February 18, 2020

L.A. Film Festival features a history of hate and an Israeli spy

As a schoolboy, Oren Jacoby once gave a research report about the Crusades, without “having any idea about the Jewish communities that were massacred. We were taught a sanitized version of events,” he said.

Now an acclaimed documentary filmmaker, Jacoby can safely be called an authority on the history and contemporary relevance of Christian European anti-Semitism. “Before, I was so naive,” he said. “I had wondered if this topic was something that would interest an audience in the 21st century, considering all the other problems in the world.”

Receiving its world premiere in the documentary competition at the L.A. Film Festival, Jacoby’s latest film, titled “Constantine’s Sword,” appears alongside other films featuring Jewish content, including: Julie Delpy’s “2 Days in Paris,” Jeffrey Blitz’s “Rocket Science,” Nadav Schirman’s “The Champagne Spy” and Richard Trank’s “I Have Never Forgotten You: The Life and Legacy of Simon Wiesenthal.”

“Constantine’s Sword” revolves around former Catholic priest James Carroll’s quest to understand both his personal history and how religion, politics and violence have intersected since the crucifixion of Jesus. Based on Carroll’s 2001 bestselling book and shot in four different countries, the film alternates between the past and present and includes poignant personal tales of Jewish persecution. Complex and ambitious in scope, the film also suggests provocative links between the history of Christian-fueled religious intolerance and the political clout of American Evangelical Christians, particularly in the recent story of Evangelicals infiltrating the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs and pressuring non-Christians to convert.

Prior to “Constantine’s Sword,” Jacoby had directed the Academy Award-nominated 2004 documentary “Sister Rose’s Passion,” which told the tale of a Catholic nun who played a pivotal role in convincing the church to renounce the belief that the Jews killed Jesus. Both films proved intellectually and emotionally humbling.

“I thought I had known all this stuff, that I had received a good education about Western history,” he said. “But they didn’t tell you in school how the Gospels actually got written or how the Spanish Inquisition influenced the entire world.”

In “Constantine’s Sword,” Carroll interviews an Italian Jewish man and his daughter whose family had been in Rome since the days of the Roman ghetto and prospered by supplying custom-made dishes to the Vatican. The story of Edith Stein, the brilliant Jewish philosopher turned Carmelite Nun who perished at Auschwitz, also gets retold but with a new twist: Jacoby had found a letter that Stein wrote to the pope, asking him to condemn Hitler’s anti-Semitic policies.

The letter had only recently been released by the Vatican, into the custody of an aging nun at a convent.

“I got goosebumps when the nun shared the letter with us,” Jacoby said. “It’s thrilling when you discover that the story you thought was there actually does exist, and when you have direct evidence of how people’s lives were affected by religious hatred.”

As for present-day scenarios of religious intolerance, the film includes some disturbing footage of an Evangelical youth minister whipping his congregation into a zealous fervor and an interview with a young Jewish man at the Air Force Academy who’s subjected to anti-Semitic slurs. Ted Haggard, the former and disgraced leader of the National Association of Evangelicals, makes several appearances while still at the peak of his powers. The smile that spreads across his face as he equates proselytizing with religious freedom will probably send chills down a few spines.

“Ted knew why we were interviewing him, and he got a kick out of the challenge,” Jacoby recalled.

“The Champagne Spy” began when Nadav Schirman read the autobiography of Ze’ev Gur Arie, a Mossad agent who posed as an ex-Nazi horse breeder to penentrate the circle of German scientists developing missiles in Egypt in the 1960s.

“He seemed like an [Israeli] James Bond,” said Schirman, who will appear at the festival courtesy of the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles, a festival sponsor. “He’d have these lavish, crazy parties on his ranch, and he secretly married a German woman he had met on a train.”

But eventually the spy was arrested and imprisoned; although he made his way back to Israel “he never really came home,” Schirman said.

Torn between identities and still addicted to the glamorous life, Gur Arie moved to Germany and ended his days, frustrated and impoverished, working as a salesman in a Munich department store.

Schirman — the son of an Israeli diplomat — was fascinated by the story, in part because, while living with his family in Paris in the 1980s, he had suspected that some of his parents’ friends were Mossad agents.

He experienced his own cloak-and-daggerish intrigue trying to track down Gur Arie to obtain the rights to his book four years ago.

“I heard all kinds of bizarre stories about him — that he was training mercenaries in Africa or selling weapons in South America,” Schirman said. “But I couldn’t find him.”

“Then one day a stranger sat down next to me, listened to my problem and asked for my phone number,” Schirman continued. “Some time later, he called and said ‘The man you’re looking for is dead, but he has a son, Oded, who is coming to Israel in two weeks. Here’s Oded’s phone number, he awaits your call’ — and then boom, he hung up.”

Two weeks later, Schirman found himself face-to-face with Oded Gur Arie.
The spy’s son had 8mm film clips he had shot when he was 12 — footage depicting his father’s secret visits to the Paris apartment Oded had shared with his mother. “Over time, you can see that Gur Arie was in a different place, and that he was becoming addicted to his new identity,” Schirman said of the clips.

In “The Champagne Spy,” Oded Gur Arie speaks publicly for the first time about the steep price he and his mother paid for his father’s work. Other ex-Mossad agents also appear on camera: Schirman believes he received unprecedented access to these former operatives because “my approach was not critical or to reveal procedures, but to focus on the emotional fallout of spying and its effects on the family.”

“Constantine’s Sword” screens June 24 and 29. For more information about the LA Film Festival, visit http://www.lafilmfest.com or contact (866) 345-6337.

Ted Haggard on human sexuality from “Constantine’s Sword.”