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Behind the Headlines: Staking out the Information Highway, Wiesenthal Center Opens Film Branch

The Simon Wiesenthal Center is staking out a stretch of the information highway to put major events in the 3,500 years of Jewish history on theater screens, television and videocassettes.

“The goal of our new project is to use advanced visual and documentary technologies to reach the young, the unaffiliated, who never go to a synagogue, the disenfranchised and the people living in the most remote Jewish communities in the world,” says Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Wiesenthal Center.

The center’s new division is Moriah Films, a name that tradition identifies as the mount where Abraham was ordered to sacrifice Isaac, thus marking “the beginning of Jewish history,” Hier says.

On the first floor of the Wiesenthal Center, the center’s original Holocaust museum, since superseded by the Museum of Tolerance, has been converted into a small-scale Hollywood studio, where a staff of 11 is toiling to complete Moriah’s premier production.

Titled “Liberation,” the film’s scope is outlined by Hier:

“There are excellent documentaries on the Holocaust and excellent documentaries on the Allied liberation of Europe. There is no single film, however, that shows the two simultaneous events in parallel, and in a format and time frame that can be used, for instance, in public school classes.”

Indeed, the time line of the two events shows the same starting date. In January 1942, British and American commanders started their initial planning for the invasion of Europe, while in Berlin, the Nazis evolved the formal plan for the Final Solution for the Jews at the Wannsee Conference.

After viewing some 100,000 feet of documentary clips from archives in half a dozen countries, the producers and editors of “Liberation” are racing to complete the 100-minute documentary.

LOSING ONE WAR BUT WINNING THE OTHER

The film dramatically illustrates that while Adolf Hitler was losing the war on the fighting fronts, he was winning his war against the Jews.

On a tour of the Moriah studio, Hier, bubbly as a new father, discusses his rationale and plans for Moriah Films.

“There has recently been a revolution in the publication of wonderful books on Judaism and Jewish civilization, but there has been no such breakthrough in the mass-media field, which speaks the language of our time,” he says.

“The Jewish community is not producing films on Jewish history, and neither is Hollywood or Israel. When a Jew shops at the new media shelf, he must be able to find products on the Jewish experience,” Hier says.

For a fledgling studio mogul, Hier, together with his associates, does not have a bad track record. On his first outing, in 1981, the Wiesenthal Center’s “Genocide,” narrated by Orson Welles and Elizabeth Taylor, won an Oscar for best documentary.

A more specialized film, “Echoes That Remain,” chronicling the shtetl life of prewar Eastern Europe, was named best documentary at the Houston International Film Festival in 1990.

For “Liberation,” which will have its world premiere Sept. 8 at the Deauville Film Festival in France, Hier has reassembled much of the talent that created the two earlier films.

The credits include British filmmaker and graphic designer Arnold Schwartzman as director and co-producer, Richard Trank of the Wiesenthal Center as executive producer, the distinguished British historian Martin Gilbert as co-writer, and Carl Davis for the musical score. Hier is the co-producer and co-writer.

As in the previous films, prominent screen and stage names have donated their services as narrators of the film, including Whoopi Goldberg and British actors Ben Kingsley, Patrick Stewart, Miriam Margolyes and Jean Boht.

“Liberation” is expected to be the only newly produced film at the Deauville Festival, sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as a celebration of World War II Hollywood movies.

The American premiere is scheduled for Oct. 18 in Los Angeles; Dec. 7 in London and later in December in Paris.

‘PEOPLE ARE STARVED’ FOR JEWISH MATERIAL

Although news of “Liberation” has so far spread only by word of mouth, requests for screenings already have been received from Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Philadelphia and New York, according to Hier.

“People are starved for visual Jewish material,” he says.

The total budget for “Liberation” is $650,000, a pittance by Hollywood standards.

“Twentieth Century Fox spent that much on a party to launch Arnold Schwarzenegger’s new film, “True Lies,’ ” says Trank of the Wiesenthal Center. “To produce a television commercial for Coke or British Airways costs well over $1 million.”

Despite the modest figure, “Liberation” uses quite advanced technology, including the same six-channel sound system on CD-Rom used by Steven Spielberg in “Jurassic Park” and “Schindler’s List.”

The center plans to release the original “Liberation” score on a compact disc, and by the end of the year, the documentary will be reformatted for video and television in time for widespread use next May for the 50th anniversary of V-E Day, Hier hopes.

Current plans call for a new Moriah production every 16 months, says Hier, and he hopes to knock $100,000 off the current $650,000 tab by buying the film equipment that is now being rented.

Given the Wiesenthal Center’s main focus, productions in the immediate future will most likely deal with the Holocaust and immediate postwar period, such as the story of the Brichah, the illegal immigration to Palestine between 1945 and 1948.

However, Moriah’s “mandate” extends to the entire Jewish experience, says Hier, as he throws out the idea of a film on Moses Maimonides, the great philosopher and rabbinic authority of the Middle Ages.

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