American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein is a new documentary by filmmakers David Ridgen and Nicolas Rossier. After a bumpy start, with many film festivals opting to not program the documentary, it has recently screened at some international festivals including the recently completed Hot Docs in Toronto. American Radical also won the Cinema Politica Audience Choice Award 2009.
The doc follows the scholar, writer, and public speaker Norman Finkelstein as he tours universities in Canada and the US. Far from a hagiography or an unfair skewering, American Radical is a balanced, sensitive and thoughtful window into Finkelstein’s world. The outspoken and embattled critic of Israel comes across as acerbic, self-destructive, and angry, but also sincere, honest, and tirelessly concerned with justice. It is a fabulous primer on activism in the academy and the important issue of academic freedom, as well as a study of how an individual can embody a conflict so intensely and completely.
I recently had the chance to ask Ridgen and Rossier a few questions about Finkelstein and the film.
Art Threat: What was the catalyst for you to make AR?
David Ridgen: A number of things came together, paramount being that both Nic and I were contemplating making films of our own about Finkelstein and had each been following him for several years. Also, it seemed that Norman had reached a natural point in his life and career where finishing a film about him made sense. Nic was persistent in trying to bring our projects together. And it fell into place.
Nicolas Rossier: When I met Norman for the first time about 9 years ago I knew there was a story (a guy completely against the grain) and that I should be making a film but it was a long-term project in my mind. I am always interested in stories that are not explored or told and his story had to be told. Emotionally and intellectually I was not ready. So I followed him on an off and it’s only in 2006 when his denial of tenure happened at DePaul that I decided that the film had to be completed. Eventually, David and I decided we could work together
You’ve mentioned all the problems you’ve had with the film being shown, notably international festivals who opted to show Defamation “instead” of AR. Can you elaborate?
DR: I would say it was a problem of timing more than anything. Defamation got out of the gates before we did and people saw Norman for the first time in a major doc. Defamation spent just a few hours interviewing Finkelstein and used a few Minutes of him in the actual film, presenting a very narrow view of who Finkelstein is. Festival programmers were reticent to take our film after already accepting Defamation – what they saw as “the film with Finkelstein in it” not recognizing that Norman was much more than a punch line or someone to “balance” out Abe Foxman. Saying that, Defamation is a very different film that has been successful for different reasons. We feel that AR and Defamation can easily “exist” at the same festival. Norman is the kind of subject that people either don’t know or think they know – for better or worse Often his reputation as painted by his detractors is what sticks and people are not willing to even watch the film in favor of some preconceived notion of what it could be about. Luckily, festival programmers and reviewers (most of them) have actually watched the film and reviewed it very positively accordingly.
NR: Shamir had the backing of 4 producers in 4 countries and Michael Moore. He is a talented and well-appreciated filmmaker in the festival circuit and has the dream credentials coming from Israel a country where filmmakers are in vogue and the cinema is very much alive and successful. We are also known filmmakers but had little backing, and found that we had to play politics until one curator took a chance and the others followed. Two friend curators helped us behind the scenes as well. People are terrified with a subject like that but we knew that going into it. Hot Docs refused it the first time and then came back to us this year saying they wanted it. Maybe they felt more comfortable after a few festivals showed it. Or maybe they discussed it together and were able to appreciate the film differently. They are flexible and it’s to their credit. The film ‘s reception went far beyond our expectations but in the process of showing it I lost some friends. One very well known friend curator got in trouble trying to program the film in New York. He told me about all the heated discussions in his meetings trying to sell it and suddenly no more emails from him. I heard he still has his job so I feel better. You keep working on projects you feel are important and don’t bother about the rest.
Advocates of Palestine and critics of Israel face all kinds of problems including censorship. Do you feel your film has faced censorship, even though it is not a hagiography but more of a critical, insightful and careful analysis of Finkelstein, his ideas and his approach?
DR: Other than a couple of instances where links to reviews have strangely disappeared from the net – I do not think there’s been censorship at all. The film has elicited many commentaries online, a very few of which Nic and I shake our heads at. Virulent and hateful. But mostly American Radical has engendered a thoughtful, positive response from Norman’s admirers and detractors alike. No mean feat. I think we were successful.
NR: Maybe at the beginning we faced some censorship but I don’t expect much censorship now that the film is somehow on a launch pad apart from some television stations that have some agendas in terms of what they can or can’t program about the Middle East.
The film touches an emotional chord with both Jewish and Arab audiences. So I strongly believe that the people who would naturally try to censor a film like that would come to the conclusion that they don’t need to. We have something for everyone in the film. You don’t need to like the main character to like the film and you can love the character and feel quite frustrated with a film like that. We have been told that we managed to do that without loosing the sense of urgency about the important issues we cover in the film. That is what we thought we had to do if we were to remain true to our own feelings about the subject and honest towards our main character.
What do you feel people can do in the face of such 1 censorship?
DR: If people can prove their work or voice is being censored, they should take direct action to engage with the actors involved. Unfortunately the internet is also censored through firewalls and the algorithms that run many search engines, so one has to be strategic in how to engage. Fortunately, truth has a way of finding its way to the surface regardless.
NR: For our case it is still too early to tell but in general I would advise people to get together and try to create their own channel online or create their own television but it’s tough. The censorship is mostly still on the television side. Today it is still a challenge to get these types of stories out. But this is changing for the better. Soon anyone will be able to buy a television with an ethernet cable in it and that means that we filmmakers will not need to worry about our work being rejected by television programmers. Folks will click amazon and netlix and order our movies on demand. The money is still the issue though. You can only maximize your revenue with television, home video and online sales.
Have you screened the film in Israel or the Occupied Territories?
DR: So far, the film has screened at a Jewish festival in Jerusalem and in Lebanon.
NR: We screened at Docudays in Beirut to sold out audiences and have been invited to quite a few other Jewish festivals in NA. The film will be shown soon on cable in the occupied territories and Israel and that will be the film TV premiere. We are very proud of that.
Has Norman watched it?
DR: He has seen the ending a few times and friends have told him some of the scenes. Their feedback, Norman says, has been overwhelmingly positive about how he is depicted in the film. Accurate. But he has not watched the film to my knowledge.
NR: He has heard from friends and professional colleagues that the film was an honest depiction of him. He knows the film is critical and does not want to watch it. I can understand that. You have two guys following you on and off for a few years and reducing your life in 84 minutes. But we really tried to do the best we could. His main concern was for us not to miss his parents legacy on him and that we honoured their memory and I believe we did that and he knows we did.
DR: Not sure yet. Several projects in development.
NR: Trying to pitch a documentary series about Nobel Peace laureates and working on my first narrative.
What are some recent docs you’ve seen and liked?
DR: Sharkwater is a favorite.
NR: I saw Mugabe and the White Africans and I did not expect to be moved by the characters in the movie but I was at the end. The story of white farmers who stayed cozy for too long and now really suffer a regime lead by a guy who started like Mandela but ends (for many reasons not in the film) to be much worse than Mobutu. There is a sense of urgency and immediacy even if the historical context is missing. You can’t always have everything in one 90 min film. I also loved Amandla: A Revolution in Four Part Harmony.