Demme’s documentary film on Carter offers insights into a great man

Even before anyone realized that Jimmy Carter’s book "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid" [1] would stir up controversy and a lively but sometimes vicious debate, filmmaker Jonathan Demme decided to follow the former president during his book tour.

Demme has produced a powerful documentary, “Jimmy Carter: A Man from Plains,” [2] now showing in limited distribution in major cities around the country.

For me, it was one thing to read Carter’s book –” most journalists and critics who trashed it and the author did not read it. But it is even more moving to witness Carter through Demme’s Hollywood lens as he travels from book stores, to media interviews to university speeches preaching peace, justice and principle.

Demme is best known to me as the director of the shocking Hollywood film, “Silence of the Lambs.”

In an ironic way, Demme’s documentary on Carter might also borrow the same film title, but in a different way. “Man from Plains” exposes the “silence of the lambs” when it comes to how the news media reports the facts in the Middle East conflict.

And no one is better qualified to address those facts than Carter, a man whose humanity is so powerful that it keeps him going even today at age 83 helping those in need throughout the world.

Carter did not need to re-inject himself into the tumultuous Middle East conflict. He had achieved the unachievable in 1978 when he brought Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat and Israel’s President Menachem Begin to sign the historic Arab-Israeli peace accord. He shared with them the Nobel Prize for Peace.

A nuclear physicist by training, Carter has spent his life since the White House building homes for the poor, and funding programs and providing guidance to those in need around the world through his Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia. Carter still lives in the little town of Plains on his peanut farm with his wife, Rosalind, and vivid memories of his famous mother, Lillian who has since long passed.

Yet, when Carter decided to revisit the subject of Middle East peace, he knew it would be tough. The region has deteriorated horribly under President George W. Bush, seeing some of the worst violence between Palestinians and Israelis in decades.

Maybe it is his powerful humanitarian nature, his inability to turn his back on those in need that forced Carter to return to the world’s preeminent Gordian Knot.

But it is with a sense of pure justice that only Carter can convey that moved him to use the word “Apartheid” in the book’s title. He knew the word would galvanize the anger, hatred and often times vicious name-calling.

Demme’s documentary brings it all to the forefront. It not only addresses the of a great humanitarian to confront the tragedy of the Palestine-Israel conflict, but also the corruption of a news media and an often bankrupt public discourse in America where the facts of the Middle East conflict are shredded and turned into hateful mulch.

Immediately after publishing the book, former friends and colleagues stepped up and attacked Carter in a vicious and unfair way.

What is powerful in the film is that it is clear that few of Carter’s critics even read the book. And, the worst attacks against Carter are in fact fabrications. Lies.

Carter never wrote that “Israel is an apartheid state.” He said Israel’s polices in the West Bank over the Palestinians is a form of apartheid.

He repeats the term “apartheid is not based on racism but on the desire of a minority in Israel to take and colonize West Bank land.”

That dovetails into the controversy surrounding the Wall, which Carter unabashedly declares, “It is not a fence. It is a Wall.”

Carter explains he is not opposed to building the Wall or that a separation might not stop some violence. He does question claims the Wall was built for security, noting that rather than being built on the border between Israel and Palestine, it is being built deep into the Palestinian territories.

“It’s not separating Palestinians from Israelis. It is separating Palestinians from Palestinians,” Carter explains, emphasizing the Wall is not about security, just another effort by Israeli extremists to take more land from the Palestinians.

Carter is adamant about the book title. Although he admits it was intended to be provocative, he explains “apartheid” accurately describes what is taking place in the West Bank under Israeli occupation.

“We know what’s going on and I have become increasingly disgusted by it,” Carter says.

And that certainly is difficult for partisan advocates for Israel like Alan Dershowitz and Dennis Ross, the allegedly fair intermediary who shuttled between Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak during President Clinton’s failed (and rushed) Camp David Peace Conference in late 2000.

While most Americans will probably not take the time to read Carter’s powerful book, “Palestine: Peace not Apartheid,” they should take the time to watch this documentary.

If you really wanted to understand the Middle East conflict, Demme’s documentary offers unchallenged clarity. Maybe that is what prompts extremists like Dershowitz and Ross to fight so hard to suffocate Carter’s balanced wisdom with lies and distortions and exaggerations.

Carter is most critical of the news media, which is embedded in those lies and distortions and exaggerations. He says, “The media is abominable. There is no degree of objectivity in the media. … I don’t think the American people have any way except through the press to understand what is going on in the Middle East.”

Despite his defiance, Carter admits the attacks are painful.

“I have been hurt and so has my family by some of the reactions,” Carter says. “But, this is the first time I’ve been called a liar, a bigot and an anti-Semite, a coward and a plagiarist. This has hurt me.”

Demme shows all sides in the debate and the documentary is gripping from the opening personal moments with Carter through the protests, speeches and confrontations with the media.

When you read Carter’s book, you might understand the challenges standing in the way of peace in the Middle East. When you watch Demme’s portrayal of Carter, a modern day Gandhi, you will care.


[1]. "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid"
by Jimmy Carter

[2]. “Jimmy Carter: A Man from Plains”
Director: Jonathan Demme
Length: 125 minutes; Rated: PG
Distributor: SONY Pictures Classics
Opened Oct. 26 in Los Angeles and New York
Soundtrack: Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains (Music from the Motion Picture)