Over the past two weeks, more than 3,000 people in Orange County paid between $15 and $20 each to see "Shoah," a very long film about a very grim subject.
According to Eric Levin, manager of the Balboa Cinema, the response to the nine-day run, which ended Thursday, was "exactly what we expected." Levin admitted that there had been some doubt by the distributer-New Yorker Films--that the highly praised exploration of the Holocaust would draw at the Newport Beach theater. The 9 1/2-hour epic screened in two parts.
On Wednesday, between a matinee and evening performance of Part II, Levin invited Holocaust survivor and author Mel Mermelstein, a Huntington Beach businessman, to speak from the stage to both audiences about his own experiences in various concentration camps.
Mermelstein successfully sued the Institute for Historical Review for claiming that Jews had not been gassed by the Nazis at Auschwitz and that the Holocaust was a hoax. In January, Mermelstein accepted a stipulated settlement of $90,000 and a formal apology from the group, which was based in Torrance but recently began using a post office box in Newport Beach as its mailing address. Mermelstein said the organization's move to Orange County was "insignificant."
Although he praised the film, saying "the impact is stunning," Mermelstein said Wednesday that he had attended an earlier screening and did not want to sit through it again.
"Once was sufficient for me," he said. "It's difficult to watch. To many people, it's unbelievable."
Mermelstein suggested that the documentary might be more accessible if it had been cut to 90 minutes.
"The reason it's too long is because it's by an amateur film maker," he said, referring to 59-year-old French journalist Claude Lanzmann.
There are only six prints of "Shoah" in the United States. According to Levin, "There were a lot of people who wanted to see the film," many of whom bought tickets in blocks of 25 or more through the Jewish Federation of Orange County.
Levin estimated that 80% of those who saw "Shoah," which is sometimes translated "annihilation," were Jewish, but at a screening earlier this week a surprising number were not.
Leslie Monty, a telephone supervisor from Tustin, said she came because she read that it was a good film and that she did not know a lot about the Holocaust.
"It's still hard to understand that this could have happened," she said during an intermission. The movie "has made me want to read more about it," she said.
Monty's friend and co-worker, Sharon Peralta, of Orange, said that her first exposure to the Holocaust came last year, when she attended a countywide memorial at Marywood Center, co-sponsored by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, an experience that "really opened my eyes."
"I gained more insight from (the film) than I thought," said Nancy Rhyme, of Costa Mesa.
But many in the audience Wednesday pondered the importance of "Shoah" in today's world.
Mermelstein, pacing the stage, said the film's message can be linked to recent events, including the election of Kurt Waldheim as president of Austria and the conviction of Andrija Artukovic, formerly of Seal Beach, in connection with war crimes in Yugoslavia.
"Austria has just voted for a former Nazi," he said.
Some Nazi collaborators at the camps--Croatians, Ukrainians and Hungarians--were even more brutal than the Germans, Mermelstein said.
"There are no easy answers to this. There are no answers."