In Todd Felderstein's documentary, "MAGIC(S)," a Palestinian boy lies listless in a Jerusalem hospital, a tracheotomy tube affixed to his throat. But he perks up when Michael Tulkoff, a.k.a. "Magic Michael," arrives and pulls toy flutes from his violin case full of tricks. The Chasidic magician coaxes young Machmoud to toot along with him, in order to strengthen his lungs and overcome his fear of suffocation.
Later, Tulkoff encourages a Jewish brain cancer patient to wrap his semi-paralyzed fingers around a single ball that "multiplies" into three in his palm.
"The real 'magic' is that Michael transcends politics to help both Israeli and Palestinian children," Felderstein says from his Los Angeles home. "He crosses cultural lines purely through performance and humor."
The documentary has been nominated for a 2006 L.A. Indies Film Award and screens in Redondo Beach this week.
In the movie, Tulkoff speaks Arabic and Hebrew, his tzitzit streaming from a colorful vest, as he twists balloon animals or turns kerchiefs into ropes to improve kids' morale and motor skills.
If the tone of "MAGIC(S)" is overly celebratory, it's because Felderstein and Tulkoff, both 42, have been close friends since they met in junior high in suburban Baltimore in the 1970s. The budding magician was already performing for sick children, and he went on to hone his hospital act as he became religious. He was voted best local magician by Baltimore magazine in 1998 and made aliyah several years later.
Don't compare him to Patch Adams, the famed American clown-physician, however.
"I am a medical magician, not a clown," he insists in the film. "My act is based on rehabilitation, not just laughter."
It was this unique approach -- and Tulkoff's multicultural work -- that prompted Felderstein to make "MAGIC(S)" in 2003. Using a handheld camera, he captures mothers in burkas laughing with Tulkoff and a Palestinian social worker who considers the magician an integral part of her medical team.
But Felderstein insists his movie neither becomes pro-Israel propaganda, nor does it ignore the Middle East crisis. In one scene, a Gaza businessman says he alone has been permitted to stay for months in the hospital with his leukemia-stricken son; his wife is not allowed to visit. The Palestinian social worker reveals that she lives in Ramallah and exists "between checkpoints."
Yet Tulkoff himself eschews politics. When the boom of a suicide bombing frightened some young patients, he quipped: "It's a good thing I brought my umbrella."
"MAGIC(S)" screens April 26, 8 p.m., at Harbor Drive, 655 N. Harbor Drive, Redondo Beach. The L.A. Indies Awards will be held at the same location on July 26. For more information, visit www.laindies.com.
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