NEW YORK — I doubt I’ll have stronger mixed feelings about a movie this year than Laura Fairrie’s documentary “Spiral,” an examination of the new wave of European anti-Semitism.
As one who is more attuned to this than the average American, I can say the film will be an effective tool for explaining to skeptics just how bad the problem has become, especially in France. I’m glad this movie exists — truly! (Keep that in mind as I commence to slam it over the next several paragraphs.)
There’s a rigid pomposity to the film’s narrative, which weirdly swerves from great sympathy to victim-blaming. It’s in the title: A spiral, while headed downward, is cyclical. It takes two to tango, Fairrie’s film suggests, and a partner in this dance of discrimination is the very existence of the Jewish state. It’s quite flabbergasting.
“Spiral” takes its time to get there, though. The film first introduces characters that only later reveal themselves to be connected. There’s a lawyer, Julien, who reminds us of some of the recent atrocities, such as the kosher market that acted as a “part two” of the Charlie Hebdo killings. Also the shootings at a Toulouse school; the first children killed on French soil specifically for being Jewish since World War II. Julien is the face of vigilance against this wave, and a hero.
Against this, a Parisian Jewish family leaving for Israel with their tail between their legs. They are seen as cowards, if not pawns of the manipulative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greedily rolling out the red carpet for what can only be no good, right?
The film makes it seem this way, as we meet a British family in an emerging settlement on the West Bank. Are the influx of immigrants reinforcements solely to steamroll the Palestinians? Reality tells us no. Even this movie’s barrage of news announcers claim that “the proportion of new immigrants who end up in the West Bank is around 4%.” But the preoccupation “Spiral” has with the Occupation is total.
Four percent isn’t an insignificant number. But where are the other 96%? Nowhere to be seen in this film. In fact, other than a blink of stock footage of a Tel Aviv beach, there’s nothing of that more mainstream Israel shown at all.
The filmmakers depict an Israel that is only West Bank settlements and Arab children looking longingly from the valley, talking about olive trees. Not a peep about the many rejected opportunities Arab leaders have had to pursue peace over the decades. That sort of context isn’t seen in this movie.
Other characters we meet include a Franco-Muslim community leader who has nothing but contempt for Jews, and whose antipathy toward a community that seems insular in never confronted. A Jewish teacher at the local school tells kids that just because they “feel” like there is anti-Semitic prejudice, they need to pin down specifics, then are lectured about how much worse French society used to be.
Even Dieudonné, the repulsive (alleged) comedian whose shock antics about the Holocaust have repeatedly earned him fines, gets his moment to pull off his mask and speak a little less heinously. On stage, he is a Nazi sympathizer. For Fairrie’s cameras, he is a calm, borderline-reasonable individual arguing the importance of representing those who feel like “the system” offers them nothing.
I don’t buy it, and I hate that I’m even being asked to try.
We eventually see how Julien is the lawyer that is prosecuting Dieudonné, just as we learn that the teacher and community leader, who have more in common than they realize, are literally on opposite sides of a guarded wall. This fits in nicely for the theme of the spiral, but there are some times where maybe we don’t need to force a narrative for the good of a metaphor. This movie, while useful in parts, eventually spirals out of control.