Love, hummus and the Mideast conflict
When first watching Ari Sandel's film "West Bank Story," it is hard not to be shocked.
When first watching Ari Sandel's film "West Bank Story," it is hard not to be shocked. For those used to seeing newscasts of Israeli soldiers firing at Palestinians, and masked assailants launching Qassam rockets at Israeli communities, the attempt to squash the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into 20 minutes of song, dance and jokes seems odd.
A musical? In the West Bank? "West Side Story," with a separation fence and Molotov cocktails?
Surprisingly, what may seem like an outrageous melodrama quickly turns out to be a refreshing viewing experience. The humor, the music, the costumes, the dances and the references to the 1961 Hollywood film that swept up 10 Oscars create an amusing satire. And the transition from regional tragedy to sweet melodrama creates a catharsis.
Last week, it turned out that the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was also excited by the original approach to this subject, and nominated it for an Oscar in the short film category.
This musical comedy takes place in the West Bank, and focuses on two fast food stands that specialize in felafel and hummus - "Kosher King," run by Jewish West Bank residents, and "Hummus Hut," run by Palestinians. The pretty cashier Fatima and the sweet Israeli soldier David fall in love despite the rivalry between their families, but the love story, laden with serenades and veiled glances, leads to the destruction of the two restaurants. At the end of the film, both sides are forced to work together to fill local residents' endless appetite for hummus.
Jews and Arabs dancing
"I was always interested in politics, primarily the Middle East conflict," says Sandel, 32, the film's director and co-writer, in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles. He says he is active in several political organizations, including Peace Now.
"I studied Islam and Judaism in college, and visited many countries in the Middle East, including Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Turkey and Dubai. I've watched around 100 documentaries about the conflict, and found that almost all of them were pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian. They were full of information, interesting and fascinating, but almost all are depressing and devoid of any hope.
"I decided I wanted to make a film that would give viewers a feeling that there is hope, because I really do believe peace between the sides is possible, that it can happen."
Even though he visits Israel every year, Sandel, whose mother is American and whose father is Israeli, repeatedly notes that he was careful to maintain balance in his film.
"I wanted to create a film that would do three things: draw attention, make people laugh and present a positive and balanced position in support of peace," he says. "It was important to me to be very careful to maintain balance and equality between the sides, because most films show only one side of the conflict and then viewers from the other side feel the movie is biased."
Therefore, workers at both restaurants are dressed in ridiculous uniforms, and there are equal numbers of jokes about both sides. The Palestinian cashier, for example, fires rounds from an automatic weapon at the ceiling when she greets customers at the Hummus Hut. And when the Israelis plan to build a separation fence between the restaurants, the Palestinians burst into laughter: "Jews and construction? That's the funniest thing we've ever heard."
Sandel chose a musical comedy, he says, because this is "a way of abstracting the story of the conflict, taking the suffering out of it so that people can let down their defenses and identify with the characters on both sides. I knew that dances and songs would make the subject more light-hearted, more accessible. It's a lot easier to see Jews and Arabs dancing together than to see them fighting. After all, dancing is so far removed from what people usually think about Jews and Arabs."
Yuval Ron, an Israeli composer living in Los Angeles, wrote the soundtrack and integrated Arabic and Israeli music with jazz. Sandel notes that he chose Israeli actors to play the Jewish characters and Palestinian actors to play Hummus Hut workers. And indeed, when things heat up on the screen, the characters from both sides drop English and start cursing in their ancient Semitic languages.
Requested in Dubai
The movie was filmed in Santa Clarita, near Los Angeles, in a quasi-Arab city a local resident set up on his ranch. The place is frequently used by the American film industry.
"West Bank Story" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival two years ago in the short film competition. The film's Web site notes that it has been screened at 111 festivals, and has won prizes at 23 of them. Sandel relates that he showed the film at the Dubai Film Festival, among others, and many Palestinians approached him and asked for a copy to show to their relatives in the territories.
When asked if he has already prepared an Oscar acceptance speech, Sandel laughs. He says the film was made on a shoestring budget, many staff members worked as volunteers, and he would have to thank everyone.
"At the Oscar ceremony, they allow only 60 seconds for each speech. If we win, I'll have to speak fast in order to thank all those who contributed."