The film about my trial shows danger of manipulating facts

Which seat is Deborah’s?” “Who has Deborah’s jacket?” “Where are Deborah’s glasses?”

These questions made no sense. I was seated in a corner, wearing my jacket and glasses. Then it dawned on me. While I ostensibly was the “Deborah” whose jacket, glasses and seat were under discussion,
the questioners weren’t referring to me.

It was January last year and I was in a restaurant adjacent to Leicester Square, which was serving as that day’s film set for Denial, the movie about my libel trial in London when I was sued by David Irving, arguably once the world’s leading Holocaust denier, for calling him what he is – a denier.

The “Deborah” of the jacket, seat, and glasses was Rachel Weisz, who was portraying me in the film. After having had input into the crafting of aspects of the film, now my job was to cede the telling of my story to someone else.

One of the questions I am repeatedly asked is what it feels like to have someone else portray you. In truth, Rachel – a supremely gifted actor – was creating her own “Deborah”. She was not mimicking. She was adopting, adapting, and interpreting, as she explained to me when we met. Her portrayal would not be akin to Helen Mirren playing the Queen. When that happens, we all go to the theatre, not just to see a great actor in a lead role, but to see if she indeed captured the Queen, her wave, walk, and manner of speaking.

This would be different. In my case, Rachel would take the many hours of stories she had gleaned from me, filter them through her own experiences and interpretations, and produce a character who was a composite of myself and her. That character would be bound together by Rachel’s unique artistic imagination.

She and David Hare, who wrote the screenplay, faced a hurdle. For much of the main scenes, certainly those in the courtroom, the central character did not speak. (If you think it was a challenge for them, imagine what a challenge keeping silent was for me in real life.) Rachel had to convey her feelings of anger, sadness, and frustration through glances, facial expressions and body language. And she did so magnificently.

While Rachel’s portrayal is of extreme personal importance to me, there is another aspect to this film and my story that is of far greater importance. When we first began to discuss the making of this film, none of us imagined it would have the contemporary relevance that it does. Lies abound. Facts are negotiable. And although your ideas may be rooted in complete untruths (the world is flat), you believe that if you yell loudly enough and others agree with you then you should be taken seriously.

We have seen it in relation to Brexit, vaccines, the environment, mass shootings in the United States, and, most recently, the American presidential campaign. It is a frightening development. If Denial awakens people to the dangers of manipulating facts, then that will have been entirely sufficient for me.

I did not anticipate being part of a story with such contemporary relevance. The contemporary situation may have been great for the media attention and the box office. But it has been bad for humanity. And my vote is with humanity.

About the Author
Deborah Lipstadt is a renowned historian and author
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