Benevolent philanthropist? Brilliant financier? Evil genius of the left?
A lot has been said in recent years about George Soros, the Hungarian Jewish billionaire known for his support of NGOs around the world. He’s been demonized by the right, while the left has sometimes sat uneasily with his hedge fund background.
Who is the man behind the name, and what does he stand for? That’s what the 2019 documentary “Soros” attempts to answer. The film was directed and produced by Jesse Dylan, the son of Bob Dylan, and it should be noted that Jesse Dylan’s production company, Wondros, has done promotional video work for Soros’ Open Society Foundations previously. It will play Feb. 28 at the Vogue Theatre in San Francisco as part of the Jewish Film Institute’s WinterFest.
George Soros, or Soros György in his native Hungarian, was born in 1930, the son of a prosperous Jewish family in Budapest. Though some 565,000 Hungarian Jews were killed in the Holocaust, the Soros family survived in Hungary by living as non-Jews on forged papers. The brutality that Soros saw, even as he himself escaped it through the foresight of his father, was a formative experience.
“That shaped my outlook on life,” he says in the film. “Preparing me to face harsh reality and instead of giving in, actually trying to prevail.”
It was compounded by seeing how harshly the socialist dictatorship that ruled Hungary after the war treated those who dissented. Soros had moved to London in 1947, and eventually became the manager of a successful hedge fund. (Soros has long been famous in finance circles; he took advantage of an unstable financial situation in the U.K. in 1992 to make $1.5 billion in a month by betting against the pound.)
In between work hours, Soros read a book that made a huge impact on his life. Karl Popper’s “The Open Society and Its Enemies,” published in 1945, described the similarities between fascism and communism in stifling freedom of thought.
“He proposed the alternative, which is an open society which is based on the recognition that nobody is possession of the truth, and therefore you need a critical process and you have to respect other people’s opinions,” Soros said in an earlier C-SPAN interview, excerpted in the documentary.
This idea of the open society reportedly is behind all of Soros’ giving, which amounts to something in the area of $32 billion since the late 1970s, according to his Open Society Foundations. That’s a lot of money, and the list of causes that he has supported is long, including marriage equality in the U.S., Roma rights in Eastern Europe and early childhood education in Liberia.
At 88 minutes, the documentary has a few too many talking heads, and some might consider the use of graphic historical footage of violence a bit gratuitous (it seems to be there to show what happens when the values of the open society disintegrate). Through interviews with the man himself, his family, and even with the adamantly anti-Soros Fox News host Tucker Carlson, the film raises a few interesting questions about ego, the role of money in politics and the shifting political landscape.
As a whole, the documentary is laudatory, showing the many ways in which Soros’ money has helped grassroots activism around the world, beginning with those resisting apartheid in South Africa and continuing today in the face of direct and personal threats to Soros’ ideals and even his life.
And that’s the sad kernel within the mostly idealistic film.
Soros’s long arm has made him truly hated by not only the alt-right but the traditional right wing of American politics. Even in his country of birth, he was the subject of a series of government-funded billboards painting him as the enemy of Hungarian culture.
Soros himself admits to feeling, at times, depressed and overwhelmed, not only by the hatred but by the way his values have not translated into the kind of society he expected. But, he says, he has accepted that the results of trying to improve the world can’t be quantified like an investment.
“The contribution that you make to what you might call this nebulous thing, the common good, that’s the return,” he says.