An abridged version of this review appeared on the website for Proximity Magazine. You can read it Here.
I was at the world premier tonight for "American Radical, the Trials of Norman Finkelstein," a part of the Underground Film Festival at the Siskel Film Center.
Finkelstein was a professor of mine at DePaul University and he has gained fame and controversy for his books critical of the occupation of Palestine. Finkelstein was denied a tenure position at DePaul and I was one of the students who organized protests in support of his bid for tenure. I was a part of the occupation of DePaul President Fr. Holtschneider's office. Finkelstein was a fantastic teacher and an excellent academic.
I was looking forward to this movie, and was glad to see a large crowd at the opening including many DePaul Alums who knew Finkelstein and participated in rallies in support of his tenure bid. Unfortunately the directors David Ridgen and Nicolas Rossier were unable to make this screening, but one of them is supposed to be at the screening later this week.
The movie is a deeply personal one and is almost psychological in its approach. While it covers Finkelstein's politics and research, it really only skims and briefly touches upon his books. I suppose it would make a dull movie to discuss proper citation and research, something that much of Finkelstein's work looks at, exposing fraudulent Isreali apologists. However I would have enjoyed the movie to describe the occupation of Palestine a bit more so audiences would understand it.
What I did enjoy in this documentary was the personal history of Finkelstein's family. I knew the basics, that his parents were Holocaust survivors, progressives, and that he gained a great deal of his integrity and willingness to speak for radical causes from them. It was great to see photos of the family raising Norman and his siblings in New York, to hear audio of his mother, to really understand the impact that his parents experience had on him.
The footage of Finkelstein's lectures in Canada are classic Norm. While he is very gracious, allowing those who disagree with him to speak, he is willing to raise his voice to assert that he will not let those who shed "crocodile tears" for the victims of the Holocaust to use his parents memory to justify the subjugation of Palestine.
I wish there was more footage on Finkelstein's academic battles, from his battle to have Princeton grant him a PhD after writing a dissertation that was critical of Zionism, to the denial of Tenure at DePaul. The movie covers those events, but does not go into detail.
One thing that particularly bugged me was Alan Dershowitz's appearance in the movie. Dershowitz is a Law Professor at Harvard University, and a minimalist and apologist for the worst kinds of occupation and torture committed by the US and Israel. Dershowitz has spoken in support of legalizing torture in the US, and offering torture permits for US soldiers to interrogate prisoners by sticking red hot needles under their finger nails. Dershowitz actively lobbied DePaul University to deny tenure to Finkelstein.
What irritated me about Dershowitz's appearance in the movie was that he showed himself to be a complete idiot and a pathological liar. I don't mind if Dershowitz wants to show the world what a fool he is by appearing in the movie, but he repeated several factually inaccurate statements. While Finkelstein has done an excellent job of exposing Dershowitz's false claims in the book "Beyond Chutzpah" I feel a need to assert the accuracy of the Dershowitz's statement on how Finkelstein was hired at DePaul.
Dershowitz claims that it was radical left wing faculty who wanted to bring Finkelstein into DePaul. I have been working on a history book about DePaul, and all the available evidence I had shows that it was students who originally brought Finkelstein to speak at DePaul, and it was students who suggested to Finkelstein to apply for the open position in the political science department. It was students who rallied to support Finkelstein obtaining a tenure track position, and students who rallied in support of Finkelstein obtaining tenure. There were no anti-Finkelstein student rallies at DePaul. Many conservative students who took his classes came to like him and found him to be a fair and challenging professor.
Of course Dershowitz could have found that out, if he did his own research on the subject.
The film follows Finkelstein to Lebannon and Palestinian refugee camps, interviewing family friends in Palestine and Palestinian youth who are inspired by Finkelstein's speeches to look at Jews as potential partners in peace instead of as enemy occupiers. It mentions Finkelstein's ban from Israel, but I would have liked to seen actual footage.
One thing that the movie captured well is Finkelstein's self-doubt and yet his integrity. He is constantly wondering if he should not 'give them something to use against me' or if he should simply tell the truth. He is a truth teller to the point where it has ruined his academic career.
Two of his greatest lines in the movie were responding to personal criticism leveled against him. To those who suggested that he is maladjusted and unable to come to terms with his Jewish identity, he responds that even if that were true, what consequence does it have on his writings and historical fact? If Einstein had a maladjusted personality, what consequence would it have on his physics? He also addressed the criticism of his tone. Often academic supporters of his will state that they agree with Finkelstein's research, but they disagree with acerbic tone which he presents it. Finkelstein responds that there are certifiable war criminals teaching at major universities, people like Henry Kissinger and Donald Rumsfeld, so why should his tone be targeted unless it is because he is exposing ugly truths?
I wish the movie touched on the wider witch hunt against left wing professors in America. The fact is that Finkelstein is only one of many academics who are being targeted by the right wing, including Ward Churchill, Bill Ayers and others.
I enjoyed the movie. It was sympathetic to Finkelstein without putting him on a pedestal. It showed his personality, his humor, his anger and his sadness well. I hope it will lead people to discuss Norman Finkelstein, and his contributions to truth and justice. Finkelstein doesn't describe himself as pro-Palestinian but rather pro-truth and justice.
Discussion with the Director
I spoke with one of the film's directors, Nicolas Rossier, after the films second showing in Chicago. It was great to talk with him, I could tell he took his role as a documentary film maker serious. He explained that David Ridgen and he had begun filming Finkelstein several years earlier, first just an interview for a documentary, but as they found him to be an interesting personality, they continued to film him, uncertain of what they would use the footage for. After Finkelstein was denied tenure and students protested, they realized that they needed to put the footage together because this was a personality and a story that people needed to know.
I was able to talk to Rossier about a few of my concerns with the movie. I was concerned that the movie was sympathetic to Finkelstein the man, without agreeing with his politics. I asked Rossier about this and he said that they specifically did not want to make a propaganda piece for Finkelstein. He discussed how Alan Dershowitz had a movie made about him that was nothing more than a propaganda film. Taking it's name from Dershowitz's plagiarized book "the Case For Israel." It regurgitated Dershowitz's claims and failed to provide anything beyond a platform for Dershowitz's falsehoods.
Rossier explained that they didn't feel like now was the right time for an outright pro-Finkelstein movie. Rossier, a Switzerland native who lives in the US, claimed that making movies against the Vietnam war would have been difficult to make during the actual war, but that now that time has passed, Americans have come to accept the immorality of the war. He said that maybe 20 years from now, a movie vindicating Finkelstein would be made.
The more I think about this, the more I'm skeptical about that premise. There were several award winning anti-war documentaries that came out during the Vietnam war such as Hearts and Minds, In the Year of the Pig, and Winter Soldier. Further, I'm not so sure that that Americans have really come to accept the immorality of the Vietnam war. This despite being confronted with the actions of the US military in Vietnam during and ever since the war.
I feel like the 'American Radical' falls in with a number of other films about radical leftists that while sympathetic with them, do not justify them or defend them. The comparison I made was that "The Case for Israel" is 'Inglourious Basterds' while 'American Radical' is 'The Baader Madoff Complex.'
Why is it that Tarrantino's 'Inglourious Basterds' can revel in it's violence and historical inaccuracy, while a movie like 'The Baader Meinhoff Complex', which is also about shooting Nazi's, has to chastize the revolutionaries. The difference between Brad Pitt and Baader and Meinhoff is solely in their ideology. One is a hillbilly American who leads a squad of ass kicking Jews, while the other two are Communists trained by the Palestine Liberation Organization. One is praised as an American hero, the other two become villains.
'American Radical' helps a great academic become well known, but I still feel that there needs to be a movie that outright defends Norman Finkelstein.