Ivy Meeropol

podcast / president / film
November 14, 2019
Produced by: Christine Spines

Change Lab Podcast Episode 30

Documentary Filmmaker Ivy Meeropol on the Active Pursuit of Empathy

Ivy Meeropol is a documentary filmmaker whose emotionally and politically charged films explore social and cultural injustice from the inside out. Her work in TV and film ranges from an exploration of the threat posed by the nuclear power industry to the good, bad and ugly of the American political system, particularly as it relates to her family (more on that in a moment). But what distinguishes her work most is her disarming refusal to judge the characters in her films as heroes or villains– a process Ivy describes as an “active pursuit of empathy.” The result is a deeply nuanced body of work that reverberates with wisdom, intimacy and socio-political nuance.

Donald Trump and Roy Cohen

This [film] is my way of contributing to the dialogue around Donald Trump, understanding where he came from using [his political mentor] Cohn and what happens to someone like him.

Ivy MeeropolDocumentary Filmmaker

That empathy infuses every scene of her latest film, Bully, Coward, Victim: The Story of Roy Cohn, which recently premiered at the New York Film Festival. Combining archival footage with original reporting, the HBO film explores the complicated, controversial, and enduring legacy of Cohn, the closeted right-wing political attack-dog who was an early mentor to Donald Trump. Cohn launched his notorious career as the young prosecutor who convicted Ivy’s grandparents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, of spying for the Soviet Union at the height of the Red Scare. Cohn succeeded in his quest to send both of them to the electric chair, leaving their two young sons (one of whom was Ivy’s father) orphaned.

Though it would have been easy (and, in some ways, understandable) for Ivy to set a collection of interviews with victims of Cohn’s corruption against the backdrop of her family’s painful history, she decided instead to challenge her own assumptions about Cohn and examine the psychological and social forces that shaped him as well as the people who came under his influence, including the current occupant of the White House.

This inclination to ask big questions without offering up absolute answers reveals itself in all her work. From Heir to an Execution, her stunning debut film which seeks a more fulsome understanding her grandparents’ choices, to Indian Point, which offers an intimate portrait of a nuclear power plant on the outskirts of New York city, to the aforementioned Bully, Coward, Victim – Ivy’s films fully capture her subjects, from their uncomfortable truths to their unexpected grace and everything in between.

Over the course of an intimate and animated Change Lab interview, she explored the personal and political forces at play in her work, her willingness to allow her films the freedom to dwell in ambiguity and her sense of responsibility to ask questions previous generations never could.

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