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Pressure Power?

'Believer' filmmaker blames Wiesenthal Center for spoiling movie deal with Paramount Classics.

by Tom Tugend

April 5, 2001 | 8:00 pm

Henry Bean can barely contain his anger when he talks about the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

He blames the center, and particularly its associate dean, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, for spoiling a likely deal with Paramount Classics to distribute his prize-winning film "The Believer."

Cooper categorically denies Bean's assumption, and Paramount Classics says it passed on the movie for unrelated reasons.

Whoever is right, the controversy throws into relief the question of the extent to which pressure by special-interest groups -- be they Jewish, Arab American, gay or animal lovers -- affects the content and commercial screening of movies and television programs.

A couple of facts are uncontested:

"The Believer" is based on the true story of a young Jew who becomes the leader of a virulently anti-Semitic neo-Nazi gang and kills himself when his Jewish background is revealed.

The picture, written and directed by Bean, whose screenwriting credits include "Mulholland Falls" and "Enemy of the State," won the grand jury prize at the recent Sundance Film Festival.

In the early part of February, the Wiesenthal Center was contacted by an intermediary and asked to take a look at "The Believer."

Cooper, who is used to such requests from directors whose films deal with Nazis or the Holocaust, agreed and gathered a group of eight or nine people, varying in age, gender and background. Bean appeared before the group and spoke for 10 minutes about the making of "The Believer," then left before the screening of the film.

From this point on, the stories diverge somewhat in factual details, but even more in perspective.

Cooper said his group agreed that the film just didn't work. "It's not a good script, and we don't learn the motivation of the protagonist," he said.

He was particularly put off by one "problematic and disturbing" scene in a synagogue, during which skinheads rip a Torah scroll to shreds. "That scene alone could be a primer for anti-Semitism," Cooper said.

The following day, Cooper got a call from Paramount, asking for his evaluation of the film. He recounted his reservations and illustrated them by comparing "The Believer" to the 1999 film "American History X," which also dealt with American neo-Nazis.

"That also was a very controversial film, but the character of the protagonist was fully developed, and you understood what he was going through," Cooper said. "We sponsored a showing of the film with actual skinheads in the audience."

Bean, who went through his own Jewish evolution from agnostic to maintaining a kosher home, obviously disagreed with Cooper's assessment of his film.

Reached at his home in New York, he described "The Believer" as "philo-Semitic ... and really a sabotage of bigotry."

He acknowledged that at first sight the film might not strike a viewer in such terms, and he cautioned the audience at Sundance before the film was screened.

"However, that was a younger, professional crowd, not specifically Jewish," Bean said. "They saw my good intentions, and the reception was uniformly favorable."

Bean sees the reaction of the Cooper group as a form of "Jewish paranoia," and he was particularly agitated by criticism of the Torah-ripping scene.

"This scene was crucial because it triggers a change in the main character," he said. "We were very careful not to desecrate the Torah. We substituted a parchment-like paper and made sure that the lettering did not contain the name of God."

Bean said he was approached by a Paramount representative at Sundance and thought he was "on the verge of a deal" for distribution of "The Believer."

He thinks that Cooper's criticism scared off the Paramount decision-makers, or, at least, gave them an excuse to back off from a controversial project.

"You know how frightened people in the entertainment industry are of any opposition," Bean said. "In one of my previous scripts, I mentioned gays, not in a derogatory way, but after protests, the producer took [the references] out."

Recently, the producer of "Sum of All Fears" changed Arab terrorists into neo-Nazis after protests from Arab-American groups. "It's too bad Nazis don't have a lobby," Bean said sarcastically.

In retrospect, Bean thinks it was a mistake to show the film at the Wiesenthal Center. "I wish I had never heard of Rabbi Cooper," he said. "These people can't help a film, but they can hurt it."

A possible confirmation of the latter thesis is the reaction of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which also reviewed "The Believer" and praised it in an official statement.

"'The Believer' is a provocative film on a subject that has special resonance for the Jewish community," the statement read. "The film is gripping and raises troubling issues. While some may find it objectionable, the filmmaker succeeds in his portrayal of this disturbing subject without legitimizing or glamorizing the hate-filled protagonist, anti-Semitism, or the lifestyle of skinheads."

Amy Levy, associate director of the regional ADL office in Los Angeles, said she gets calls all the time from producers checking whether a given character or scene might be offensive, not only to Jews, but to African Americans, Latinos or gays.

"We stand up for the right of filmmakers to deal with any subject, but we try to sensitize them to the dangers of bigotry," Levy said.

The third party in the controversy is Paramount Classics, a Paramount subsidiary, which distributes pictures geared to narrower-than-mainstream audiences. In the past couple of years, it has distributed movies on Jewish and Holocaust themes such as "Sunshine" and "Train of Life."

"'The Believer' is a very good film, but we pick only six to seven films a year, and our slate was full," said David Dinerstein, co-president of Paramount Classics.

"We talked to Bean at Sundance, but we never had a deal on the table," he added.

One consideration in passing on "The Believer" was that promotion of the film would be "labor-intensive," Dinerstein said. "We have only 15 people in our organization, and it would take a lot of work and manpower to handle a film like this," he explained. "We would have to be proactive in publicizing a controversial film and reactive in responding to criticism."

Dinerstein acknowledged that if a large pressure group were to be strongly offended by a given film, it would be a factor in whether to take it on as a project. "But in the case of 'The Believer,' that didn't play a part," he said.

While special interest groups are exerting increasing pressure on the entertainment industry, no constitutional issues are involved, observed attorney Douglas Mirell, who is frequently involved in First Amendment cases.

"The First Amendment comes into play when a governmental agency tries to curb the freedom of creative expression," he said. "It does not apply in disputes between private parties."

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