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Director Ari Sandel ‘Banks’ on Oscar buzz with short ‘Story’

by Tom Tugend

February 22, 2007 | 7:00 pm

Ari Sandel

Ari Sandel

At the celebrity-studded luncheon for this year's Oscar nominees, there was Clint Eastwood seated next to fellow director Ari Sandel, chatting away.

Ari who?

Well, Ari Sandel is the creator of "West Bank Story," which may not be as well known as Eastwood's "Letters From Iwo Jima" but is a lot funnier.

One of five nominees for best Short Film -- Live Action, "West Bank Story" is 21 minutes long and taglined "A little singing, a little dancing, a lot of hummus."

The title is a riff on Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story," which is a musical takeoff on Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." In this case, though, the confrontation is between competing West Bank falafel stands, the Israeli Kosher King and the Palestinian Hummus Hut.

Their weapons are falafel and hummus (made from chickpeas with seasonings), folded into a pita: the soul food loved by all Middle East factions. Into this delectable mix stir David, a handsome Israeli soldier, and the beautiful Fatima, who works at the Hummus Hut, and you can probably figure out the basic plot line.

Amidst catchy tunes, finger-snapping dancing and a mugging camel, David and Fatima fall in love. After both eating establishments are set on fire, the lovers persuade the rival owners to join hands and hummus to feed their hungry customers.

Viewers are free to draw hopeful analogies to current Middle East problems. The film's own rise, from student project to Academy Award contender, is the kind of fairy tale movie Hollywood used to make, and Sandel, 32, tall, handsome and fast talking, is just right for the part.

His father is Israeli, his mother a Los Angeles native, and in 2004 Sandel was mulling over a subject for an under-30 minute film, a thesis requirement at the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

Sandel knew that he wanted to say something about politics and the Middle East, two of his longtime passions. His first idea had to do with checkpoints and suicide bombers, but he was looking for something more hopeful and funnier.

What do Israelis and Palestinians have in common, he asked himself and co-writer Kim Ray, and the answer was a love of food.

"After that, everything fell in place," he said, so all he needed was a cast, a songwriter, a choreographer, a set, costumes, a budget and lots of hummus.

He hit up friends and family for $74,000, auditioned his fellow USC students for the parts, and hustled movie studios and merchants for freebies.

"I got free set props from Warner Brothers, free post-production services from someone else, and one acquaintance printed up free business cards for me," Sandel recollects.

On a commercial movie ranch in Santa Clarita, Sandel found the set for a small Arab town, including a minaret, and in 14 days he wrapped up the film.

"I thought we had done a pretty good job, and now my ambition was to screen the film in three venues -- Sundance, Jerusalem and Dubai," he said.

"West Bank" premiered at Sundance in 2005 and got a warm response. Next came a screening in Jerusalem. With two-thirds of his goal fulfilled, Sandel wrote an impassioned letter to the Dubai Film Festival and, to his amazement, the film was accepted in a category labeled "Bridging Cultures."

"The Dubai festival is sort of a Middle Eastern Sundance, only you get much more of a VIP treatment," Sandel said.

Dubai, part of the United Arab Emirates, is a rapidly modernizing city, but officially no Jews live there, and no one had ever shown a movie depicting an Israeli soldier as anything other than a bloodthirsty killer.

So when "West Bank" screened in Dubai's biggest venue, before 1,000 Arab dignitaries and movie producers, Sandel was understandably nervous.

The post-film Q-and-A session started badly. One Arab rose to protest that the film failed to portray the suffering of the Palestinian people, and half the audience applauded. Another man was unhappy with the lack of scenes depicting Israeli brutality.

Finally a woman stood up, identified herself as an Arab refugee from Gaza, said she loved the movie and asked how she could get a copy for her friends and relatives.

With such a Palestinian imprimatur on the record, the audience turned friendly, and the evening was deemed a considerable success.

By now, "West Bank" has been shown at 112 film festivals on every continent except Africa, and has been occasionally criticized as being "too American" or "too simplistic."

But it has also garnered 25 awards, including the Audience Choice Prize in, would you believe, Beijing, China. Requests for DVDs of the movie have come for Qatar, Egypt and other Muslim countries.

Sandel describes the short film genre as "the no-man's land of filmmaking," with no studio backing and few monetary rewards -- he still hasn't made back his $74,000 investment. But it can be a great calling card, especially with an Oscar attached.

By descent and inclination, Sandel is "obsessed" by the politics of the Middle East, visits Israel every year and seems open to all views. He is active in both the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and Peace Now, two groups usually on opposite sides of the fence.

For Oscar night, Feb. 25, Sandel will rent a tuxedo and, like a good Jewish boy, escort his mother Kathy down the red carpet.

In Israel, his cousins will get up a party, and at his father's house in Malibu, friends and relatives will watch the show on television.

The evening's refreshments will be falafel and hummus.

For more information, visit www.westbankstory.com. {--Tracker Pixel for Entry--}

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