"When you're a falafel king/you're a falafel king all the way/from your first alef-bet/till your last dying day..." OK, maybe that's not exactly how the musical spoof, "West Bank Story," begins, but the short film indeed opens with a cadre of snapping dancers taking on the guys on the other side of the tracks. Yet, in this 22-minute film, instead of Maria and Tony, we have David and Fatima, and the war is not between the Jets and the Sharks, but between the Jewish Kosher King and the Palestinian Humus Hut next door. You can probably guess the rest, but hopefully, since the short was directed and co-written by L.A. native Ari Sendel, you'll get a chance to see it here soon.
"West Bank Story" was one of a handful of Jewish-themed films screened at the Sundance Film Festival, which ended Sunday night in Park City, Utah. With the deafening chatter around this small town about which studio picked up which film for how many millions of dollars, it's hard to sniff out, not the hottest films -- but the most Jewish. While hordes of ecstatically friendly moviegoers snaked around the corner hoping to get into a screening of "Hustle and Flow," the feature about a pimp-cum-rap star from Memphis (which Paramount got in a $16 million deal), I'm desperately trying to sell my extra ticket to a midnight showing of "Odessa Odessa" (I'd take $5-$10), a documentary that follows elderly Ukrainians in Odessa, Brighton Beach and Ashdod. A six-minute short from Israel, "Meet Michael Oppenheim," which, through photographs and sweet narration, attempts to trace filmmaker Roni Aboulafia's family history in Israel, preceded the 96-minute doc.
All roads seem to lead to Israel in the Jewish films at Sundance, even those not directly about the Holy Land. Take "Protocols of Zion," documentarian Marc Levin's personal journey to uncover the resurgence of this anti-Semitic screed since Sept. 11. He starts off at the site of the World Trade Center, talking to people who blame the Jews for the tragedy, and then goes to Middle America and the home of the White Supremacists and other Holocaust deniers. Levin veers away from the "Protocols" to Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ," and then to the streets of Patterson, N.J., to speak to the Palestinian street kids, he ends up -- where else? -- at the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, finding the "Protocols" at the root of all these problems (not without the help the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Rabbi Abraham Cooper and the Anti-Defamation League's Rabbi Abraham Foxman). "Protocols" has been picked up so far by HBO, with an airdate as yet undetermined (they're hoping to sell it to the big screen first).
Perhaps it's a paranoia arising from "Protocols" that I begin to see Jews everywhere at Sundance (well, we are running all of Hollywood, aren't we? When Levin tries to get someone on the phone to discuss Jews in Hollywood, he gets passed around from Norman Lear to Larry David to Rob Reiner and back to Lear again). When I randomly attend "Palermo Hollywood," a feature from Argentina, I am surprised to discover that one of the main characters turns out to be Jewish (nicknamed by his friends "the Jew"), and is running away from his wealthy political family that maintains its standard of living despite the financial crisis.
But the most prominent Jewish film here at Sundance is "Wall," a French/Israeli documentary about the security "fence" being built in Israel.
"I was surprised to find that there are many Jews that are pro-peace in Israel," one foreign journalist told me when she exited the film. Indeed, director Simone Bitton presents a moderate look on both sides of the concrete and barbed wire structure, as she interviews "regular" Palestinians and Israelis, i.e. not the fanatics, the leaders and the spokespeople, but those who live adjacent to the $1 billion project that is meant to bring security to Israel. Bitton is half-Arab and half-Jewish, which is probably why -- with her fluent Hebrew and Arabic -- she is able to have frank conversations with both sides. The picture won a Special Jury Prize in the World Cinema Documentary category, so I'm sure it will be available for viewing soon.
In searching out films with a Jewish or Middle East subject matter, I came across "Planet of the Arabs," a six-minute compilation of clips portraying the Arabs in American film and television.
Dr. Emmett Brown: "Oh my God, they found me, I don't know how, but they found me. Run for it, Marty."
Marty McFly: "Who?"
Dr. Emmett Brown: "Who do you think? The Libyans!"
Filmmaker Jacqueline Salloum shows this clip from "Back to the Future" and more -- from "Lawrence of Arabia," to "The Muppet Show," to (Gov.) Arnold Schwarzenegger's "True Lies" -- to tell audiences to "turn off your televisions," to avoid these negative stereotypes.
Perhaps the fictional and real characters in the "Planet of the Arabs," "The Wall" and "Protocols of Zion" will one day be like Ahmed and Mahmoud, and David and Fatima from "West Bank Story," who, after their stores burn down, realize how much they have in common, and make falafel sandwiches together.