Rabbi Elisar Admon of the Jewish Burial Society discusses the 2018 Pittsburgh shooting in the documentary
Rabbi Elisar Admon of the Jewish Burial Society discusses the 2018 Pittsburgh shooting in the documentary "Viral."

The movie, which dives into anti-Semitism in the U.S., U.K., France and Hungary, will have its television premiere on PBS May 26. 

Michelle Sheridan

The new documentary Viral: Antisemitism in Four Mutations examines four different iterations, or “mutations,” of anti-Semitism across the globe today. Its director, Emmy-winning filmmaker Andrew Goldberg, trains his focus on the political far-right in the U.S.; the far-left members of the United Kingdom’s Labour Party; a government-backed propaganda campaign in Hungary; and Islamic extremism in France.  

Goldberg has directed and produced other films on Judaism and anti-Semitism, including 2007’s Anti-Semitism in the 21st Century: The Resurgence. He spoke to the Jewish News ahead of Viral’s TV debut.  

This interview has been condensed and edited.  

JN: What was the inspiration behind this film? Why did you decide to make it? 

Andrew Goldberg
Andrew Goldberg

Goldberg: After the [2016] election, there were a number of indicators that showed anti-Semitism was on the rise. There were anecdotal examples we started hearing more about, and there was a whole cycle of bomb threats. Now, those bomb threats turned out to be bogus, but it drew a lot of attention to the subject. And when you started to put eyeballs on the issue itself, you saw statistics going up, incidents going up, concern going up… And it just sort of suddenly raised eyebrows that there was a change in tenor in the conversation, certainly here in the United States. And when we looked internationally, we started to see that the same thing was happening, but each different country had its own variant, if you will, and its own mutation. And that’s kind of what gave us the idea for “Viral — that this affliction in each country was the same premise but a different expression. 

JN: How did you decide which countries — which mutations, to include? 

Goldberg: We looked at a lot of countries, but these… were just four very clear examples. We had anti-Semitism on the right in the United States; on the left in England. We had it from the government in Hungary and then we had it from Islamists in France… We felt that those are the four most relevant examples for right now.  

There were other things that came up —  for example, you had a situation in France called the Yellow Vests, which it was never really clear whether they were on the left or the right or some combination. They were using language of the right, yet they also were from a lot of leftist political camps. And so you had this kind of convergence of the left and the right and an entire lack of clarity as these antisemitic expressions were taking place… But we felt that these sort of four were the most emblematic, I think, of where the conversation was today. 

JN: How did making this movie feel different or similar to making your first film about anti-Semitism? 

Goldberg: Every year at the Seder, my relatives would bring up other examples of hate, other examples of bigotry, other examples of racism, other examples of anti-Semitism… I find that it’s all kind of similar. I mean, people just continue to spew hate, and we do our best to report on it and try to cover it. And there’s an awful lot of overlap. So it was different in the architecture and it was different in the structure, it was different in some of the technology, but the stories are very similar. We’re interviewing perpetrators and victims and experts, and that doesn’t really change.  

JN: How long did it take to film this movie, from start to finish?  

Goldberg: Three years, but it would have been shorter if we didn’t have [the] Pittsburgh and Poway [synagogue shootings], because that really sort of changed the conversation. I mean, keep in mind that when we started this film, those things hadn’t even happened yet.  

In the process of making this film, a woman was thrown from her window to her death and France and more and more statistics came out of France, and then the Hungarian campaign went up significantly. And the antisemitism in the Labor Party just got louder and louder and louder, and here in the United States then we had shootings. I felt like we were playing Whack-A-Mole, because we couldn’t keep up with the reports. And every time we would want to sort of close off a section, something new would happen and we’d find ourselves chasing a statistic or a quote. 

We have very, very few data points in the film, because to us it’s more of a sort of a thematic idea… it isn’t just a statistical number. We wanted it to be able to last longer.  

JN: You were one of the only filmmakers allowed into the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh to talk to the people involved after the shooting.  

Goldberg: We were just very respectful in our requests and they were ultimately granted. And I think, you know, we didn’t want to retraumatize anybody. I mean, it was a very important thing for us to do it in as sensitive a way as we possibly could.  

JN: And how did you interview the survivors sensitively? That must’ve been really difficult.  

Goldberg: It wasn’t so much that the interviews were sensitive… We knew that Pittsburgh was going to be — that Pittsburgh is still — traumatized by this event. We wanted to sort of present it in a somewhat neutral and calm way. We didn’t want to sort of weigh in with any extensive descriptions.  

This film is unlike many, many others because you’re pulling in issues of race, issues of religion, issues of very passionate ideas and ideologies, politics from many, many countries, the Arab Israeli conflict. And you have to sort of distill it down to very, very carefully selected soundbites and scripting. I mean, everything is so careful. But you’re never going to get it right. It’s like walking a tightrope, and, you know, the right people say you’re too far to the left and the left people say you’re too far to the right and the progressives say that you’re too sympathetic to capitalism and the capitalists say you’re too sympathetic to socialism and it just never ends… there’s no real place to stand. It’s impossible.  

JN: What is your target audience for this film?  

Goldberg: I think that it’s important that as many people see it as possible, so they’re educated… I believe that the well-informed populace is really the best starting place to move forward.  

Viral: Antisemitism in Four Mutations premieres on PBS May 26 and will be available for streaming on PBS Passport following its TV debut. 

 

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