Two films from the recently completed Atlanta Jewish Film Festival confront historical events in the last century that have profoundly shaped contemporary Jewish life.
The first, “Holy Silence,” written and directed by the American filmmaker Steven Pressman, examines the influence that two popes of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Pius XI and Pope Pius XII, wielded just in the years leading up to and during World War II. It was nominated for the AJFF Human Rights Jury prize.
In particular, Pressman takes up the charge that Pope Pius XII did little or nothing directly to help Jews in Italy and elsewhere in Europe who perished in the Nazi death camps.
Pressman, whose previous film “50 Children” was shown at the AJFF in 2014 and also dealt with Holocaust history, was a guest at this year’s festival, where he described his documentary as an attempt to present Pope Pius XII in an even-handed way.
The AJT caught up with Pressman at the recent AJFF.
AJT: What did you mean by describing the film as an even-handed portrayal?
Pressman: I knew all along that the sort of weight of history, at least at this point, winds up being fairly critical in terms of how Pius XII has been viewed, vis-a-vis his response to the to the Holocaust. So, by even-handed, you know, I don’t mean to say that I felt the need to give sort of equal time to all sides and all opinions.
But I also want to add that I really never set out for this film to be solely about Pius XII, the first half of the film is focused on his predecessor, Pius XI, and the what-ifs and what might have happened had he issued this encyclical about anti-Semitism that he intended to issue just before he died in 1939. But also there are these American officials who were kind of working behind the scenes in Rome to try to influence what the Vatican was doing in terms of two very different popes.
AJT: Some of the Pius XII supporters have defended his silence during the Holocaust because he was fearful of what the Nazis would do to him and to the church if he spoke up for the Jews. What do you think?
Pressman: I think there’s a significant consensus among historians that he really probably wasn’t motivated all that much by fear, even though that was probably a factor in his mind, but that he really did seriously think of himself as a statesman, as a diplomat, as somebody who could be, for better or worse, rightly or wrongly, a peacemaker. He really did see himself as somebody who could potentially broker a peace between Germany and the Allies.
AJT: On March 2, the Vatican opened its archives of Pius XII official papers to scholars. There are some who believe the release of the papers will help support the case that the Pope did a lot behind the scenes to help Jews during the Holocaust.
Pressman: That is an issue that may be further clarified as people make their way through the archives of Pius XII. You know, Susan Zuccotti is the historian who makes that point that there’s really not been any strong evidence that the pope specifically directed Catholic institutions to open up their doors to Jews.
I do like to acknowledge that there are Catholic institutions and individual priests and nuns, certainly in Rome at that time, who did take Jewish refugees and were directly responsible for saving the lives of hundreds, if not thousands of Italian Jews.
But the issue here is, and the focus of this film is, directly on what the pope was doing or not doing, and we have not yet ever seen any evidence that the pope specifically gave the green light to those institutions to open up their doors to Jews who are trying to stave off being deported to the concentration camps.
Another film at this year’s festival dealt with a figure who influenced history, but in quite a different way. The Israeli docudrama, “Incitement,” won 10 of Israel’s prestigious Ophir Awards last year, including best picture. It was nominated for this year’s AJFF Narrative Jury Prize.
The film describes how a 25-year-old Jewish Israeli law student, Yigal Amir, plotted to kill Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995. He was said to have been encouraged by the views of radical religious figures, prominent politicians, and even his own mother.
The AJT spoke with director Yaron Zilberman at the AJFF.
AJT: How did you and Ron Leshem, who helped write the screenplay, reconstruct the two years that Amir spent preparing for the assassination?
Zilberman: We read everything and interviewed many people, including those in Amir’s family. I would say the first year we just researched before we wrote a single word in the script. We started to write the outline and then we went back to research.
We even talked with Amir in jail over a phone connection. So the research was extensive. There was at least five years of research that we did so that everything in the film was as accurate as we could make it.
AJT: What would you say that this film says about Israeli society and that one Jew could kill another Jew, who was the country’s most important leader?
Zilberman: For me, it’s not particular to Israel’s society or to Jews. I think it’s a general notion that it can happen any time you have a strong environment of incitement by politicians, by religious leaders, by university professors, to a level where you create a narrative where an assassination turns into something positive for those who believe in the narrative they’ve created.
I would say that it ignites the potential for extreme violence. So for me, that’s really what we’re seeing in this particular film.
AJT: Are the effects of this terrible tragedy, including Benjamin Netanyahu being accused in 1995 of encouraging Israelis to demonize Rabin, still being felt in the political life of Israel?
Zilberman: Absolutely. I see a straight line between that tragedy and today’s situation in Israeli society. Yitzhak Rabin was a leader for peace, a leader for change in the region. And therefore, I think that creates a division, between those who are interested in continuing to discuss with the Palestinians and try to engage in a real discussion. For those who are not interested in that discussion, the assassination stopped that process in a significant way. I think absolutely the effects are still with us. The answer is yes.