Tuesday, November 17, 2009

American Radical at Cinema Politica

Cinema Politica continues its run of excellent documentary film screenings with American Radical, the Trials of Norman Finkelstein by David Ridgen and Nicolas Rossier. Finkelstein is an outspoken critic of Israel's policies on the Palestinians and Lebannon. He is also the author of a number of controversial books, including the very ominously titled the Holocaust Industry. He has been called self-hating, self-loathing, and a number of other adjectives of this sort by those who have difficulty with the idea that a man of Jewish descent whose parents were Holocaust survivors has critiqued and lambasted long cherished Jewish icons and rallying points. In consequence, Finkelstein has had difficulty securing a permanent academic position and has nomadically traveled from New York to Chicago and back again, seeking a place of employment.

I am not familiar with Finkelstein's work nor am I knowledgeable about the conflicts between Israel and Palestine. I read the papers and hear the news, same as anyone else. However, with a deep appreciation for history and personal experience in academia, I am well aware that the situation is extremely complex. The film does try to present Finkelstein as a scholar who backs up his conclusions with serious research, but has a tendency to use inflammatory language. I, for one, can not comment if the filmmakers are correct on those points. I can not even comment if they are biased or not, or if their implied message -- that Finkelstein's situation is a question of academic freedom -- is valid.

However, as a film, I did find myself rather fascinated by a portrait of an unpopular and hermit-like scholar. I was impressed with his willingness and openness to face opponents in debate. I liked the fact they did not try to portray him as a hero, but rather as a man who questions his choices. There were also some half-hearted studies of psychoanalysis, on the relationship of Finkelstein to his politically vocal mother. If nothing else, though I know little of Finkelstein's scholarship, I did get a sense of the difficulty of his life and the precarious position in which he finds himself. I am more interested in learning more about the issues he seems so adamant about, if only to see if I agree with him. On the other hand, I don't think his dismissal from Hunter College and De Pauw was handled adequately by the filmmakers. If there intent was to question academic freedom, they barely scratched the surface of the situation. On the other hand, if they wanted to indicate that Finkelstein has alienated himself through his controversial viewpoints -- I certainly think they did an excellent job.

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