American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein is one of those great films that really frustrates you as it forces you to change your opinion constantly throughout, never really being able to tell how you feel about this controversial character. I came into this documentary with no knowledge of Norman Finkelstein as a figure and left having seen one of my favourite documentaries of the year. Finkelstein is fascinating and the filmmakers allow you to see beyond his public persona and take the story beyond the politics to his experience of speaking his mind about a very volatile subject matter and the consequences therein.
It’s a great film to watch with an audience as you really feel people squirm as they veer to and fro between being in complete agreement to being aghast at Finkelstein’s comments and behaviour. American Radical is showing again at Hot Docs on Sunday May 09 at 11:30 am and I would recommend taking the opportunity to see it.
Official synopsis: American Radical is the probing, definitive documentary about American academic Norman Finkelstein. A devoted son of holocaust survivors, ardent critic of Israel and US Mid-East policy, and author of five provocative books including, The Holocaust Industry, Finkelstein has been steadfast at the center of many intractable controversies, including his recent denial of tenure at DePaul University. Called a lunatic and disgusting self-hating Jew by some, and an inspirational street-fighting revolutionary by others, Finkelstein is a deeply polarizing figure whose struggles arise from core questions about freedom, identity and nationhood.
From Beirut to Kyoto, American Radical follows Finkelstein around the world as he attempts to negotiate a voice among both supporters and critics, providing an intimate portrait of the man behind the controversy.
This is the kind of portrait a lot of people would shy away from as Finkelstein is such a controversial character. What was your motivation for pursuing this story and was it hard to get him on board?
We liked Finkelstein because he does not fit the picture of any intellectual we know. He does not care about convention. He travels the world calling it the way he sees it. He got all that from his mother. He speaks his mind in a world where many are afraid to speak out and have to maneuver around corners and be politically correct. Norman goes against the grain and lives his life with all the downs and ups that go with this type of life. He is rare but also very flawed and he brags about it as well, which is kind of unique. Often it undermines his activism. So we think he has all these sides that make him human, likable, and unlikable.
Many times we felt there was no way a film about Finkelstein could be made and had to rethink. The question was always at the end: Is his story worth the effort, worth a film? The answer was always yes ultimately.
A third company started a film about Finkelstein with partners in the Middle East and they could never seem to finish, though they had ample funding from the New Zealand Film Commission – the project was stalled very early on. You need solid confidence to work with a character like Finkelstein. Controversy is always with you. It never ends with Norman and it can be emotionally draining for everyone. Nobody else could have finished such a story. It ended up being the right time for David and myself to complete it – when we finally decided to work together.
Norman was careful at the beginning, but when he saw our seriousness and commitment and that we were not going away, he began to trust us more and more.
What was the filming process with him like? Did he ask for input or were you allowed a decent amount of freedom when choosing what to film?
No input at all and that was clear from the beginning in the release. Even after the film was completed we refused to show him the film as a condition to be accepted in a festival. We want him to see the film (he has not yet) but his endorsement was not for us a condition to release it.
He seemed a bit nervous when we finished, anxious, and that is understandable. Eventually word got to him through colleagues and friends that had seen it that the film was honest and accurate and Norman became more relaxed.
Finkelstein is one of those figures that seem to divide opinion, I’ve been to two screenings of the film now and the reaction was completely different to what I was expecting. I think the way you’ve constructed the film seems to stump people into re-analysing what they think of him, is this something you’ve found and have there been any reactions that have surprised you?
I think people of both camps like the film for different reasons. We touched many chords in the film that are common to many members of our audience. Many people who are huge fans of Finkelstein do not feel very comfortable in certain parts of our film and similarly people who do not agree with Finkelstein’s arguments or style did like the film and felt we were honest. Ultimately people on both sides are connecting with Finkelstein personal struggle and everybody in the audience seems to connect to Finkelstein’s personal family story. We believe one could disagree with Finkelstein 80% and perhaps not know a thing about the Israel/Palestine conflict and still find his story very compelling and worth watching. This is what we have experienced so far with various audiences.
How has the Hot Docs experience been for you so far and where is the film going next?
Very good. They are treating their filmmakers with utmost respect. I wish I had come last year with the film. Yesterday we had about 400 people or more showing up and we heard that Sunday’s screening is sold out.