Making a Film About Jesus Without Raising Hell

By Sheldon Gordon

Published November 07, 2003, issue of November 07, 2003.
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TORONTO — While filmmaker Mel Gibson faces charges of antisemitism surrounding his controversial upcoming film about Jesus, another movie producer is garnering praise for making a different movie about Jesus.

Garth Drabinsky, a Toronto-based show-business impresario, is the producer behind “The Gospel of John,” a movie based on the highly polemical Gospel of John, the fourth book of the New Testament. The film stars stage actor Henry Ian Cusick and is narrated by Drabinsky pal Christopher Plummer. After debuting at the Toronto Film Festival in September, it had a limited release in several American cities; this week, the movie expands into wider release, mostly across the Bible Belt, from Jacksonville, Fla., to Louisville, Ky., to Tulsa, Okla.

One reason Drabinsky has not had to deal with the barrage of criticism aimed at Gibson is that their films use different source materials. Gibson’s film, “The Passion of Christ” — scheduled for release in February 2004 — reportedly relies upon the writings of two nuns known for anti-Jewish views, in addition to the New Testament itself. “The Passion of Christ” has been criticized by film critics, religious scholars and Jewish groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Drabinsky’s “The Gospel of John,” in contrast, follows the New Testament text word for word. The filmmaker said although his film “does have anti-Judaic sentiment” because it adheres strictly to the Christian scripture, which includes negative references to Jews, it is not antisemitic. “The Gospel of John” has won positive reviews from the Christian religious press; Jewish organizations have mostly remained mum, avoiding comment altogether, but the film has been praised by the Anti-Defamation League, which received a special screening from Drabinsky.

“It’s gratifying that, by and large, the negativity from the Jewish world has been remote,” Drabinsky told the Forward. “The film will illuminate understanding of both religions and contribute to a stronger Christian-Jewish relationship.”

Drabinsky worked on the film with an advisory committee of eight biblical scholars — six Christians and two Jews. The Jewish scholars were Alan Segal, a professor of religion at Barnard College, and Adele Reinhartz, dean of Graduate Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario.

“I think that [Drabinsky] did have a concern for not fomenting antisemitism, and I think that’s one of the reasons he was interested to have Jewish scholars involved in the project,” said Reinhartz, an Orthodox Jew who is an expert on the Gospel of John.

On the committee’s advice, the film portrays Jesus as a practicing Jew. “That’s truthful to what is known historically, but is often overlooked,” Reinhartz said. Drabinsky also took his advisers’ advice to begin the film with a narrative scroll that establishes the historical context: Roman oppression of Judea, and unrest and dispute within the Jewish community.

Perhaps even more importantly, Drabinsky and screenwriter Jonathan Goldsmith used the text from the American Bible Society’s Good News Bible. “Of all the versions, it best distinguishes between the Jewish establishment — the Pharisees — and the general populace,” said Drabinsky. “It best reduces the potential for misunderstanding.” In particular, it substitutes the phrase “Jewish religious authorities” for “the Jews” in its 70 references to Jesus’ adversaries, and thereby avoids the notion that all Jews conspired against Jesus.

Some commentators have suggested, however, that, such palliatives aside, it is simply the Jewishness of Drabinsky and some of his associates — including co-executive producers Sandy Pearl and Joel Michaels — that inoculated the film against criticism of the sort that has been aimed at Gibson. “Could [Jewish groups’] conspicuous silence possibly have anything to do with the ethnicity of the producers of ‘The Gospel of John?’” asked Rabbi Daniel Lapin, an Orthodox rabbi and conservative commentator. “So if Jews quote the Gospel it is art, but if Mel Gibson does the same it is antisemitism? The Talmudic distinction eludes me.”

It doesn’t, however, elude Drabinsky. “I think I brought a much higher degree of sensitivity, not only by virtue of being a Jew, but a studied Jew. I studied Torah and loved my study of Judaica.” As a student of Torah, he said that John was “virgin territory.”

“You can take from the movie whatever you want: spirituality, education or entertainment,” said Drabinsky. “It’s not religious outreach.” But since religion is driving so much of the world’s agenda today, he believes it’s an ideal time to be making movies with religious themes.

“The Gospel of John,” a $15-million Canadian-British co-production, is the first in a series of biblical films that Drabinsky plans to make for Visual Bible International, a Nashville, Tenn.-based Christian media company that retains him as a creative consultant. He hopes to follow with film adaptations of the Book of Mark and then Samuel 1 and 2 over the next two to three years.

Film marks a return to Drabinsky’s entertainment roots. After receiving a law degree from the University of Toronto, Drabinsky teamed up with Michaels to produce several forgettable films in the late 1970s. He then moved on to larger-scale entertainment projects — co-founding the Cineplex Odeon chain of movie theaters and later producing lavish Broadway musicals such as “Ragtime” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman” through his live theater unit, Livent.

But if Drabinsky has found acclaim for his current film project, charges about his past business practices could still derail his future plans. Soon after he and his Livent partner, Myron Gotlieb, sold the company to former Walt Disney president Michael Ovitz and New York investment banker Roy Furman in 1998, the new owners fired the Canadian executives and sued them for $225 million for alleged fraud and accounting irregularities. The Canadians later counter-sued for $210 million, alleging discredit to their reputations.

A grand jury indicted Drabinsky and Gotlieb on multiple counts of criminal fraud and conspiracy. They refused to appear in an American courtroom to face the charges; since then, they have been unable to work in the United States. A spokesman for the U.S. Justice Department said the indictments are still outstanding, but he would not comment on whether the United States is trying to extradite the pair. In any event, Drabinsky and Gotlieb each face 19 counts of fraud filed within Canada last year.

Drabinsky has repeatedly proclaimed his innocence and said last week that he expects his fate to be resolved definitively in the Canadian courts. His defense team is currently deposing witnesses in the pre-trial phase.

“I want my name cleared as soon as possible,” said Drabinsky. “I don’t know how fast this process is going to move [but] I’m very sanguine about the outcome. The matter is being dealt with in Canada, and I’m sure it will be dealt with thoroughly and capably. Thank God I have the ability to earn enough to be able to defend myself.”

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