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When he first embarked on making a documentary about George Soros, filmmaker Jesse Dylan was well aware that the billionaire philanthropist was a controversial figure around the world. But he admits to not knowing much about the man himself beyond what appeared in the news. “I wasn’t that familiar with him or with his organization Open Society Foundations,” Dylan tells Yahoo Entertainment. So when he sat down with Soros himself for the first time, he didn’t quite know what to expect. “It took some time and many, many interviews for me to really understand what he was trying to do. All philanthropists have specific things that they’re after, and it just takes a minute to understand what George is going for.”
That hasn’t stopped others, of course, from coming up with their own explanations of what Soros might be after. The Hungarian-born investor is a regular target within right-wing circles and among conspiracy theorists around the world, who see him as trying to put his thumb on the scales of global politics. That’s led to a caricature of Soros as a kind of evil puppet master by politicians and political commentators ranging from Sean Hannity to President Trump. Some have even claimed that Soros — who grew up in Nazi-occupied Hungary — was a Nazi collaborator despite his Jewish heritage.
Dylan doesn’t see the democratically-minded man he’s come to know reflected in those kinds of stories. “People just make up stuff,” he says. “None of that has to do with who he is as a person. The things he's interested in are encompassed by a lot of other people: the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, Human Rights Watch — these are all organizations that George has supported, not just with money, but also with ideas. Seeing that led me to a deeper understanding of what he was doing, and appreciation of the struggles that he's been through and what he's after.”
Premiering on VOD on Nov. 20, Soros offers both a biographical portrait of the subject’s life and career, while also exploring the factors that have made him such a divisive figure. Speaking with Dylan across multiple interviews, Soros speaks frankly about his childhood, as well as his struggles to understand what his role is as certain regions of the world tilt away from democracy towards rising authoritarianism. “I was under the impression that with all my efforts, basically none of them really succeeded,” he says in the movie. “But then I discovered that they actually did succeed, several of them, but what came out didn’t really resemble what I was hoping for. It wasn’t as alluring and attractive as when I mentioned it.”
Dylan says that he hopes that Soros offers at least some corrective to the caricatures of Soros that exist, as well as a common purpose for viewers of all political persuasions to rally around. “If people just get a glimpse into what you’re thinking about, maybe the hatred would abate and we can focus on the things we're all trying to do. There are many more things that unite us than separate us. We’re living during a time where everybody's nerves are on edge, and we just need to give it a chance.”
Yahoo Entertainment: The documentary illustrates how anti-Semitism is one of the sources behind the hatred for George Soros. Is this the latest manifestation of a prejudice that’s existed for centuries?
I think it is, but I also think that it's much easier [for people] to think that there's other people out there trying to pull the strings for all the rest of us than it is for them to think, “How do we change our world in a constructive way to push forward?" That's where we have to focus, because there’s a lot of hatred around, and a lot of it comes from frustration about people's lives and the directions that they want them to go. It’s much easier to say: “There's this group of people who are holding me back." I’m not sure how much of the hatred for George is really rooted in who he is as a person.
How does Soros react to the caricature of himself that exists in the world?
I don't think he has any preoccupation with that. He's very concerned about things going forward, and how he can be a part of changing things in the future. So I think it's less about that particular thing and more that he sees things around us that he thinks should change, like the plight of underserved populations around the world. [To him] that seems like a better thing to spend time thinking about, than thinking about how people are perceiving him in any particular way. But I don’t speak for him — you’d have to ask him directly.
You speak with his adult children in the movie: In some ways, that kind of hatred might be harder for them to process. Do they plan to continue his work?
I do think it's hard, but they're incredibly proud of their father and the things that he's been connected to. It's not that they always agree with everything that he does, but he certainly has an incredibly impressive track record. They're all connected to philanthropic things in their own right, and they've all done incredibly impressive things in their own right, so I imagine that they probably will continue to work. The lesson that I take from spending a lot of time with George, is that we can all do these things ourselves over time. We can push [the world] forward in much smaller ways.
Considering the times, it’s surprising that Donald Trump isn’t seen or mentioned in your movie. How did you arrive at that choice to leave him out?
Well, George has been committed to the things he’s been committed to for a long time. The majority of his contributions predate the Trump era. Also, there’s enough Trump around — I don’t think we need to see him in everything, you know what I mean? [Laughs]
You do speak with Tucker Carlson in the film. How did you find him to be in your interview versus the persona he has on Fox News?
I found him to be very, very intelligent about these issues, and much different than I would have thought from necessarily watching what he's doing on his show. He seemed to have a very cogent point-of-view on what he thought the role of very wealthy people in society is — not just George, but anybody who has money. I certainly can't speak for him, but I think that he probably sees an interference from the Koch brothers, in the same way others see interference from George.
Having had that experience with him, does it frustrate you when you see the way he imparts information on his Fox show?
I think he's taken a tough line [on Fox News]. I hope in the future that we're going to try to find the commonality between people more than the differences, because at the moment it's not really working. Personally, I'd love to see politics go back to the way it used to be, where it was just kind of boring. The tensions are so high now, and it seems very hard to get things done. I think we do have to strategize how to get common things done so that we can get this pandemic behind us and get back to living our lives.
It’s shown in the film how Soros started donating in earnest to global causes at a time when the U.S. government was retreating from the world stage somewhat in places like Bosnia.
I think that's still true around the world. A lot of times, these problems are so big that who is going to step in and actually solve them? We have a finite amount of money that we can spend on a lot of these problems. So I guess the issue is what is the role of philanthropy in pushing some of these problems forward over time? I'm not sure it's exactly clear, except to say that philanthropy can usually play a role at the very edge where the established financial aspects don't come in — it can push things forward at a point when other things are not able to. For the big philanthropists, the question is, what should they point their resources towards? The answer isn't necessarily clear, and it's a real battle to try and figure that out. What George saw at the time was that somebody had to do something, and he was able to. He was also very familiar with that area, as it's not that far from Hungary, so I think he felt like he needed to do what others should've done.
Had he focused his philanthropy entirely on America rather than the world, would that have changed people’s perceptions of him?
Well, he is American, and he has spent a lot of money here so I'm not sure if he could have done anything to change his perception. It was much more important to try and change people's lives and that came from his own experience. He grew up in a period where a lot of these problems that he'd spent his life focusing on he’d experienced personally. He's been an immigrant and he’s been a refugee, so when he looks at the Rohingya, for example, he feels like he's one of them and he's looking at himself.
It’s interesting to hear him wrestle with feelings of failure in the film. What do you think his next steps are as we face an uncertain future at home and abroad?
In an open society, you never achieve a level of perfection because if you did, it would end up being a closed society. It's always about the intersection of whether people are pushing their own lives forward. So I don't think he failed, I think he would say that you're always acting on imperfect knowledge. The question is how we're going to continue to fight these battles in the future, because it always changes. Things don't go back; we’re not going to go back to the way we were before the last president. So we're going to have to figure out what it means to go forward, because things are always moving forward. I'm an optimist, so even if it’s like we're living through a dark period, I think that it'll change again because it always does. My hope is that we'll see better days ahead for everybody.
Is the film a living document that you hope to revisit as Soros continues his philanthropy?
I don’t have any plans to do that, but we’ll see what happens. I just feel he's a very misunderstood character, and that people should give him a chance. They should watch the movie and make their own decisions about what he's done, because he’s contributed to a lot of things that have done a tremendous amount of good and that, ironically, he’s been hated for. That’s why I felt like I had to make it: I’d heard so much about him, and when I actually looked at what he did, it was quite different from what I knew going in.
Soros is currently streaming on AFI Silver.
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