The American filmmaker Jack Baxter arrived in Israel in 2003 with the intention of making a documentary about Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti, after reading an article about him in The New York Times. But after discovering that other filmmakers had beaten him to it and were working on similar films about Barghouti, who is serving five consecutive life sentences in an Israeli prison after being convicted of five counts of murder in Israeli terror attacks, Baxter gave up on the idea and decided to move up his return flight to the United States.
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Baxter didn’t know that the Tel Aviv bar he went to that evening would not only provide him with a pleasant distraction from his disappointment but would also give him the subject of his next movie, change his life completely and allow him to dive much more deeply than he had planned into the crazy, bleeding heart of the Middle East conflict.
Of all the bars in Tel Aviv, Baxter chose Mike’s Place in Tel Aviv, which four weeks later would become a scene of terror and tragedy. Baxter sat down at the bar and began telling his troubles to bartender Gal Ganzman, with his brother Assaf a co-owner of the small chain of bars.
Speaking to Haaretz by telephone from Los Angeles recently, Baxter related how he had sat at the bar, taking in the band, the American soldiers chatting with a young Israeli woman, the group of Arabs — presumably diplomats — and a few long-haired hippies. It occurred to him that he could be looking at a metaphor for what the Middle East could have been.
But a suicide bombing a few weeks later, at around 1 A.M. on April 30, 2003, destroyed Baxter’s optimistic vision and the peaceful atmosphere of Mike’s Place. Three people died in the bombing, in addition to the British Muslim bomber: Dominique Caroline Hass, 29, a server at the bar who was also Ganzman’s partner, and two musicians who had just finished a set when the explosion took place: Ran Baron, 22; and Yanay Weiss 47. More than 50 people were injured.
Baxter, who had just finished filming at the bar for the night, was knocked unconscious and suffered serious injuries. His back was badly injured, requiring extended physical therapy and treatment with painkillers. He is still partially paralyzed on his left side, uses a cane and he suffered permanent hearing loss.
In June, slightly more than 12 years after the bombing, Baxter’s graphic novel about the experience — “Mike’s Place: A True Story of Love, Blues and Terror In Tel Aviv” — was released by First Second Books, which specializes in graphic novels and is owned by Macmillan Publishers.
The book related Baxter’s trip to Israel, how he decided to make the movie about Mike’s Place, his friendships with employees and customers and the interviews for the documentary. Baxter wrote the screenplay for “Blues by the Beach,” which was released in 2004, together with Joshua Faudem, a former bartender at Mike’s Place who directed the documentary. Faudem co-wrote the text of the graphic novel along with Baxter.
“Mike’s Place” also depicts the journey to Israel of the suicide bomber — a partner discarded his bomb after it failed to detonate and fled the scene; his body washed ashore in Tel Aviv two weeks later. Both men were British citizens who were later found to have a direct connection to coordinated terror bombings in London over two years later, in July, 2005.
The novel continues with the arduous rehabilitation, physical but mostly emotional, of Baxter and other survivors of the attack.
The book was based on a screenplay that Baxter and Faudem wrote for what they hope will eventually be a full-length Hollywood feature film.
All the people in the story — the servers, bartenders, cooks and regular customers — are individuals from all over the world who only want to listen to music, have a good time and forget about politics and the Arab-Israeli conflict, at least while they’re at Mike’s Place, Ganzman tells Baxter in the book.
Returning to the scene of the crime
“Blues by the Beach” was screened at a number of film festivals and even won a few awards, but it never attracted much attention. It is shown every April 30 at Mike’s Place on the beach in memory of the victims of the terror attack.
In 2010, Faudem proposed writing a screenplay together for a feature film based on the personal stories of the main characters in the documentary and Baxter’s interviews with them when he returned to Israel in 2006 for further medical treatment, Baxter related.
After Baxter and Faudem completed the screenplay, Mark Siegel, a family friend of Faudem’s who is the editorial director of First Second Books, asked to read it. The idea of turning the screenplay into a graphic novel was Siegel’s. Neither Baxter or Faudem had experience in the field. Siegel put them in touch with Koren Shadmi, an Israeli-born, Brooklyn-based illustrator an cartoonist. Shadmi had already published a number of graphic novels, and in recent years has focused mostly on illustrations for newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times and The Village Voice.
“The fact that I’m Israeli helped me a lot in this work, because I knew all the places in the book,” Shadmi told Haaretz in an interview from New York over Skype.
“It also helped me that the story took place more or less during the period when I left Israel, the period of the terror attacks. It threw me back a bit to the late 1990s in Israel, reminded me how it was to hear every time anew on the radio of the attacks,” said Shadmi.
For both Baxter and Faudem — who ran to get his camera and resumed filming in Mike’s Place right after helping a number of the people who were injured by the bombing — work on the book returned them to the difficult moments after the attack. After writing the scene of the immediate aftermath of the explosion, Baxter relates, he and Faudem sat down and read it out loud. When they finished, they both broke down in tears.
Faudem, Baxter recalled, never lost consciousness the night of the bombing. He saw people’s insides spilling out on the street, and like everyone else he too had to go out under the terrorist’s body in order to exit the building. It was hanging on an awning over the entrance, dripping blood on anyone who passed underneath. It was horrible, Baxter said.
In the book, the scene of the attack is shown with very intense drawings of a powerful explosion and people flying through the air from the shock waves. Then come the terrible images, all too familiar to anyone who has seen Israeli news in the past few decades, such as people with their clothes on fire, bodies strewn on the ground and detached limbs lying on the sidewalk. The novel’s main characters, who just minutes before were focused mainly on pouring beer and negotiating among their lovers, were suddenly forced to treat horrible injuries and to see the torn bodies of their friends lying on the ground in front of them. The terrorist’s corpse, dripping blood, is there too.
“For all of us, as someone living in a state of post-trauma, this movie — and now the book — is incredible,” said Ganzman, who is, naturally, one of the novel’s main characters.
“It sharpens the memory of what was, and gives you a tool to experience it again, but in a manner that is also positive. Because in both the movie and the book the incident is presented in a positive light, thanks to the desire of everyone from the bar to return and live their lives, to enjoy them, to drink and to listen to music — all of this stands against the terror, the murder and the hatred,” said Ganzman.
“From my perspective,” Ganzman continued, “the movie and the book are part of my post-traumatic therapy. I saw and read them an endless number of times and they caused me to think time after time about the event, to remember Dominique, to go through the pictures in my head and to deal with it. And today I live a good life, happy and I have two wonderful daughters. The fact that there were cameras around forced people to deal with it, to talk about it, not to shut themselves up. Watching “Blues by the Beach” and reading the book were a natural continuation of this process,” said Ganzman.