Anti-Semitism is probably too big a subject for any one film to explore and deconstruct adequately, but examining four recent movements or “mutations” in different countries is not the way to understand, or to help audiences understand, its awful, enduring impact on global cultures.
Director Andrew Goldberg splits the difference between academic and anecdotal portraits in “Viral: Anti-Semitism in Four Mutations,” an unfocused, ineffective documentary that inadvertently obscures both essential pieces of information about the existence and rise of anti-Jewish discrimination, and the visceral and ongoing effects on individuals and complete communities.
For those viewers for whom “Viral” is not their first film exploring antisemitism, it would resonate or inform more strongly. Nevertheless, by opening with 911 calls from the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, Goldberg strikes a powerful tone early on as survivors describe their experiences and reflect on their feelings before and afterward. These testimonials communicate the horrifying, incomprehensible and irreversible disruption to their daily lives as public spaces that once provided sanctuary and freedom no longer feel safe.
But after the filmmaker transitions into chronicling a nationwide campaign in Hungary targeting George Soros as perpetrator of the world’s ills, Goldberg’s material gets away from him — especially since any one of these four “mutations” feels worthy of its own feature-length exploration. Even those who recognize Soros’ name as an anti-Semitic dog whistle, for example, will learn nothing about the Hungarian-American philanthropist except that he is a bogeyman embodiment of evil Jewish control among conspiracy theorists.
Why? How? Other than being born in the country, what prompted Hungarian politicians to target him in their advertising and stump speeches? Of course the answer is complicated, fed by theories from conservatives in Hungary and around the globe, but the film offers no explanation as to what he did, or didn’t do, to deserve the crosshairs on his back.
Where Goldberg succeeds is highlighting how groups from different places in the ideological spectrum target and amplify anti-Semitic sentiments in different places across the globe, be it the American far right or England’s far left. But the answer to “why” mostly comes down to a commonality of scapegoating Jews as responsible for what communities and individuals traditionally in power do not have, or did not get.
Goldberg’s visit to distant relatives in the UK shows that there are people there, as there are in the U.S. and elsewhere, who see through racist leaders’ propaganda campaigns, and do what they can, where they can, to defy or disrupt those messages. But the undeniable bigger issue is a global community where specialized groups are more visible than ever, more connected by technology, and more jeopardized by individuals and agendas sowing division for their own commercial or ideological gain.
Goldberg recruits some impressive interview subjects for their insights, including Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Fareed Zakaria and George Will. But as noble as his intent is, his focus is too scattered to land on any new or especially powerful truths outside the heartbreaking resonance of watching Pittsburgh Jews reflect on the innocent victims at their synagogue, or French Jews try to figure out a way forward after not being chosen by Islamic radicals in an attack on a local grocery store.
These individuals’ pain blasts right through the attempts to capture or chronicle anti-Semitic campaigning, wherever it is, but the filmmaker never strikes the right balance to drive home emotionally how, say, their recovery or trauma eventually becomes the end result of hate campaigns by American conservatives, or how in London, people (including those with contempt for anti-Semitic propaganda) become disenfranchised themselves and disengage altogether from the political process that allows hateful, manipulative individuals to stay and flourish in power.
Goldberg has previously directed multiple documentaries about this subject, including “Anti-Semitism in the 21st Century: The Resurgence,” which may account for the specificity of this film, and/or his presumption that audiences may come to this film with some basic knowledge about topics he covers. But ultimately, “Viral” feels like the sequel or second season in a series where a first (or at the very least, a recap) would have been helpful. As a topic of tremendous ongoing importance with roots that desperately need exploration, anti-Semitism deserves, and needs, a look into its global impact and perpetuation that makes a deeper dive than this documentary provides.