You Can Handle the Truth

A few weeks ago, there was a wave of excitement on campus when the Quadrangle was transformed into a movie set, with students as extras and a history professor as the star.

The film crew came to shoot some of the final scenes for Denial, a movie inspired by the 2005 memoir of Emory Professor Deborah Lipstadt. In History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier, Lipstadt recounts her internationally publicized legal battle with British author David Irving, who sued her for libel over passages in a previous book.

The element of high courtroom drama was part of what inspired film producer Russ Krasnoff to explore Lipstadt’s story. During the Denial crew’s visit to campus, he took time to speak with students in two film studies classes.

“I couldn’t believe that a professor from Emory University in Atlanta could find herself in the circumstances where a Holocaust denier is suing her for libel in a British court of law, and comes to learn that their laws are different from ours, and in fact the burden of proof is on the accused and not the accuser—and if she didn’t defend this, there would be a finding in a Western civilized country that the Holocaust didn’t happen,” he explained. “It felt like an incredible dramatic journey for this strong, powerful woman to go through.”

The all-star cast of Denial didn’t travel to Emory for the filming, but Lipstadt, who is Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies, made a cameo appearance on the Quad. “The fact that it’s ending here at Emory, where for all intents and purposes it began, is very symbolic,” she says.

When a profound and life-changing experience like Lipstadt’s gets made into a movie, an interesting transformation takes place. On the one hand, some details may be changed or blurred in the service of a larger and arguably more compelling (or entertaining) narrative. At the same time, the bones of the story become fused into a new form, one that is widely accessible, highly visual, memorably quotable, and emotionally inspirational. You might say that the burden of truth becomes not lighter, but more lightly dispersed—and yet carries ever more weight as it is shared, spread, and borne aloft by greater numbers. And of course, there is nothing like the swelling, satisfying finality of a movie’s finale to help one forget that the story could have ended another way.

I imagine that the trepidation Lipstadt must have felt in that London courtroom more than fifteen years ago is not terribly dissimilar to what Aloke Chakravarty 97L probably experienced just last year as one of the lead prosecutors in the trial of the Boston Marathon bomber. On the one hand, there is the reassuring knowledge that truth and justice are on your side; on the other, there is the very real possibility that they might not win the day. Bearing the burden of truth is a grave responsibility when what’s at stake is not just a feel-good movie ending, but a future chapter in human history that you are helping to write in real time.

In her memoir, Lipstadt cites Emory’s support of her during the Irving trial, and I’d like to think that is more than the equivalent of movie credits rolling. In this magazine, you’ll find other examples of University community members standing for what is right and true and promising, even when that is hard. For one, you’ll meet a group of students who, while conducting research for a journalism class on civil rights–era injustices, unexpectedly discovered the lost gravesite of one of the victims they were studying.

It must have been hard to watch the victim’s daughter, decades after her father’s murder, weep for the first time at the headstone simply marked “Father.” Facing, defending, and demanding historical truth is supposed to be hard. And it’s what universities are meant to do.

Paul Root Wolpe is director of the Center for Ethics and leader of the Emory Integrity Project, a new effort to ensure that ethics and integrity are central to the undergraduate experience. Integrity, he says, is “an integration of your morally and ethically grounded convictions that are developed and maintained by sustained reflection and realized through moral courage and action.”

I’m sure we can all envision the climactic courtroom scene in Denial, when Lipstadt and her lawyer demonstrate moral courage in the face of a Holocaust denier. The anticipation doesn’t make me look forward to it any less; quite the opposite, actually. Last week, Harper Lee died, prompting many memories of To Kill a Mockingbird—both the book and the film with its iconic performance by Gregory Peck. Unlike Lipstadt and Chakravarty, Atticus Finch loses the case, but there’s a reason why he is still a hero. He stands for the truth, even though it is hard; and in that sense, he wins.—Paige P. Parvin 96G

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