TIFF 2013: Last of the Unjust and Mission Congo

lastunjustClaude Lanzmann’s Shoah is sui generis, a universally respected nine and-a-half hour documentary that may well be as close as one can get to a definitive historical account of the Holocaust. Last of the Unjust is more limited in scope, but it is an important historical document in its own right.

Lanzmann builds the film around a sustained interview in 1975 with Benjamin Murmelstein, a Jewish Elder at Theresienstadt who spent eighteen months in a Czech prison before eventually being acquitted of collaborating with the Nazis. The result is a dialogue between two rigorously honest men that explores the boundaries of moral and ethical responsibility when one is faced with circumstances that remain unfathomable to those who have not lived through them.

The interview segments are intellectually challenging, but when Lanzmann reads from Murmelstein’s book describing the camp operations while literally retracing the steps taken by Jews from the train station to the camp, the result is something quietly, almost unbearably, painful.

One of the great achievements of Last of the Unjust is the way it forces us to reexamine some of our most dearly held assumptions. I’ve always believed that a long view of history gives us more clarity and, God willing, fairer judgments than those made in the immediate aftermath of tragic circumstances. But as the final witnesses to the Shoah pass away and we are left only with the testimony they have left behind for us, that testimony still has the power to make us look anew. With each new look come new questions, and harder answers. Can aiding an evil to subvert a greater evil leave us untainted by the blood on their hands?

mission congoMission Congo is also unbearably painful to watch at times. In just over an hour, Lara Zizic and David Turner chronicle the refugee crisis in the People’s Republic of the Congo, the formation of Pat Robertson’s “Operation Blessing” (OBI), and the critiques and accusations about it that continue to this day. Foremost among those accusations is that money raised for humanitarian relief was used to mine for diamonds.

This story is not a new one. Christianity Today has written about it previously (see here and here), but the effect of drawing together various witnesses, particularly first-hand accounts of participants or members of other relief agencies present at the time, is sobering even to those inclined to dismiss criticism of religious leaders in general. Some of Robertson’s critics in the film include Richard Walden, whose Operation USA shared in a Nobel Peace Prize. Also particularly damning is the testimony of Samantha Bolton from Doctors Without Borders who claims Operation Blessing took film of that organization’s relief efforts and broadcast it as their own work. Janet Howell, a State Senator from Virginia weighs in on the origins of a Virginia Office of Consumer Affairs report that concluded Robertson and CBN made “material claims” in their fundraising that were “fraudulent.” There is also testimony from Robert Hinkle, identified as the “chief pilot” of Operation Blessing, about what was actually in the planes that he flew. Perhaps most distressing, however, was the juxtaposition of footage of Dumi, an agricultural compound that appears very different in the documentary’s footage than it does in the pictures of the website soliciting donations for that project.

Criticism of prominent Christians will inevitably invoke strong feelings. The film does not strike out at all Christians or all mission work, focusing narrowly on Operation Blessing.

A version of this post originally appeared at Christianity Today Movies & TV.

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