LOS ANGELES, Feb. 4 (JTA) – A film about a Jew who becomes the leader of an anti-Semitic gang has won the highest honor for dramas at the Sundance Film Festival.

“The Believer” focuses on a rebellious Hebrew school student and Bar Mitzvah boy who later heads the neo-Nazi gang.

Incredible as it may sound, the movie, which was originally titled “The Jewish Nazi,” is based on a true story.

In the 1960s, a New York Times reporter interviewed neoNazi Daniel Burros, arrested at a Ku Klux Klan rally, on a tip that the racist tough guy was actually Jewish. When the reporter revealed Burros’s ethnic identity in his story, Burros put a gun to his head and killed himself.

Writerdirector Henry Bean, who wrote the 1998 hit “Enemy of the State,” was fascinated by Burros’s strange dualism and created the conflicted character of Danny Balint.

As revealed in a series of flashbacks, the adolescent Danny is a spirited Hebrew school student who challenges his teacher’s lessons on the Bible and eventually is expelled. From that point, he rejects his childhood background until he becomes the charismatic and physically fearless leader of a band of skinhead thugs.

But Danny is not your usual selfhater. Even while trashing a synagogue, he finds himself protecting the Torah from his brutish gang members. He even continues to study the bible and Hebrew, telling his girlfriend that he does so to truly understand “the enemy.”

At the same time, as the gang’s bright and highly articulate leader, Danny at times surpasses even his followers’ antiSemitism.

Talking to a reporter, he attacks three famous Jews – Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein – as having imposed “communism, infantile sexuality and the atom bomb” on mankind.

In an interview with the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, director Bean traced his own evolution from his early years in a “very, very Reform” Philadelphia home to a “rinkydink” Bar Mitzvah celebration, and finally to rejection of the synagogue.

Due mainly to the influence of his wife, a screenwriter and daughter of a rabbi, Bean now attends a Conservative synagogue and keeps a kosher home.

In the screen character of Danny Balint, Bean found some echoes of his own adolescent conflicts, pushed to the ultimate extreme.

“The idea that you could try, however futilely and catastrophically, to be two things at once, a living contradiction, a thing and its opposite, was a magical moment in my life,” he said. “I had found the conceit for some deep, visceral thoughts I had never been able to express before.”

Trying to assemble a cast and crew for “The Believer,” Bean found that its central theme was too inflammatory and offensive for some. His first choice for the title role refused, and a script supervisor and a member of the crew pulled out of the production.

Bean also changed the film’s title, acknowledging that it could be difficult to rent locations to shoot a movie called “The Jewish Nazi.”

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