2005_10_marclevin_big.jpgDirector Marc Levin has been making provocative documentaries and fictional features for more than two decades. His 1998 film Slam won both the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and the Camera d'Or at Cannes. He's never been afraid to tackle controversial subjects in docs such as Mob Stories, The Execution Machine: Texas Death Row and Soldiers in the Army of God, and his 1993 film The Last Party, which followed the Clinton Presidential campaign, has inspired several more recent political documentaries over the last decade. His new film Protocols of Zion is his most personal documentary as Levin goes so far to appear on screen in order to explore the rise of anti-Semitism he's noticed throughout the world since 9/11. This has been fueled due to a false rumor that no Jews died in the World Trade Center because they were all warned of the attacks on didn't go in to work.

This rumor was supported by a widely-believed, and often debunked, idea of an international Jewish conspiracy to rule the world stemming from a book called "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," which is still widely available for purchase online and in bookstores. "The Protocols" supposedly describe a meeting during which a group of Jewish elders discuss their plans for world domination. It turns out the book was originally written as anti-Semitic propaganda by the secret police in 19th Century Czarist Russia. Yet "The Protocols" are still widely believed in many parts of the world and this country. Levin's new film attempts to explore why.

Tonight at 6:30 PM, The Walter Reade Theater presents a screening followed by a panel discussion involving Levin. Yesterday, Gothamist spoke to Levin about his latest work:

How did you first hear of "The Protocols"?
I read "The Protocols" back in the '70s. I was just curious about history and conspiracies. I grew-up in the '60s so the Kennedy assassination and other conspiracies interested me. When somebody said to me, "Hey do you want to read the mother of all conspiracies?" and I said, "What's that?" "The Jewish conspiracy. Check this out." And I read it like it was an artifact of an age long gone. It read like a superhero comic, a kind of Byzantine comic book. And if anyone had told me in the mid-70s that this thing was going to come back and be in any way relevant or referred to in the 21st Century, I would have thought they were out of their minds.

So what really was the impetus for making this film now?
The inciting incident was an encounter with a New York City taxi driver who was an Egyptian immigrant who believed in "The Protocols" and told me about the rumor about no Jews dying on 9/11. Then I saw the two television series that were being shown [during the Islamic holiday] Ramadan, first the Egyptian one and then The Diaspora, the Syrian/Lebanese one, which you see clips from in the film. I read that tens of millions of Muslims were watching this 40 nights in a row and not looking at it as just a miniseries but as actual history – a 40 hour miniseries; it was unbelievable. I was like, "Tens of millions of people are watching this stuff, and they think it's history. Exactly who are we hiding this book from? Ourselves." And that's kind of where it started. I said, Alright, I'm going to jump into the middle, and take it to the streets just to find out, just to start to see what's happening. Obviously with the Iraq invasion and [the release of] The Passion of the Christ, the intifada in Israel, just the whole world situation kind of escalated as I started making it, and it kind of just grew.

You've been doing events like the one at Lincoln Center tonight) around the country for a few weeks. What kind of reaction have you been receiving?
It's sensational. In terms of the Q&A, it's so interesting. This is a film that obviously leaves people wanting to ask questions and discuss these things which is really the purpose. You need to talk about it.

One of the most interesting ones I did last week in Chicago. As part of their film festival, they have an outreach program, 500 inner city kids from the top public high schools in Chicago. That was wild, to see people really get involved and asking themselves tough questions and struggling with their stereotypes. It's been fascinating.

Through these Q&As, have you noticed that people in the audience have preconceived ideas that they stick to or does the film actually change the way they think about these issues?
My line now is, "It's not about conversion; it's conversation." First of all, most people who see the movie have never heard of "The Protocols of Zion." Unlike a lot of people I spoke to, they're not experts in the field of hatred. So they've never even heard of the thing. Some had heard the rumors post-9/11, but it's an eye-opener. I guess the biggest thing is some people leave saying, "Oh my god, this is frightening and depressing." And others say, "I've actually been inspired. I want to get involved. I want to know what I can do." I think those are the biggest divergent reactions.

And of course there are some Jews who are just uncomfortable that the film is out there. I guess that shouldn't be surprising since I included that right in the film when I was told to not even make the movie.

Uncomfortable just because it brings attention to the existence of "The Protocols"?
Exactly. My kids had never heard of the book. Most of my friends hadn't. I think there are some people who say it's better not to even mention this thing. Better to just bury it or burn it, and I obviously feel differently.

There is the risk, and I will certainly accept it, that a few people out there may not have heard of it and actually think, "Oh I want to find out. I knew these Jews did this and that." But I feel that ultimately light is the great disinfectant, and better to take that risk and open it up, discuss it, bring the conversation out of the closet. In a way these things when they're hidden and secret have more power than when they're exposed and in the open. But those are risks.

You don't usually put yourself front and center in your films. Was doing so a difficult decision? Did you think of making the film without your direct presence?
I did think of doing it without, and early in the process I screened footage to different friends, colleagues and executives to get some reaction. I have to admit when I showed it to some of the people I work with at HBO, they … it was the Giuliani encounter on Sixth Avenue. [Levin is talking to an African-American man who claims that Jews run New York, and all of the City's recent mayors have been Jewish. Levin asks what about Giuliani, and the man replies, "Jew-liani?"] They said, "You know what's interesting here Marc is that you're not just a film director, a filmmaker or ever a journalist. This is personal. Just watching you interact with these people, it's not just these discussions or dialogue. There's something else happening, and you should be in the movie.

I know [HBO Documentary President] Sheila Nevins is not one to mince words – I've done many films with her – and she'd be the first to say, "What are you doing? Get your face out of there. What are you doing destroying this movie? Get back behind the camera where you belong." She would be brutally honest. So that was a lot of encouragement for me.

M father was the last thing we added to the film. It was some of the earliest stuff I shot, and I really shot it more just to get grounded and really to have for my children and my sisters and their families, to capture my father when he's still on the top of his game. But it wasn't in the first cut. When we showed that cut, the reaction from the small group of people we screened it to, they were numb. It was just an overdose of hate. They said, "You need some other emotions in this film." So that weekend my editor Ken Eluto came in and played around with some of the footage of my father that we had shot. When I came in on Monday, he said take a look at this, and it was surprising. I see what people are saying: the love of family, and father and son, a whole other feeling

What was your process like making this film. Was it the same as on your previous documentaries? You obviously couldn't have everything planned out because you don't know what people are going to say to you; the movie is sort of a diary of your investigation. So did you just have the idea and then let it flow wherever it took you? And since you obviously spent a couple years shooting, how did you know when you were done?
I would say that this is the most free-flowing of my films. Each film is a little different, but certainly because I was doing it myself, and it was independent, this is in many ways the most jazz-like and organic film I've made. But there was, you know, an outline which was basically start with the rumor that had hit the streets [that no Jews died on 9/11]; talk to the people who were promoting it, believing it, proselytizing it, spreading the book and tying it to 9/11; and somehow factor in some of the back story – it's hard to understand any of this unless you do understand the Deicide charge that for 2000 years Jews were seen as Christ killers, so The Passion worked into that; acknowledge that the Middle East conflict has only inflamed all sides; and somehow finish up on the third anniversary of 9/11 with the names of hundreds of Jews that were killed.

But to show you how plenty changed during production, take the end. When 9/11 happened, reading the papers I saw Neil Levin's name. Now I have a second cousin named Neil Levin, and I called my father immediately and said, "Is this our relative?" And he called his sister, and it wasn't. But I thought, it would be interesting; he has the same name as I have, and there was a moment I thought one of our family was lost. It wasn't, but, Who is Neil Levin?

Now it turned out that Neil Levin was the head of Port Authority. Certainly if there was any one Jew who would have been warned, I would have thought he would have been number one. Not only that, at the beginning of the film you see somebody say there weren't any Jewish funerals or memorials or anything. Well this guy had a funeral, memorial service up on the Upper East Side, and Governor Pataki was there and Giuliani, Bette Midler … it was huge. A lot of celebrities, famous New Yorkers. It got a lot of attention. I got footage of that. I met his brother; I met his mother. I got to know them. And I just thought that would be a way to tell one individual story. It's kind of related to me in that we share the same last name, and I thought maybe it was a relative but it wasn't. It certainly proved that if there was a warning [to Jews], here's this big shot. How come he didn't get the warning? So that was kind of in an outline.

But then when we met Shiya Ribowski, who was the medical examiner, and I had no idea who he was other than that he was the chief investigator and we wanted to know how many Jews died. He made it clear that they didn't ID people by denomination, but he knew that hundreds of Jews died. He went into the story of his friend and so we went with the flow [and used it in the film]. Conceptually there was always the idea to find one human story of a Jew who died. But it went from the one I thought it would be to a story that I knew nothing about.

I also always knew that somehow I'd have to deal with the Jewish-Christian relationship, and when The Passion became a phenomenon, that was an opportunity to do it very much in the present sense, the here and the now.

One of the more interesting elements of the filmare all the conversations you have with people from Palestinians on the streets of New York to a White Supremacist to a group of guys in jail. Watching these encounters, one expects them to become more confrontational and argumentative. Yet even when you talk to people with very different opinions than yours, it's still just a normal conversation where you may challenge them, but you never really get antagonistic. How hard was it to stay that way with some people and maintain a civil discussion when maybe your gut instinct is to say, "OK, here's why you're wrong"?
From the beginning the conceit was why can't we talk about this stuff the way you talk about music and sports and fashion, with people on the street without having to be an expert. It was a challenge. I think that in a way I probably rehearsed for it for 30 years in terms of the films I've made. Just look at the characters I've been dealing with from the mob to street gangs to the CIA to anti-abortion terrorists to gang leaders to white supremacists on death row. So in this case it was finally me having a discussion but about some things that are of concern to me.

The other thing I would say is from that first incident with the cab driver. The second part of that story is when I took him into a coffee shop, and we talked, and I found out that he had really been a victim of fanaticism himself and left his own country, Egypt, and his own home in Alexandria because he kept getting beat up for buying rap CDs. If I'd just said fuck you in the cab and we'd left, it would have been OK, but look at what was uncovered – there was like a second beat, a second act. It was interesting: he wasn't stupid; he was bright. He himself had been a victim yet he had been repeating the big lie. So I kind of tried to keep that in mind. Everybody's got a schpiel and a rap and a position, but let that blow by so that maybe you can uncover the next layer. I'm not saying I was always successful, but that was kind of a method.

While you state the case and present evidence that "The Protocols" is a forgery and Jews did die on 9/11, the majority of what you see and hear in the film is, in fact, people who believe the rumors and the likelihood of this Jewish conspiracy. Do you worry that maybe people will miss what is actually your point?
For me, it is always most powerful when people reveal themselves. You don't have an expert telling you, "This is why Nazis do this. "You see and you judge for yourself. So in terms of the personal journey of the film, I wanted to look into their eyes. I want to try to figure out where is this coming from. I've heard this 100 times, but let me try to get a little deeper. And also, I want to arm myself. Intelligence – think about it, in terms of our greatest failure in this so-called war on terror: We have no idea what these people think. We have no idea how to get inside their heads. That's the biggest failure there is. And so the most frustrating thing for me about this process has been the ongoing problem with so many in the Jewish community who basically feel, "Let's not talk about it. Why the hell do you let any of these people talk. It's best just left buried and undiscussed." And in that sense they don't even want people to see the movie.

Are Jewish organizations contacting the distributor Thinkfilm and trying to protest the release or something?
I guess so. I think Thinkfilm has been stunned by how -- especially in New York and LA -- the organized Jewish community basically would rather not have the film discussed. Whatever they think about it – whether they like it or not – they'd rather not have people see it and talk about it. They're afraid, I guess, that any discussion of it is counterproductive and that allowing people to air their views when they have this hateful heart is only amplifying their voices. I've heard all these arguments. But again, I say, the great challenge here is to understand what these people are really thinking and how you get inside their head.

One attitude is why even give any validity to a rumor like this which has been out there and on the web; that the Jews were somehow involved and no Jews died on 9/11. Well, my feeling was on the simplest level, No. As a New Yorker, as a Jew, as just me, I am going to say this is bullshit! Hundreds of Jews died. Just that simple refutation. How the established Jewish community does not feel that that needs to be out there. That's I think the great irony of the Jewish conspiracy. It's the no-show conspiracy. It's the missing in action … if you had 12 Jews in a room like in "The Protocols," they would all be arguing saying this thing is written wrong or our plan is wrong. There'd be arguments for days and days and days, and there'd be Talmudic thinking. But if you read "The Protocols," it's the opposite.

Well, and the ironic thing is that someone who believes in "The Protocols" might say that the fact that the Jewish community doesn't want this discussed is because maybe Marc Levin doesn't know that there really is a conspiracy and the community is trying to keep it quiet.
I agree. That is another side of the coin. It's not totally surprising though. I understand that the Jewish establishment is powerful and makes a lot of films. There are plenty of other people to do the history of anti-Semitism or the true deconstruction of "The Protocols" – the actual history of the document – or to do a study on religious hate and talk to professors and scientists. There are a lot of people who can make those films, and they are being made, and I think that's good. I'm all for it. But there aren't a lot of people who are equipped to have this kind of dialogue that I was prepared for because of my experience. So I thought it was a strength to be a maverick and I still do. And not an institutional representative because I'm just here as a filmmaker.

I never wanted the film ghettoized. My message is, We're all Jews! Meaning we're all potential victims. Anybody who believes in a open, tolerant, free, multicultural society, in a world where fanatics of all faiths – not just Muslim fanatics but Christian fanatics, Jewish fanatics, Hindu fanatics – have kind of hijacked history, they believe their hate is holy and violence can be sacred, and anyone who doesn't agree with their divine interpretation is expendable. That's the world we live in now, right?

People have given up on dialogue. I mean, if we can't stop on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street, and have it out -- and yes there's a risk that it could degenerate and turn into a brawl and all these things – but if we can not talk about this stuff on the streets of New York City, how the hell do we ever expect the Shiites and the Sunnis and the Kurds in Baghdad to sit down and work it out, or the warlords in Afghanistan. So I'm hoping that the dialogue can be expanded. This isn't just a Jewish or anti-Semitic issue. We as Jews have a certain sensitivity, and we have to use it not just to protect ourselves, but to engage in this bigger battle of all religions. We saw the State of Israel deal with it this summer with the withdrawal from Gaza. Who would have thought that the Jewish zealots would turn on Sharon? But this is the world we live in, and I hope especially younger Jewish-Americans and younger people of all faiths will be open to seeing the movie.

So since you're not specifically trying to convert anybody, what do you hope will come out of this film for those people who aren't able to attend one of these special events?
The movie's got a web site – www.protocolosofzionmovie.com and then it connects to a blog which is at thinkfilm.blogs.com/protocols_of_zion, and I've started writing, but now if I can get some people to mix it up, I want to see if we can have discussions on themes of hate and intolerance to conspiracy to 9/11 to the whole thing. I'm hoping that people can come to the blog and get an online discussion and debate started. Let's discuss it.

You can discuss the film with Marc tonight at The Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center at 6:30. Thinkfilm will release the film in New York and LA Friday, playing locally at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the Angelika Film Center. And don't forget to share your thoughts on the Protocols of Zion filmmaker's blog.