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Forgiveness on the eve of Holocaust

Still scene from “The Desperate”

“Why?” asks the concentration camp prisoner of his Nazi captors. “Why should I help you? You are my enemy.”

So asks the Jewish doctor in “The Desperate,” a new short film from Iranian-born director Ben-Hur Sepehr that defies Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust with a story of forgiveness amid the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp.

The film presents a powerful moral dilemma, as a renowned Jewish doctor, plucked in his tattered, striped clothes from the line of men sentenced to die in the Nazi ovens, is asked by his captors to save the life of the German general’s son, wounded in battle.

“He’s my only son,” pleads the German general, in an ironic twist, as he begs the Jewish doctor to perform surgery.

“What about my only son?” answers the prisoner. “Your soldiers hanged him. … Can you bring back my only son?”

But unlike this summer’s blockbuster World War II film “Inglourious Basterds,” Sepehr’s story refuses to give in to the lust for revenge, avoids stereotyping the Germans as irredeemably wicked caricatures and instead presents a unique tale of mercy and human dignity – even among enemies.

Sepehr told WND that after the 32-minute film premiered in Los Angeles last month, he received a telephone call from a woman who saw the movie and was profoundly affected.

“She cried on the phone for 15 minutes,” Sepehr said. “I listened to her. She was a Holocaust survivor. She was 15 or 16 at the time, lost her parents, and she said to me, ‘This is the best Holocaust movie of the last 60 years. This affected me in a way that “Schindler’s List” did not do, that every other Holocaust movie I’ve seen – and I’ve seen all of them – did not do. This masterpiece needs to be seen by everyone.'”

“She said the part of the film that makes ‘The Desperate’ unique,” Sepehr continued, “was that it was not simply about Jewish people or the evil of the Nazis. The men were portrayed as real human beings, not merely good vs. evil characters.”

Sepehr told WND the woman was profoundly touched by the humanity of the characters and the lesson of the story.

She told Sepehr, “When the German general and the Jewish doctor reached out and touched each other, they were not enemies anymore. That insurmountable wall created between them by Hitler was broken, and they became as brothers.

“This film of yours teaches us, teaches every human being to think on his own,” she told Sepehr. “When the general comes out from the influence of evil men like Hitler and takes charge of himself, he becomes himself.”

“The Desperate” director Ben-Hur Sepehr, left, and actor Peter Mark Richman, right

Sepehr, who studied under internationally renowned director Ingmar Bergman and once served as the private moviemaker for the late Shah of Iran, told WND he intends “The Desperate” to present a positive answer to Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s rants against Jews and denial of the Holocaust.

“I was a Jewish boy born in an Orthodox Jewish family in a Muslim country, growing up in an Islamic environment in Iran and educated in Christian societies in the U.S. and Sweden,” Sepehr said. “And since this whole episode with Ahmadinejad denying the Holocaust, I wanted to answer him that there was a Holocaust, and many wonderful, innocent human beings were killed in its genocide.”

Sepehr’s answer contains a message of forgiveness and tolerance that he believes can change the world.

“Forgiveness is one of the most difficult things for human beings to do, but if you’re able to forgive, you will overcome many obstacles,” Sepehr told WND. “When Jesus said to forgive, I found that very attractive, but when he said to forgive your enemy … when you really think about it, what a great thing to say!

“We grow up to be what we are taught as kids, and a lot of these innocent Muslim children are being taught to hate, to destroy anyone who is a Christian or Jew,” Sepehr said. “This is what they’re teaching the children in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan, and that is why we are having all these problems.

“The only way we can survive is if we love each other, tolerate each other, don’t hate each other,” he concluded. “There is no other way.”

By premiering in Los Angeles last month, “The Desperate” is eligible to be considered for an Academy Award. Sepehr is also sending screener copies to film festivals and gathering celebrities to view the movie.

But those interested in viewing “The Desperate” won’t have to travel to the festivals or wait for months hoping some local, independent theater will show it. Sepehr told WND he’ll be making the film available on his Tolerance Through Knowledge website by Thanksgiving, asking only a donation in return to continue making films like “The Desperate.”

Tolerance Through Knowledge is a nonprofit film company founded by Sepehr to make short films, feature films, documentaries and educational films with a purpose:

“I started Tolerance Through Knowledge because I am interested in helping the world, promoting love, tolerance, understanding, coexistence and forgiveness and implementing these values in our social lives,” Sepehr said.

Sepehr told WND “The Desperate” was filmed by a coalition of Jews, Germans, Christians, Muslims and atheists dedicated to the organization’s goals. Donations to Tolerance Through Knowledge will fund future projects with a similar purpose.

“Anyone who wants to join us with this endeavor,” Sepehr said, “our arms are open.”