Film Reviewed by James Eliopulos – 14 Sep 2009

The Anatomy of Hate – A Film by Mike Ramsdell

Film Reviewed by James Eliopulos.
Published at TheWho.com – Monday September 14, 2009.
Submitted for editorial review to The LAist – Tuesday September 15, 2009

The City of Los Angeles was indeed fortunate to have this powerful, important, disturbing and ultimately life affirming film presented by it’s director Mike Ramsdell and editor Ellen Goldwasser at the Cinema City International Film Festival held at the Century Plaza Hotel on Saturday September 12.

But what a dreadful film it turns out to be for a reviewer to see just when he has resolved to try and cut back on the use of hyperbolic adjectives and adverbs. I’ll save that exercise for the next film. This time out I have to say I don’t know when I have seen a better, more moving, insightful and important documentary. If you can see this – anyway, anyhow, anywhere – you need to do that. Unlike many of my rants, this film isn’t about left or right. In all truth, it isn’t even a political film at all. The Anatomy of Hate instead looks deeply into madness from all points along the political, religious and racial spectrum so that it might better take the viewer to a most terrifying place inside each of the films subjects – the place that allows them to justify hate and killing to themselves.

Ramsdell undertakes to capture several interesting and sometimes scary (and sometimes real scary because of sounding so calm and, can we really say it? . . .Human) groups of people and allow them to express their own feelings regarding their particular religious/political beliefs and the political/religious/racial/lifestyle groups they are organized against. His subjects included: White Supremacists, an anti-gay Christian group (a church that holds celebrations at funerals of returning dead American soldiers because those soldiers fought for a country that tolerates homosexuality, and so is evil in God’s eyes), Israeli Defense Force soldiers, Israeli’s who have lost loved ones in suicide bombings, members of Palestinian resistance groups and a man who murdered a woman while engaged in a violent, angry assault.

What was most unique about the film and differentiated it from what might erroneously be presumed to be similar ‘behind the scenes/truth revealed’ documentaries was Ramsdell’s commitment to not make caricatures of anyone and to essentially to make no judgments. Not that some conclusions (about people, about life and about causes) won’t be reached. They just won’t be what the viewer expects, even from him or her self. And they won’t be dictated to the audience by Ramsdell. He makes no intellectual or political arguments in terms of his own intrusion into the film. He doesn’t ask any (or at least not very many) questions of his subjects. Ramsdell lets the American Nazi’s talk. And he lets the Palestinian suicide bomber talk. And the kibbutz dweller. And the head of the church that believes 9/11 was God’s judgment on the USA because we allow gays to live openly . . . or maybe just to live. In a brilliant and ultimately powerful directorial decision Ramsdell let’s them all explain how their enemy (the Jew, the black, the Palestinian, the gay) is less than human. And you come to see how all of that (meaning the objectification and subsequent dehumanization of another person or group) is a fundamental prerequisite for most of us taking a human life, other than in self defense or madness.

The interviews with the film’s ‘subjects’ are interspersed with significant commentary from some brilliant scholars and thinkers. Sam Keen, Terrence Deacon (University of California), Sheldon Solomon (Skidmore College) offer gentle yet powerful insight and understanding into the disturbing reality of how the (im)proper mix of differentiation, diminished understanding and fear can capture and possess logic and hold it hostage to anger and violence.

In another masterstroke of ‘film-making-as-art-and-force-for-life’ Ramsdell’s commentators (who also come across as men deeply committed to Life) are not explaining away or laughing at any of the films subjects. Instead they talk about the roles of neurology and semantics and culture in creating the fear response, how political / cultural / religious movements can manufacture and exploit fear, and how continued exposure to a heightened sense of fear can turn into other emotions and mindsets – including hate. The film includes several references to and quotes from Ernest Becker’s 1973 masterpiece Denial of Death.

The clinical and sociological perspective taken within The Anatomy of Hate is that the films primary subject, hate, is not a primary emotional response. But it can be a secondary emotion in response to a true primary emotion like fear. Ramsdell allows the viewer to decide for him and her self if (and how) that ‘primary leading to secondary’ umbilical may have slithered its way through the neural passages and across the synapses within each of the subject’s brains.

The last 3rd of the film includes some of the most incredible and moving moments I have seen in life, let alone captured on a screen: IDF veterans and Palestinian fighters meeting together in a group called Combatants For Peace.

Ernest Hemingway wrote that, in great literature, events and situations and experiences beyond what are upon the written page are implied within the writing that does survive – if the writing that remains and the writing that has been excised are ‘good enough’. Hemingway was explaining how the several hundred thousand or so words he had cut from much longer versions of The Old Man and The Sea still ‘held places’ in the final, published version of story. Ellen Goldwasser’s beautiful and masterful editing of what was assuredly hundreds of additional hours of footage not only implies ‘events, situations and experiences’ not making it to the screen – it makes the heart ache for the essential humanity the viewer hopes (or is it knows?) must accompany them. As did Hemingway, Goldwasser has with her selective omission created a poignancy and longing that serves as an important and necessary balance to the darker visions of human possibilities that occupy so much of the films arc. What is missing still holds its place – both in the film and in the viewer’s consciousness. No mean feat, to make such a powerful statement through excision, when so many editors struggle to make even what they do show us have meaning.

Speaking to a group of Festival attendees and film students after Saturday’s showing, Ramsdell told the audience that none of the Combatants for Peace meetings are ‘hug fests’ or ‘Kumbaya song sessions’. The hurt, fear and anger that could continue to be channeled into hatred and death are still there, and these men fight against their racial and cultural mistrust as well as their personal experiences of loss in the hope of finding community and regional (and, one senses and hopes, personal) peace. It was the only time in nearly 50 years of following this conflict that I felt there might actually be some way to resolve it in a way that allows both sides to live with respect, honor and security.

While on some levels it is not an easy film to watch, I would recommend The Anatomy of Hate to anyone not committed to Thoreau’s life in the wilderness. If we are going to live in groups, cities, nations we are going to be exposed to experiences that can be expected to rouse fear and mistrust associated with those that fall outside of our own street, neighborhood, economic class, flesh-tone or manner of approaching God. To be able to think rationally about how those fears might be ignited and fueled and put to use in the service of (whether religious, political or racial) death worshiping *ssh*l*s is a good thing.

Ramsdell’s film does more than just get the thinking started.