Shame on the MPAA

The only good that may come out of the MPAA’s shortsighted decision to give the documentary “A Film Unfinished” an R rating is that the spurt of controversy the action has caused might make more people aware of this important and powerful film.

Last night the Simon Wiesenthal Center screened the movie,  Afterwards I interviewed director Yael Hersonski on stage and moderated a Q & A between her and the 200 or so people in attendance.

Now I read that the MPAA has reaffirmed its initial R rating for “A Film Unfinished,” after a protest by the filmmakers and survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto, and I am astounded.  An R rating means that teenagers who might otherwise see the movie will not be able to—most schools do not show R rated movies, People who are morally opposed to R movies—a broad swath of the Christian community—will refrain from seeing it.  It’s not like millions of people line up to see most documentaries, so the number of people this will affect is likely small, but the message it sends is lousy. To give a movie of such historic and moral import an R does a deep disservice to Holocaust education, and sets a dangerous precedent.  The younger generation takes in most of its information through moving digital images, and A Film Unfinished is fundamentally about how those images can be used to deceive.

The film first shows footage taken by the Nazis inside the Warsaw Ghetto, where 400,000 mostly Polish Jews were imprisoned during World War II, before being ultimately deported to Treblinka concentration camp, where the Germans murdered them.  The footage, recovered from an East German archive and labeled simply, “Ghetto,” shows a deceptively benign place where Jewish life continues almost as normal.  Then Hersonski shows footage of more recent footage, a missing reel or two of out takes from the original film, which shows the truth behind “Ghetto’s” lies.  This footage shows clearly that the first film contained staged sequences with outside actors and multipole takes.  In other words, the Nazis created a fiction film under the guise of documentary, to propagate a completly fake “historic record” of the ghetto and Jews.  If they had won the war, this would have passed for Ken Burns.

Hersonki pieces this all together in a concise, gripping and thoughtful way.  In conversation last night, she speculated that the purpose of the movie was to be a kind of film archive of the soon to be extinct Jewish people.  Her interest in how films and the notions of archive can be used to twist truth led her to make the movie. You can read more about why, in her own words, here.

What a slap in the face the rating is to a film as good as this and a filmmaker as serious. There are two scenes of nudity—dead bodies and prisoners made to enter a ritual bath nude—but in context these scenes are entirely appropriate and educational, if painful.

I asked Hersonski if there’s anything the public can do to convince the MPAA to change its mind.  She said no.  In that case, just make sure you see the movie.