Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Disturbing return to Romania

BILL BROWNSTEIN
The Gazette-Montreal

Filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici doesn't really set out to ruffle feathers, but invariably he does. As a consequence of his controversial, Gemini Award-winning The Lost Tomb of Jesus (produced by Titanic director James Cameron) or the recent Emmy Award-winner Sex Slaves, among other documentaries, Jacobovici flies farther above the radar than most in his field."It's not like I set out to create the biggest ruckus I can," says Jacobovici, now based in Toronto.

"I'm an investigative journalist, trying to tell stories. I can't worry about how people will react to my work. Let the publicity chips fall where they may."Jacobovici's latest, Charging the Rhino, which is being aired tonight at 10 p.m. on Vision TV in conjunction with Holocaust Education Week, is certain to stir up a tempest in Romania.

Jacobovici takes a poignant, sobering look back at the role of Romanians during the Holocaust. And this time, his film is entirely personal. Jacobovici's roots are Romanian. Or were. Almost all his family was gunned down in June 1941. They were among the thousands of Jews dragged off to police headquarters in Iasi, Romania, and then murdered. By the grace of a bullet missing his heart by mere centimetres, Jacobovici's father miraculously survived, then slipped out of the country. The only other member of his immediate family to avoid death that day was his cousin Sasha, who decided to stay put in the country and later became part of the socialist revolution.

Before Romania allied itself with Nazi Germany, there were 700,000 Jews in the country. It is estimated that more than 400,000 were killed after this alliance. Today, the Jewish community in Romania numbers about 10,000 - mostly senior citizens.

Jacobovici's father, once a winemaker in Romania, eventually surfaced in Montreal, where he worked as a cab driver. He died 11 years ago. Cousin Sasha went on to become a distinguished professor in Romania, but later became so disillusioned with a wave of anti-Semitism initiated by the country's communist regime that he staged a symbolic robbery. He was executed shortly thereafter.

Jacobovici and his sister Sara felt compelled to visit their ancestral roots in Romania to try to rid themselves of their demons. To their horror, they discovered that the Iron Guard, Romania's fascist group at the forefront of that country's Holocaust, still existed and had an office. Not only did the Iron Guard spokesman that Jacobovici met deny the Holocaust, but he also attributed the death of Jews to Zionists killing non-Zionists.

"This was a disturbing film for me, so different from anything I've done, because I was just so close to the subject," Jacobovici says. "That's why I felt it was necessary to work with another director, Bruce Thorson."On the plus side, at least I was able to put up a plaque, in public, commemorating the deaths of Romania's Jews in the Holocaust. It has also been encouraging to see that at least some elements of Romanian society are trying to come to terms with the country's past. My hope is that Romania will acknowledge what it had done. But there are other elements who believe that whoever fought the communists are now good guys. The fact that some of those guys were Nazis, well, so be it, they feel."

Try as he might to warm up to the country, Jacobovici could never shake a sense of betrayal. "It was just so strange going to a place where I had a sense of belonging, but in another sense where I was a total outsider. And, of course, there was the ultimate rejection in that they gunned down my family except for my father and my cousin. On top of that, in the end, the very revolution that my cousin helped create turned against him.

"Jacobovici is expecting some backlash from Romanian authorities, but not on the same level as the reaction to The Lost Tomb of Jesus. Shockwaves are still being felt over his and Cameron's claims in that documentary to have located the tomb of Jesus. Theologians were aghast. Scholars scoffed. Yet Jacobovici stands by the film's thesis."Many people say it couldn't be the tomb of Jesus, because he rose," states Jacobovici, a McGill grad and co-author of the bestselling The Jesus Family Tomb, a companion book to the film. "That's theology. I don't get into that. For me, it's about the archeology. And the archeology, the statistics, the DNA, the patina - not a single scholar has been able to poke one hole in the science we did. No epigrapher has challenged the readings of the inscriptions on the ossuaries."

No surprise that all the controversy resulted in more than4 million viewers catching The Lost Tomb of Jesus on the Discovery Channel in the U.S. last March. Canadians also took it in on Vision TV a little later."But there was such pressure brought to bear in the U.S. that Discovery Channel only showed it that one time," Jacobovici says. "I'm happy to hear that there will now be a symposium on the subject. From instant dismissal to academic debate - let the facts fall where they may."

Charging the Rhino airs tonight and Saturday at 10 p.m. on Vision TV. The Lost Tomb of Jesus re-airs on Vision TV Nov. 12 at 9 p.m. and midnight, and Nov. 17 at 8 p.m.bbrownst@thegazette.canwest.com

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