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Denial puts the truth on trial

Rachel Weisz in Denial. [Courtesy of TIFF]

Denial, the new film starring Rachel Weisz as historian and Emory University professor Deborah Lipstadt, puts historical fact on trial. It begs us to look deeply at the equivocation of truth and to question whether deliberately distorting facts to suit our defined narrative should – and can—be challenged successfully (spoiler alert: it can).

The movie is based on the true story of the legal battle between Lipstadt and infamous Holocaust denier, David Irving, who accused her and her publisher of libel for calling him a Holocaust denier in her book Denying the Holocaust. Apparently her words – claiming Irving’s anti-Semitic leanings led him to falsify facts to disprove the Holocaust – damaged his livelihood as a highly regarded historian. Irving asserts he was telling the truth; denying the holocaust was simply an opinion.

Denial, which got its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and opens nationwide on Friday, follows the court case and the emotional and academic upheaval it caused, as documented by Lipstadt in her 2005 publication, History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier. One of the first challenges of her legal team came from the chosen legal venue. Because Irving sued in the U.K., the burden of proof was placed squarely on the accused. Demonstrating that denying the Holocaust wasn’t simply an opinion, Lipstadt had to prove the Holocaust actually happened.

Sure, she could have settled and saved herself a few years of turmoil. In fact, a particularly frustrating scene involves Lipstadt enjoying dinner with Jewish community leaders in London. The conversation goes sour when it becomes clear that they feel she (read: they) would be better served with a settlement. Irving is a large figure in the U.K,. after all, and the case is only bringing him (and them) more attention.

But for Lipstadt there was no choice. She not only felt a duty on behalf of the survivors whom Irving invalidated with every false word, she felt an obligation to defend herself. That she believed Irving chose her for his lawsuit (vs. others who took him to task) because she’s both a woman and Jewish only emboldened her further.

The irony is Lipstadt’s own speech was silenced during the case. Her legal team decided it best she didn’t take the stand, that doing so would offer Irving – who defended himself – too much opportunity to make the case personal. As a strong and articulate woman, Lipstadt was deeply pained by the decision at first but soon acknowledged it to be strategically sound.

For scriptwriter David Hare and director Mick Jackson, who spoke with me at the film festival, that reality offered a more valuable and realistic takeaway for the case and the film. “Far from celebrating the individual, it celebrates teamwork,” Hare offers. “And together as a team you may achieve something that you can’t achieve as an individual; the beauty of Deborah as a person is she came to accept that.”

Besides, she found her voice in other ways. Lipstadt describes the many meetings with Hare in his desire to get the script just right. “It really did hold to the truth,” she says of the end result. Meanwhile, Weisz insisted Lipstadt join the crew on set for much of the filming, frequently asking her to describe her feelings during certain scenes and verifying she had Lipstadt’s accent and wording down pat. “I really appreciate the care that everyone took,” Lipstadt says.

This is not a movie about the Holocaust. It’s a film about the defence of truth (versus Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness”). It’s about our right to hold someone accountable for purposely twisting facts to their benefit. It’s a statement on the new “social media reality”, whereby tweets and opinions, bare of any evidence, are proof enough for many. It’s about an anti-Semite who hung falsehoods upon the freedom of speech banner as defence of those blatant lies. It’s about an empowered, brave woman who refused to back down from a tough battle in the name of the above.

And, yes, in some indirect way, the film is about the American election – and a certain politician’s proclivity for professing opinion as fact. Indeed, the timing of the film’s release is most appropriate, according to Jackson and Hare. “I don’t think we’re unhappy that it’s coming out during the presidential election,” says Hare with a smile.

Once you start invoking factual equivalence about things that are actually factually wrong, “you are going to the madhouse and that is really why I passionately wanted to make this film,” he explains. “Some people think it [the Holocaust] happened, some people think it didn’t and they’re equal views. Well they’re not equal views and opinions backed with fact have more authority than those that don’t.”

It’s why Hare decided to use 32 days of court transcripts verbatim when writing the script. In a courtroom setting you can’t get away with someone saying absurdly outrageous and wrong things because the judge, the counsel, are there to hold you to the truth; you must answer to any inconsistency, says Jackson. “You don’t get out of the room until you answer the question.”

And what of the historians who felt threatened by the precedent-setting case, claiming none of their work could survive the scrutiny that Irving’s underwent while on trial. After all, they’re human and capable of error. But to risk credibility due to those errors seems exceptionally harsh. Hare’s answer to them is simple: It’s not mistakes that are at issue, it’s deliberate mistakes. “There are two different categories when you know you’re telling something that’s untrue and when you’re just making an error.”

In many ways, Denial also puts freedom of speech on trial. How far is too far? Is there a limitation to what we can say? No one involved in the film seem to think so. But that freedom presupposes the right of others to call you on it, says Hare. And that’s what Lipstadt (who upholds freedom of speech and Irving’s right to it) and her legal team did – really well. Irving had every right to say what he wanted. He just needed to back it up. He couldn’t.

Lipstadt emerged from the legal scuffle – one that set her credibility squarely against that of Irving – the victor. And the decision continues to resonate. Irving may still be around, speaking, giving interviews. But, branded a holocaust denier, “people don’t listen to him so much anymore,” says Lipstadt. “He lost his credibility.”

As for the academic who resides in Atlanta, the legal drama and the movie that recounts it has certainly given her added clout and fame. But don’t go calling her a hero. “I’m very uncomfortable being called a hero,” Lipstadt says. “I am who I am and who I was before the trial. The difference is I have a stronger audience,” she adds. “It’s not my voice that has changed, but people listening to it.”