September 11th continues to haunt the U.S. imaginary. Even aside from the very real traumas endured by survivors and media watchers, the event looms mythic, sometimes causal for later events and feelings, sometimes a point of radical change. Nothing will ever be the same, and nothing can follow from its singular horror with any semblance of logic.
Such experience has been overlaid by representations, debates, and deceptions. These images have become part of U.S. popular culture—in repeated tv images, visual art, photographs, plays, the news and movies. Just this week, the sentencing trial of Zacharias Moussaoui has produced numerous painful accounts of what happened that day in 2001. And this month, theater patrons complained of being exposed to trailers for Paul Greengrass’ United 93, the movie scheduled to open 28 April. And Oliver Stone’s take on the attacks is only a few short months away. These and other images ensure that the day and its many meanings will never fade from memory.
Marc Levin’s Protocols of Zion takes yet another angle on 9/11. Considering the origins and effects of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the documentary—premiering on Cinemax 11 April—takes its point of departure the post-9/11 rumors that “Jews” had advance knowledge of the attacks, were not killed in the attacks, or colluded with the United States government in cover-ups or implementations. Levin wonders aloud at the pervasiveness of this notion, which is, after all, patently untrue with regard to the instances of Jewish victims on 9/11.
Forged in late 19th century Russia by Czar Nicholas II’s secret police, the Protocols were circulated by Henry Ford in the Dearborn Independent and adapted by Hitler for his own needs. The film calls the book “the oldest recorded bigotry in history” as well as the “mother of all conspiracy theories.” Reportedly recording the schemes of Jewish leaders to take over the world, it still moves enough units to be considered a bestseller. As Levin tells his story in the documentary, his encounter with an Egyptian cabbie in New York City who asserts the veracity of the Protocols as “proof” of Jewish culpability for 9/11, leads him to pursue not only the uses of the Protocols, but also the general belief’s persistence. How is anti-Semitism (as well as other bigotries) built into various worldviews and whom does it benefit, in broad, rather than specific and obvious, ways?
While Levin is well known for his politically progressive, hard-hitting documentaries, such as The Execution Machine: Texas Death Row (1997), Thug Life in D.C. (1998), Gladiator Days: Anatomy of a Prison Murder (2002), as well as the fiction films Slam (1998, starring Saul Williams) and Brooklyn Babylon (2001, starring Black Thought, of the Roots), he has never before included himself in his work. While the shift here is partly inspired by the popularity of this form of documentary-making (see Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock), it is in Levin’s hands a nuanced and complicated business, less a matter of self-disclosure than self-searching. While this personal narrative includes some sobering recollections by his documentary filmmaker father, Al (who as a child was called “Jewboy” and “Christ killer” by his young Roman Catholic neighbors), it is also dispersed.
The movie begins with his recollection of the cabbie incident, then follows subsequent encounters, as Levin seeks out opinions from all sorts of characters, from a man on the sidewalk in New York who refers to Mayor “Jewliani” and the editor of an Arab-American newspaper in Paterson, NJ, which serializes the Protocols, to Holocaust survivors and deniers to skinheads. One Aryan entrepreneur shows the swastika-emblazoned coffee cups he hopes to market, and boots with the sign in the tread (a design he touts as being especially clever). When the young man asserts that Hitler was never suicidal, Levin points out that indeed, he committed suicide. The film cuts on that beat, leaving you to wonder what the young man might possible have said in response.
Levin’s efforts to hear from all sorts of citizens take him to L.A. (where he seeks out wealthy Jews “in the industry,” and speaks briefly with Larry David, “the hottest Jew in Hollywood,” who tells him to call Rob Reiner). He also visits a prison, where he and Al talk with inmates about racism and prejudice as a social system. “When you grow up black in America,” says one interviewee, “You hear the Jews did this and the Jews did that all your life.” Observes another, “Scumbags come in all creeds and all colors.”
A section on The Passion of the Christ (and Mel Gibson’s Holocaust-denying father) seems briefly off-topic: Levin speaks with a kind of focus group, of Christian invitees to a preview, asking how they read the anti-Semitic imagery. A couple of scenes later, that unsurprising discussion becomes recontextualized, another example of exactly what’s at stake here, the ways that prejudice is woven into the fabric of social, cultural, and political life. The sinuous, seemingly meandering structure of the film reveals a daunting truth as well. No matter where it turns, people are confronting, confirming, or complicating their worst fears.