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Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2009: Look Into My Eyes

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Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2009: <em>Look Into My Eyes</em>

The title of Naftaly Gliksberg’s Look Into My Eyes is an overt reference to its climax, in which the director—outside the courtroom where Holocaust denier Horst Mahler is standing trial—compels one of Mahler’s “followers” to stare into his eyes, an act the man doggedly avoids because “Jewish people are part of the devil.” Yet moreover, the documentary’s moniker functions as an articulation of Gliksberg’s modus operandi of visiting an assortment of locales (some of which he has ties to) and candidly discussing prevailing attitudes about Jews and Israel.

Given that the director places himself squarely in the camera’s gaze, as well as chooses certain extreme-case examples who deliver familiar over-the-top soundbites, the doc resembles Bill Maher’s button-pushing nonfiction comedy Religulous. Whereas Maher approached his non-representational interviewees with condescension, however, Gliksberg proceeds with a mixture of curiosity, apprehension, and dismay, the latter becoming increasingly palpable during chats with people who profess fondness for Jews and then advocate ugly, clichéd stereotypes. A West Virginian big shot with the white supremacist National Alliance—whose anti-Semitism is of a predictable sort—proves far less chilling than a nearby church pastor who assures Gliksberg about his tolerance, only to then add that Israelis are a rude lot who only treat Christians well in order to earn their tourist money, and that by not following the 1914 Balfour Declaration the Jews brought the Holocaust upon themselves.

Still, by only cursorily concentrating on himself, the son of an Israeli rabbi who cast aside his orthodoxy (and his religious wife) upon moving to Paris in his early 20s, Gliksberg forgoes providing highly personal context that might have made up for the haphazard nature of his inquiry, which plucks out topics—the 1991 Crown Heights conflict between blacks and Jews, a notorious French comedian—seemingly at random. Though positioned more as one man’s private investigation than as a definitive survey of current global anti-Semitism, the film somewhat falters on both counts, expressing its grief and horror over the persistence of irrational hate frankly and poignantly, but via an easy-target framework from which one can draw only superficial conclusions.

Look Into My Eyes premieres June 21 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center as part of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival 2009. Click here for screening information.

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.