving anything away, suffice it to say that the closing of that narrative strand leads to a definitive comment by Shamir, one that gives the audience his own point of view in no uncertain terms.

Defamation: Yoav Shamir

Faces of the Festival: Yoav Shamir

By Kristin McCracken

Israeli filmmaker Yoav Shamir tackles the 800-pound gorilla in the room in Defamation, his partly-funny, mostly-serious look at anti-Semitism.

What makes Defamation a must-see?
It is about anti-Semitism—not a very sexy subject—but it is done in a glib approach and it provides an insight into the core of Jewish identity and the way it influences the conflict in the Middle East. It has created a lot of controversy whereever it has been shown—so if you want to know what everybody is talking about, check it out.

What’s the craziest thing that happened while making the film?
It’s a documentary about anti-Semitism—so if you are expecting drugs, sex and rock n' roll kind of crazy, you are in the right place, but probably not in the right time.
If you could have dinner with any filmmaker (alive or dead)—who would you want it to be?
I would like to have Groucho Marx and Larry David for the first and main course, and then to be left alone with Veronica Hart, the beautiful director and former porn star. Then I will obviously have a drink and a cigar with Groucho and David to tell them all about it.  

What piece of art (film/book/music/what-have-you) do you recommend to your friends?
I am not recommending anything anymore—every time I recommend something that I like, I end up lending it out and never seeing it again. On second thought, I recommend Ulysses, since it has been laying in my restroom for too long.

Where did the film premiere? What happened at those screenings?
Before Tribeca, the film premiered in the last Berlin Film Festival, and received an enormous amount of press and sold out screenings. This is my fifth film, and I have never seen the audience respond so loudly—it was an incredible experience.

How did you get such insider access to the people in your film?
My experience as a documentary filmmaker taught me that if your protagonists have strong and solid convictions as to what they do, they will not be shy about it. In this case, everybody had very strong convictions, which made my life easier.

What else should we know about the film?
You know too much already! I don’t want to add any more spoilers. Go and watch it.

opens at Cinema Village in New York (and also in San Francisco and Los Angeles) on Friday, November 20.

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