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Berlinale 2009: "Defamation" and the art of the undercut

Above: Abraham H. Foxman, National Director of The Anti-Defamation League, in Hashmatsa.

Friends may know that documentary makes me uneasy—well, any form that frequently pretends to be unmediated, to be real or true, makes me uneasy—and these days, what with the recent resurgence of Frank Borzage movies on film, DVD, and television, I may also be wary of irony.  (This, from someone whose cinephiliac tree grew out of Kubrickian roots!)  Still, Yoav Shamir's documentary Hashmatsa (Defamation) is worthy of some acclaim.  It brings a casually skeptical, that is to say, friendly-like irony to Shamir's self-stated quest to explore the nature of anti-Semitism in the world today.  That's the quest stated, but the result, for the surprising first thirty minutes of the film, is that one assumes a great deal about the blandness, if not to say triteness, of such an overworn subject, but that gradually one sees that Shamir is undercutting his own conventions and his own mission with a sly humor.  Sequences that initially seem like blinders-on camera recording—artless shots of the faces of Israeli high school students watching Holocaust footage in class—are contextualized later, and, at first, subtlely by Shamir letting his material overstate itself.  The camera at first makes banal observations, but lets them hang for a moment (figuratively; the film is actually highly edited) and then hang themselves.  The few points Hashmatsa scores for anti-Semitism—that people say they aren't make slips that reveal they are—and the greater ones it scores against it—mainly in the seemingly inseparable linking of anti-Semitism with the state of Israeli and the moral burden of the Holocaust—are valid but often self-evident.  So, as usual, the filmmaker's attitude trumps (or shall we say becomes?) the content.  Yet, once the surprise wears off, once the attitude seems overtly intentional rather than covert and pleasurably happenstance, Shamir does indeed fall back on content and message, and Hashmatsa retreats back to the polite intelligence (and not necessarily one of filmmaking) that was so curiously, and even surprisingly, subverted.

I really like how you observe that Shamir allows the material to overstate itself and how his attitude towards his subject becomes the content of the film. I thoroughly appreciated how this film agitated me and will be sitting down to talk to Shamir tomorrow.
Thanks Michael! Can’t wait to read that interview.

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