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Two Academy Award winners will be present at the Jerusalem Theater Wednesday evening for the international premiere of their latest project, an up-to-the-minute documentary about growing anti-Semitism and Islamic extremism in Europe.
Members of the public snapped up hundreds of tickets to the event within hours of their becoming available, and more than a thousand Jerusalem residents and tourists are on the waiting list for the screening of Ever Again, the most recent documentary by the Simon Wiesenthal Center's film division, Moriah Films. Rabbi Marvin Hier, the center's founder and director, produced the film, which was directed by longtime Moriah filmmaker Richard Trank. The two men won Academy Awards for their work on The Long Way Home, the 1997 documentary about Israel's creation that won the best documentary Oscar the following year. Hier had previously won an Academy Award for Genocide, a 1981 Holocaust documentary narrated by Elizabeth Taylor and Orson Welles.
A former pulpit rabbi raised in Brooklyn, Hier has made a second career for himself producing documentaries about Jewish history, consistently enlisting the help of Hollywood heavyweights like Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Major studio chiefs are listed in Hier's rolodex and sit on Moriah's board of trustees, and the rabbi, sitting in a Jerusalem hotel in the days before Rosh Hashanah, proudly recounts amusing encounters with A-listers past and present. He fondly recalls a comment made backstage at the Academy Awards by Jack Lemmon, who spotted the yarmulke-wearing filmmaker with a golden statue and invited him over for a conversation. "They've changed the rules," Lemmon told Hier and another Academy Awards participant, Odd Couple co-star Walter Matthau. "In our day, you had to go to a good acting school to get one of these. Now you have to go to a good yeshiva."
Ever Again is the latest collaboration between Hier and Trank, a University of Southern California-trained director who began filming oral histories of the Holocaust for the Wiesenthal Center in the mid-Eighties. Their other documentaries include Echoes that Remain, about Eastern European Jewish culture before the Holocaust, and Beautiful Music, a recent short about a Jerusalem music teacher working with a blind and autistic Palestinian girl who's also a musical savant.
Ever Again is narrated by two-time Oscar winner Kevin Costner, who like all of Moriah's celebrity narrators donated his time to the project. Both Hier and Trank praised the Dances of Wolves actor for his contributions to the film, with Hier noting Costner's persistence in learning to pronounce some of the more difficult Muslim names included in the documentary.
Though many are names of radical Islamic instigators of violence against Jews and Israel, Ever Again also seeks comment from moderate Muslim writers and thinkers about rising anti-Semitism in Europe. The film interviews European political leaders including French interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy, a potential successor to French President Jacques Chiraques who warns, "We must not try to be too intellectual with anti-Semites. We must fight them, we must punish them."
Outspoken Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz also appears in the film, as do a childhood friend of Anne Frank and the Israeli-born father of reporter Daniel Pearl, whose videotaped beheading by Islamic radicals came shortly after the Wall Street Journal writer "confessed" his Jewish background to his captors.
Ever Again features footage of well-attended neo-Nazi music festivals in Germany, and a number of unnerving expressions of anti-Semitism in mainstream European and Arab media. While many viewers may remember reports about the 2002 Egyptian miniseries based on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, most will be shocked by more recent images of a French television audience laughing uproariously while a comedian dressed as a Hasidic Jew gives a Nazi salute and shouts, "Isra-heil!"
Hier and Trank selected a Succot premiere for Ever Again in hopes that foreign audience members spending the holiday Israel might be inspired to arrange screenings of the film in their own hometowns. Hier in particular has worked to widen the films' potential audience.
All of Moriah's documentaries have appeared on American television, he notes, adding that The Long Way Home will appear on over 170 American public television stations including in all the major markets in November. The documentaries have been remastered and will be available for purchase on DVD at Wednesday's premiere.
Hier hopes The Long Way Home will reach "tens of millions" of Americans by the end of its public television run, and notes that Moriah films have also aired on major television channels in China, India and Russia.
"The world has changed," says the rabbi, who clearly enjoys overseeing his films' distribution as much as their production. "Without the computer we can't function, but to say that the 3,500-year Jewish experience has nothing to contribute to the computer and the video and the DVD would be ridiculous." Hier declines to name more celebrities who might contribute to future documentaries, but he notes that "a number of other Hollywood stars on the A-list have indicated that they would like to narrate films for Moriah." The only member of both the clergy and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Hier says he has voted in every Oscar competition since 1981, but that he turned down an opportunity to serve on the Foreign Films Committee earlier this year because screenings were held on Shabbat.
Neither he nor Trank would directly admit to Oscar hopes for Ever Again, but its artistic impact clearly matters to both. Trank remembers filming a neo-Nazi parade in January in Magdeburg, Germany, where marchers held signs calling Allied bombings "the real Holocaust" of the Second World War.
"It angered me, it depressed me, it scared me," the director says. But he recalls that when he and the film crew returned to the town square, they found local protesters with brooms symbolically "sweeping" anti-Semitism out of their city. Many had brought their children, he said, using the parade as an opportunity to teach about the next generation of Germans about the evils of anti-Semitism.
"We're hoping that this film will make people want to take action," he said. "But I also hope we're able to give people some sense of empowerment."