Growing up as a Jewish "All American" kid in suburban New Jersey, documentary filmmaker/indie director Marc Levin, 54, had certainly heard of the infamous "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," a century-old document that purported to contain evidence of a conspiracy among Jews to take over the world. Used to justify the worst in anti-Semitism, bigotry and genocide, the fraudulent document was serialized by Henry Ford in the Dearborn Independent newspaper, and Hitler quoted it in "Mein Kampf."
But Levin figured that anyone familiar with "Protocols" also knew that it was a forgery, a nasty piece of propaganda concocted by the Russian secret police to provide fuel for their violent pogroms against its Jewish citizenry. But 9/11, and a fateful cab ride afterward, changed that perception. The cabbie, an Egyptian American who quoted "Protocols" chapter and verse, claimed that no Jews died in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon -- they had, he said, stayed home as part of a nefarious plot. The conversation shocked Levin. He was even more shocked, he says, to discover that "Protocols" sells out regularly at Wal-Mart and on Amazon.
Armed with a camera, Levin embarked on a personal odyssey, throwing himself into ad-hoc street debates with black nationalists, skinheads, Christian evangelicals, right-wing Israelis and Muslim radicals. The result is "Protocols of Zion," a 92-minute free-floating documentary in which Levin tries to get to the heart of 21st-century hate. In an interview, he discussed his motivation and experience:
Q: Do you consider yourself a cultural Jew or a religious Jew?
A: I'm a Rasta Jew. . . . I say that jokingly, but if I was going to take the two spiritual influences in my life and be honest, I would say Bob Marley and Bob Dylan. Two prophets. . . . I'm not religious. I mistrust all organized religion, deeply. In fact, this film has only added to my distrust. But . . . just making this has deepened my connection to Jewish heritage. . . . I've delved much deeper into it, but I do it in my own way.
Q: This poses the age-old question: Is Judaism a religion or is there a racial-ethnic component? The anti-Semitism seems to touch something deeper than religion.
A: But if you go to Israel, you see the Nazi racial characteristics make no sense. There are Ethiopian Jews, Sephardic, Spanish. . . . Is it a race? It's a religion and a culture, a body of thought, tradition. . . . Obviously, there are genetic markers.
I say a Jew is anyone who thinks he's a Jew and identifies with the Exodus story. . . . You read Genesis and it's all about a dysfunctional family. . . . That's part of my struggle with religion. It's been so involved with combat and war instead of the spiritual values.
Q: You talk about Jews in post 9/11, there being this resurgence of anti-Semitism. But it seems to me that Muslims have taken the greatest hit.
A: I would agree. Obviously, [there is] tremendous anti-Muslim sentiment. . . . The next film I do may . . . explore that community.
I want Jewish support for this film. And I want young Jews, especially who are even further than my generation removed. . . . I want my kids and their kids to find access to retelling stories. That's why I made this style of film. . . . It's about emotions and feelings on the street.
Q: Speaking of emotions . . . right before you walked into the National Alliance [an association of white supremacists], you looked a little nervous.
A: You picked that up. I almost felt like I was going into a psychic, toxic waste zone. . . . Fear and ignorance are the breeding grounds for most bigotry, and hate and powerlessness, but I have to admit I have been surprised by people who have a certain kind of intelligence and smarts and still believe this stuff. . . .
I believe in dialogue; that's what this whole film is about.
Q: Is that why you put yourself in it?
A: Yeah. . . . I have never been in one of my films. I've always done the interviews, being the provocateur, but behind the camera. The editing room has always been the safe house for me. That's the hiding place. That's where you control it all. So in a way, I lost my hiding place.