Work in Progress: Scapegoat on Trial

This morning, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a “Work in Progress” panel discussion sponsored by the Washington Jewish Film Festival. This year’s work in progress was a documentary film, Scapegoat on Trial, co-directed by one of the fathers of cinema verite, Albert Maysles, and Academy Award nominee, Josh Waletzky. The panel was moderated by another documentary filmmaker Aviva Kempner, who directed The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, among other films.

In Scapegoat on Trial, Maysles and Waletsky will be introducing contemporary audiences to the somewhat forgotten story of the Beilis Affair, in which Mendel Beilis, a Jewish resident in Kiev was framed for the brutal murder of a young Christian boy in March 1911. The framing was cynically concocted by the tsarist secret police and reiled upon the Blood Libel, asserting that the murder was part of a human sacrifice. The case against Beilis collapsed, however, when it became clear that much of the evidence had been fabricated. During the time of the trial, it provoked international outrage, but the story is not as widely known as it should be, in part due to the outbreak of World War I and the subsequent collapse of tsarist Russia. The story is quite obviously significant, if only because it’s worth learning about the heroism of the people who protested against the blood libel. But the film is also significant because versions of the blood libel persist to this day, as the recent documentary, Protocols of Zion, points out. In addition, the film raises important questions about the negative effects of demonizing vulnerable groups in order to promote fear and produce genocidal campaigns, as the recent events in Rwanda, Yugoslavia, and Darfur illustrate.

Maysles and Waletzky showed about nine minutes of the film, which is still in production, but even in those brief scenes, I was struck by the wealth of materials they will be using. Perhaps the most compelling material for this wanna-be archivist was footage from a 1913 Russian documentary that told the story of the Beilis Affair, complete with re-enacted scenes of Beilis’ arrest and “home movie” clips of his family and other participants in the case, including the corrupt officials who testified against him. In addition, Maysles and Waletzky were able to interview Beilis’ 95-year old daughter in her retirement home in the Bronx. I’ll admit to being utterly floored by this access to history, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing the completed film.

During the panel, Maysles also noted that the documentary also represents an implicit commentary on the degree to which mass media in the United States is “dedicated to dehumanizing” others, calling specific attention to the dehumanizing images offered in commercials and reality TV. In this context, Maysles recalled the experience of filming the 1955 documentary, Psychiatry in Russia, during the height of the Cold War, only to have the realization that “they’re just like us,” which of course makes it far more difficult to see the Soviets as enemies.

I’ll also admit to being more than a little star-struck by the opportunity to meet Waletzky, Kempner, and especially Maysles, after the panel ended. In particular, I had the chance to talk at some length with Maysles about the role of documentary as potentially humanizing other people. Watching this material and getting a sense of Maysles and Waletzky’s plans for the project left me feeling both energized and enthusiastic about the political potential of documentary filmmaking.

8 Comments »

  1. jaybeilis Said,

    December 10, 2005 @ 9:52 pm

    Hi Chuck,
    Thanks for posting this info, I was unaware of this lecture
    jay beilis
    (grandson)

  2. Chuck Said,

    December 11, 2005 @ 9:37 am

    Thanks for stopping by….I’ve been quite impressed by the film festival, and Waletzky and Maysles’ discussion was particularly valuable.

  3. jay beilis Said,

    December 11, 2005 @ 10:06 am

    Albert gave a similiar lecture last october at one of the Jewish museums here in New York. Not only did he not invite me to join the panel, he never introduced me to the audience when he knew I was there, so we’ve been kinda estranged since then.
    I guess he’ll cut me out of the movie,

    btw my aunt will be 97 in February & is still in good health

  4. Chuck Said,

    December 11, 2005 @ 10:33 am

    Glad to know that your aunt is in good health.

    IIRC, you were featured in the short rough cut I saw, and either Waletzky or Maysles spoke highly of the interaction.

  5. jay beilis Said,

    December 11, 2005 @ 11:55 am

    that’s interesting that I was in the trailer that you saw, I wasn’t in the one I saw. It featured the film he took in Kiev & a couple of brief clips of Rachel.
    Albert & I have met numerous times when he was gathering info for the project, Waletzky I never met or spoke to, but it sounds great that he
    ‘s involved in the project.

    Albert’s always crying that he needs money to finish the project, did he give any indication when he thought it might be completed? As you saw he’s not a young man anymore, I was just wondering.

  6. Chuck Said,

    December 11, 2005 @ 12:43 pm

    I don’t remember specifics in terms of the financial situation. I *think* they mentioned that they were still trying to raise money, which can be difficult for documentary filmmakers, of course. No specific completion date was mentioned, but it seemed like the project was progressing nicely.

  7. jdb242424 Said,

    December 11, 2005 @ 1:09 pm

    I’m sure that when “gimmie shelter” came out on DVD, he received more money than he’ll ever need, but you are probably aware that these guys dont like to spend their own money.

    When my grandfather came to this country he wrote his autobiography called ” The story of my sufferings” . Forty years later author Bernard Malamud came out with a book called “The Fixer” which John Frankinheimer released as a movie. In the book Malamud plagierized major portions of the original work & called it his own. If you’d like I can e-mail you my families position on what Malamud did, rather disgraceful

  8. Chuck Said,

    December 11, 2005 @ 1:55 pm

    Malamud’s use of the story came up during the discussion (I don’t remember the specifics). If you want to send me your family’s position on what happened, my email address is on the front page of the website.

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