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<!>"I thought The Believerwas going to be a comedy," says veteran screenwriter Henry Bean, referring to his controversial directorial debut about a Jewish neo-Nazi. "I think a Jewish Nazi is a funny idea. The basic gag is: The harder he tries to be a Nazi, the more Jewish he becomes."
Not everyone has gotten Bean's joke. Though The Believerwon the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, the movie won't reach theaters until May 17, well over a year after its celebrated premiere. (It will first play on Showtime March 17.) Whether The Believerwas too provocative or simply too ambiguous in its message about Jewish identity, the movie has strayed from the easy path of most Sundance winners, instead getting sidetracked by religious controversy and corporate politics.
"Look, I knew it might be inflammatory, but I thought, 'This is good Torah,' " says Bean, 56, whose writing credits include cop flicks Deep Coverand Internal Affairs. "The film doesn't resolve; it doesn't answer."
Based on the true story of American Nazi Party leader Daniel Burros, the film follows the exploits of Danny Balint, played by Ryan Gosling, a young skinhead who hides his Jewish background while committing violent anti-Semitic acts. Bean contends the film is about the conflicted experience of many American Jews. "Jewishness honors not only paradox and contradiction, but the spirit of self-criticism," Bean writes in the introduction to The Believer: Confronting Jewish Self-Hatred (to be published this month by Thunder's Mouth Press). He goes on to note the work of Lenny Bruce and Jackie Mason as influences, with their contrasting sides of Jewish pride and shame. Still, Bean always worried that the film could be misunderstood. "I was simply afraid that this love poem I was sending would be misread as a 'fuck you' note," he writes. "That like someone in an Ionesco play, or with a weird version of Tourette's, I was trying to say, 'I love you,' but what kept coming out of my mouth was, 'Fuck you.' "
At Sundance, Bean's fears faded. "It was quickly clear to me that people weren't offended," he says. "So as far as I knew, everybody saw the film the way I thought they would." With the award, the audience support, and the accompanying buzz, Bean and his producers expected the big distribution offers to start pouring in.
"Under these circumstances, you'd normally come out of Sundance with a blockbuster kind of a deal on the independent level," says Daniel Diamond, president of Fireworks Pictures, the company that produced the film and will release it this May through its own distribution venture, IDP. "But we were all scratching our heads: We knew we were up against some difficult politics."
With several distributors still on the fence according to Bean, the filmmakers then screened The Believerfor the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the powerful, L.A.-based institution that has given its blessing to such Jewish-themed films as Schindler's Listand American History X. Looking for supporters, they instead found detractors.
"This film does not work," says the center's associate dean, Rabbi Abraham Cooper. "For example, you are no more enlightened about the motivation of the Jewish Nazi at the end of the story than at the beginning." Cooper also objects to scenes of a hate crime in a synagogue, which he considers "over-the-top."
Bean, in part, blames the Wiesenthal Center for damaging a potential distribution deal with Paramount Classics, a division of Paramount Pictures. "I had a meeting with Paramount Classics three hours before I went to the Wiesenthal Center, and we thought we were going to make this deal," he says. "And the next day, [the Wiesenthal Center] talked to somebody at Paramount Classics; they said, 'It's a primer for anti-Semitism,' and that deal was dead."
Fireworks' Daniel Diamond claims that Paramount Classics' decision to back out came from higher up in the studio. "They loved the picture, and then everything ceased, because somewhere behind the gates of 5555 Melrose there was an upper-level management decision that changed all of that," says Diamond. "I think people got nervous that the picture was too much of a hot potato."
Paramount Classics declined to comment, but in an article published in The Jerusalem Post, David Dinerstein, co-president of the Classics division, said there was no such deal, and the opinions of the Wiesenthal Center played no part in their decision to turn down the movie.
Rabbi Cooper feels the whole incident was blown out of proportion and turned into a publicity ploy. "I guess the movie's makers felt that by going public with my opinion, they couldand didgive the impression we have a vendetta against The Believer," he says. "They apparently believed that this would be a great way to keep their movie in the public eye."
Indeed, The Believerdid not go away, and soon after, it was sold to cable TV network Showtime, no stranger to controversy, having handled such touchy titles as Lolitaand Bastard out of Carolina. While the filmmakers always hoped the film would go to a big art-house distributor, cable TV became their best option economically. "We had to consider the necessities of those who invested in the movie," says Diamond, "which in this case included the director." (Bean financed the film partially through money he made on a rewrite of Enemy of the State.) Showtime also means a larger and more diverse audience for the movie. "It meant a lot to me that it would be seen by more people than it ever would in theaters, and it would be different people given the demographics of Showtime," says Bean. "And I am excited about the prospects of those reactions."