Film Review: Spiral

An off-putting and dishonest documentary about the rise of anti-Semitism in France that offers no new insights and in the end largely confirms stereotypes about Jews.
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The most shocking thing about the documentary Spiral, which purports to explore the rise of anti-Semitism in France, was its New York premiere at the Jewish Community Center (JCC). In a rational world (which this isn’t), the only reason for a respected cultural institution like the JCC to present this disingenuous film would be as an object lesson, to demonstrate how insidious expressions of anti-Semitism work onscreen. This film’s a handbook. Regrettably, that was not JCC’s intention, though it’s not entirely clear what its purpose was short of displaying how “broad-minded” it is.

Spiral is a classic example of diffuse, all-over-the-map storytelling that avoids addressing its fraught subject in any fresh way; indeed, the core topic often disappears from the narrative altogether. There are so many other equally deserving victims to consider.

Don’t get me wrong. The filmmakers believe that anti-Semitism is certainly unfortunate (and of course they abhor it), but they also believe it needs to be viewed in a larger context: the nationalistic/religious/tribal fear, distrust and bigotry that flourishes on all sides, and the role Jews have played in creating the problem thanks to their own insularity and paranoia, not to mention the Israeli occupation in Gaza. In the end—to top it all off—the movie suggests that the existence of anti-Semitism in France is wildly exaggerated.

Anti-Semitism is undoubtedly a hornet’s nest and it’s possible the creative team was simply over its head—artistically and historically—though it seems far more likely that the players had a clearly defined viewpoint going in and the film was made to support it.

The filmmakers are not novices. Producer John Battsek runs Passion Pictures, a production company that has won two Academy Awards (and been nominated four times), an Emmy and a Peabody, among many other honors. Director Laura Fairrie is also an award-winning documentary maker (The Battle for Barking, Taking on the Tabloids).

The film’s disturbing trailer, featuring neo-Nazi comic Dieudonne M’bala M’bala mocking Hitler’s victims with dancing and cartoons, and a teenage girl who vlogs, “There is no race that is as destructive as the Jew,” sets the stage for the bait-and-switch that characterizes the film itself.

The movie begins promisingly enough with a voiceover noting the 700,000 Jews who live in France and the fact that France is home to Europe’s biggest Jewish population. We’re told synagogues have been attacked, allegedly in response to political tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, and that a 67-year-old Jewish woman and an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor were brutally murdered. Archival footage features large demonstrations protesting anti-Semitism.

The picture then zeroes in on a handful of “characters,” including a secular Jewish family that identifies itself first and foremost as French but feels compelled to immigrate to Israel in the face of rising anti-Semitism; an Orthodox Jew, an instructor in a private girls’ school; and a French Jewish attorney who heads a legal team prosecuting the aforementioned Dieudonne M’bala M’bala on the grounds that his material is anti-Semitic and incites hate crimes. We also hear from an Islamic community leader who works in the Muslim section of Sarcelles, home to Africans and Jews, and from disenfranchised French Muslim youth.

This is one equal-opportunity film, and depending on your viewpoint you’ll walk away thinking it’s all very “complex” (a spin sure to make you feel cosmopolitan) or, more likely, that the problems it shows are largely the fault of the Jews (a spin to make you feel even more cosmopolitan).

Case in point: Throughout the movie, French Jewish youngsters are shown as bigoted, intolerant and fearful on the basis of nothing real, just plain old indoctrination at the hands of their bigoted, intolerant and fearful parents. And, in the event we’ve missed the point, their Orthodox teacher (beard, yarmulke, the whole bit) challenges them, making it clear that in his view their reactions to Muslims are not valid. Even he recognizes how Jewish kids are pre-programmed to be prejudiced and he warns against its dangers.

Here’s another: the film’s treatment of the African “comic” M’bala M’bala, a sinister and grotesque figure and all the more horrifying in light of his international following. Instead of exploring him as a significant—and cinematically compelling—phenomenon that expresses old-school and singularly new brands of anti-Semitism (arguably, he’s the contemporary face of Céline), he’s treated once-over-lightly as if his presence on the scene is of negligible consequence. Hey, he’s just venting about the Muslim’s marginalized status in France compared with Jews who are assimilated—though the same Jews are also charged with being insular. And then there’s his “understandable” reaction to Israeli activities on the West Bank. To back up his rage, Palestinian political figures and Arab protestors are interviewed, as are Jewish settlers—the latter busy arming themselves while recounting their Biblical right to the land. As embodiments of extreme views, they’ve been set up as straw men. Interestingly, this film is strikingly devoid of more measured pro-Israeli viewpoints.

According to one woman in the audience who lived in France and spoke at the Q&A that followed the screening, the film also assiduously eschews mentioning anti-Semitic critiques that appear in the French newspapers on an almost daily basis.

Not surprisingly, the Q&A’s supercilious guest speaker, one Adam Shatz, who very much admires the film—he’s a former professor, contributing editor at The London Review of Books and The New Yorker, among others—disputed her claim. In fact, he said the French family that was relocating to Israel was delusional, hallucinatory in its self-imposed terror. The discomfort in the audience with Shatz, and with the film itself, was palpable.

Asked how Spiral was faring in finding a home, Shatz admitted that it was not easy, because many theatre owners were concerned that their audiences might find it anti-Semitic. How provincial can they be?

A touch: The film is being released in New York at Quad Cinema, whose real-estate mogul owner Charles S. Cohen is one of the film’s producers.

Click here for cast and crew information.