Cabbies say the darnedest things. While many people have had a whole range of cabdriver conversations, most of us haven't had an eye-opener like the one filmmaker Marc Levin had with an Egyptian driver who told him that no Jews had died on 9/11. It's a "theory" which says that Israel warned all Jews working at the World Trade Center to stay home that day and is not only accepted as gospel in certain quarters but can also be traced to that ur-text of modern anti-Semitism, The Protocols of the Meetings of the Learned Elders of Zion. How Levin barnstorms from the 9/11 theory to the Protocols is far from neat or focused, but always enlightening and often surprisingly funny.
Although his resume boasts a healthy dose of gritty HBO non-fiction slices of low life, Levin doesn't disappear behind the camera - as is the standard for such work - he puts himself right in the thick of it. Levin listens in disbelief at Ground Zero as an activist repeats the 9/11 fallacy to him before launching into the standard-issue rant about how Jews control New York. Pointing out that Mayor Bloomberg's predecessor was Rudy Giuliani, the man doesn't miss a beat before saying, "You said it. Jew-liani." Later, Levin is chatting amiably with a white supremacist who proudly displays his warehouse of hate literature (Protocols of Zion on backorder) and determines that Rupert Murdoch must be Jewish. Evidence? He's a media mogul. Q.E.D.
The bright-eyed and brassy Levin is an excellent guide into this world of neo-Nazis and Muslim extremists where the Protocols - a fake concocted a century ago by czarist agents that purported to be a world domination blueprint from a meeting of Jewish leaders - is assumed to be one hundred percent true. He grounds us in a little family history, how he started obsessively researching JFK conspiracy theories around the time of his bar mitzvah and the anti-Semitism his father faced during the 1930s in Flatbush, before going out to interview extremists.
There are those who would argue that a subject like the Protocols demands the Frontline approach: plenty of bold-name interview subjects and starchy analysis, concluded by an utterly logical refuting. The problem is that people have been debunking the Protocols since the 1920s, and nothing seems to stop it, as Levin shows. Henry Ford excerpted the book in his Dearborn newspaper, Hitler incorporated them into the Nazi belief system, and as recently as 2003, a big-budget Egyptian miniseries adaptation was a huge hit across the Middle East. You can even buy it at Wal-Mart. Levin's response is to have more of a freewheeling take; get out there and talk to people, look at the whole spectrum of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and try to figure out what they have in common, besides a refusal to deal with reality.
A couple days after a Hamas leader was taken out by Israel, Levin hears about a meeting of Palestinians in Brooklyn and does the (to him) obvious thing: Get down to that powder keg with a camera crew and talk to people; never mind that nice-looking lady who's putting up the "Nazi=Israel" sign with dripping blood on it. He debates Masonic/Jewish world conspiracy theories with thugged-out Arab-Americans in Jersey, does a bemused guest appearance on a radio show hosted by the creator of "Jew Watch" website, and even talks to born-again Christians about the old "Jews Killed Christ" blood libel after they all watched The Passion of the Christ. And finally, in a probably vain attempt to prove the conspiracists wrong, he talks to the widow of a Jewish man who died on 9/11.
Even with his somewhat slipshod and director-centric approach (Levin's gutsy shock trooper persona occasionally tastes of ham), he deserves credit for having tackled this slippery and nauseating subject in such a head-on fashion. The film knows when to take the ridiculous as humorous - the white supremacist who says, in reaction to the idea that Hitler could have been anti-Semitic out of a desire to kill the Jewish part of himself, by saying, "I don't think he was suicidal" - and when to be deadly serious - the Malaysian Prime Minister's racist 2003 speech on Jewish world domination which was basically a Xerox copy of the Protocols. Levin's referencing of murdered reporter Daniel Pearl is less part of his argument than a guide for behavior, a kindred spirit who refuses to hide or fight, and wanted only to engage.