December 1, 2005
A Small Man With Big Dreams
Thirty-seven year old Ami Ankilewitz weighs just 39 pounds; he suffers from a rare disease called spinal muscular atrophy, which has prevented his muscles from growing and functioning. As a result, his body is skeletal; his small, fragile bones seem mangled and twisted, thinly covered by skin pulled tight. His eyes stare out dark and black from a gaunt, bony face, which appears too large and too animated for Ami's debilitated body.
But what is clear in "39 Pounds of Love," the wonderful Israeli documentary film about Ami that is winning awards in festivals all over the world, is that while his body is crippled, his soul is not. Ami is a party boy who frequents Tel Aviv bars. His humor is sarcastic and bawdy. Although he is dependent on others for the most basic tasks, including washing and eating, he has many friends. He is also, as much as possible, self-sufficient. He works as an animator, using the one finger on his left hand not affected by his disease to shift a computer mouse to create incredible animated images that move in ways he cannot.
Ami is a dreamer and a romantic. The film tells the story of his unrequited love for Christina, the beautiful, vibrant, Romanian nurse who tends to him with the sincerity of a lover, but whose heart stays elsewhere. Not only does Christina brush his teeth, carry him from the bath and take him for walks in the park -- where people stare and run away -- at parties she inhales smoke from Hookahs, and, using her lips, transfers it to Ami's mouth.
Christina does not love Ami, so, his heart torn asunder, he asks her to leave. He decides to do what he has always wanted to do -- travel to the United States, take a cross-country road trip, ride a Harley-Davidson and confront the doctor who told his mother when he was an infant that he would live only until the age of 6.
"[The doctor] just didn't take into account that I have the soul of a Harley-Davidson," Ami says in the film.
"39 Pounds of Love" is about Ami's journey, literal and spiritual.
"The cross country for me is like for you climbing Mt. Everest," Ami says. He and his band of attendants, including his best friend and caretaker Asaf; Dani Menkin, the film's director; producer Daniel Chalfen; various other sound and camera guys; and, at certain points, Ami's Mexican-born mother and his brother, make their way across the States in an RV, forming a fraternity of sorts. They stop in the Arizona desert, where they commune with Native Americans and cowboys. In New Mexico they enter a healing church, where Ami lies down on the pews and is blessed by the pastor. In Texas, they go into a sex shop, where the assistant asks Ami if he is into "bondage." In California, Ami is blessed by a biker, who lays his hands over Ami's face, right before Ami gets the ride of his life in the sidecar of a motorcycle.
In the course of his journey, Ami comes to terms with his past and confronts people who, in various ways, have wounded him. In Texas, he visits his estranged brother Oscar, now married with children. Growing up, and even as an adult, Oscar resented the attention Ami received from their mother, and on Oscar's last trip to Israel, the brothers fought and from then on did not speak. They make up on camera. In Florida, in a somewhat anti-climactic encounter, Ami finally meets Dr. Cordova, now an old man in a Miami apartment, who seems bemused but patient with the person he gave a death sentence to so many years ago.
Throughout, Ami continues to yearn for Christina. And, punctuating the real-life drama, we see Ami's animation work, a passionate story of two birds. One is blue and skinny like Ami, the other plump and lush with full red lips, like Christina. The birds flirt, and the blue bird, clearly besotted, brings the other gifts of worms. She rejects him nonetheless, and he flies away, dejected, then sets out to climb a mountain so he can reach the sky and steal the moon for his beloved.
"39 Pounds of Love" is a film about dreams. It is a film about the curious manner in which things we long for fulfill themselves in ways we never anticipated. It is also a film about hope, which soars eternal, even after what we hope for ebbs away from us.
For the filmmakers, Ami's story is almost as remarkable as the story of the film itself.
Menkin met Ami in a Tel Aviv bar and was immediately drawn to him. He started filming Ami, and then, while participating in the 2002 filmmakers' master class program of the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership, showed a three-minute promotional video of Ami to the instructors. Receiving enough encouragement and support from executive producer Lynn Roth, then teaching the master class, Menkin and Ami came to the States and started making their film.
In the process, Menkin invested more than $100,000 of his own money to make the film. He also convinced much of his crew to work for free.
"There are films with budgets of $60 million," said Menkin, who spoke to The Journal by phone from New York. "But we have $60 million of heart."
And the efforts paid off. Not only did Ami get to go on his journey of a lifetime, but the film won the 2005 Israeli Academy Award for best documentary and is now on the Oscar short list for films eligible for a best documentary nomination. It was also picked up by HBO/Cinemax, which is supporting its U.S. release.
"When we started making this film, everyone thought we were stupid or crazy," Menkin said. "But now we are on the short list and everyone wants to interview us."
The film has brought Ami a degree of fame. Ever since it won the Israeli Academy Award, Ami has been receiving e-mails from people interested in his story, and he has been in demand as a lecturer, even giving a presentation to the Israel Defense Forces.
"He is inspiring people -- he is talking about his feelings and how to overcome obstacles," Menkin said.
He has also found a new love -- his caretaker, Vika.
"Ami set goals, and his next goal was being in love again, and she is the one who replaced Christina," Menkin said. "And this time they are together, so there is a happy ending."
Dani Menkin and Asaf (Ami's best friend) will be participating in a question-and-answer session after the evening screenings of "39 Pounds of Love" on Dec. 2 (opening night), 3 and 4 at the Nuart Theater, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd. The evening screenings take place at 7:30 p.m. and 9:40 pm. For more information, call (310) 281-8223 or visit www.39poundsoflove.com.