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A production company owned by accused anti-Semite Mel Gibson is developing a TV miniseries about the Holocaust, The New York Times reported Tuesday. Con Artists Productions, Gibson's television production company, has been brought in by American TV network ABC to produce the miniseries, though Gibson's precise role in the project is not yet clear.
One of Hollywood's most bankable stars over the past two decades, Gibson ignited one of the film industry's most acrimonious controversies last year with The Passion of the Christ, a film some critics and Jewish groups accused of promoting anti-Semitic interpretations of Jesus' crucifixion. The controversy helped launch the film to massive box office success and makes Gibson's production company a surprise choice to produce the new miniseries, which will be based on the story of Flory A. Van Beek, a Dutch Jew who spent the Holocaust in hiding but lost family members in the Nazi camps. After surviving the sinking of a passenger liner torpedoed by a German submarine, Van Beek and her husband returned to Holland, where they spent three years in hiding with the help of three Christian families.
Con Artists Productions was recruited to produce the miniseries after ABC rejected another Holocaust-themed production pitched by Gibson's company. The new project, based on Van Beek's 1998 memoir, Flory: Survival in the Valley of Death, was first suggested to the network by Daniel Sladek, an independent producer whose Jewish father spent WWII in hiding in Slovakia and later became a personal friend of Van Beek and her husband.
Gibson, who won two Academy Awards for his work on 1995 blockbuster Braveheart, is currently at work on Apocalypto, a feature film set before the arrival of Spanish conquerors in Mexico and South America. Scheduled for release next year, the film reportedly uses a Mayan-language script - a move likely to have raised eyebrows if not for the astonishing commercial success of The Passion of the Christ, which became the tenth-highest grossing film of all time in North America despite being filmed primarily in Aramaic, an ancient language now spoken by fewer than one million people worldwide.
But language was hardly the only distinctive feature of The Passion, which earned condemnation from the Anti-Defamation League and some religious scholars for its graphic rendering of Jesus' final hours on earth, during which he suffers gruesome beatings and is nailed to the cross with the seeming approval of his fellow Jews. Gibson denied any anti-Semitic intentions behind the film's production, saying that the script was written merely to provide viewers with an accurate sense of Jesus' suffering and martyrdom.
Opponents of the film criticized its portrayal of its Jewish characters and said they feared it would add to a resurgence in global anti-Semitism. A popular source of entertainment in medieval Europe, passion plays were historically used to promote anti-Semitism, and performances often contributed or led directly to anti-Jewish violence.
Gibson's family and personal beliefs also came under fire during the lead-up to The Passion's release, with critics noting the star's affiliation with a traditionalist Catholic movement that rejects the Second Vatican Council, the 1965 Church decision which overturned previous doctrine by saying that Jews collectively should not be held responsible for Jesus' death. Gibson was also criticized for not publicly rejecting statements by his father in which he denied the Holocaust and claiming the genocide had been fabricated by "financiers" seeking to facilitate the movement of Jews to Palestine.
A Holocaust denial expert quoted in the Times' article called the upcoming miniseries a "cause for concern."
Quinn Taylor, ABC's senior vice president of movies for television, said that Gibson's polarizing recent work had been a consideration in Con Artists' enlistment, but that having the controversial figure attached to the project could help bring greater attention to the Holocaust story at the miniseries' center.
"Controversy publicity, and vice versa," Taylor said.