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Jewish Journal

Unique Film Flies on

by Gaby Wenig

January 2, 2003 | 7:00 pm

Filmmakers prepare to shoot a scene with Ami Ankilewitz,an American-born Israel animator with muscular distrophy,for the documentary "39 Pounds of Love."

Filmmakers prepare to shoot a scene with Ami Ankilewitz,an American-born Israel animator with muscular distrophy,for the documentary "39 Pounds of Love."

Ami Ankilewitz, 34, weighs 39 pounds. He is lying on the front seat of car, because he cannot sit without support, and he occupies about half of the space that the seat creates. He is wearing leather pants, and sports a tattoo on his arm of the astrological sign Leo, and another that says, "When love flies, the heart dies."

Ankilewitz is an arresting site -- bony, angular limbs that hang off a tiny frame and menacing coal-black eyes that stare out of his sharply pointed face. He has just come back from riding a Harley-Davidson motorcycle for the first time -- something he has wanted to do for a while.

He could not ride astride the motorcycle and instead had to sit in a sidecar, savoring the experience. "I felt free on the Harley," he said softly, the words straining from a mouth that cannot open properly.

Ankilewitz is the subject of a film being produced under the auspices of the master class program of the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership. The film, which will be titled, "39 Pounds of Love," is the story of Ankilewitz, an American-born Israeli suffering from a severe form of muscular dystrophy that has left him incapacitated, except for the use of one finger.

Although he is unable to support his body weight, and needs an attendant to help him with all basic living tasks -- from bathing to brushing his teeth -- Ankilewitz has used that one finger to become a successful 3-D animator and to build a business in future contracts trading. Ankilewitz is also a rebel who likes to party, frequenting Tel Aviv bars.

It was Ankilewitz's defiant spirit trapped in a disabled body that inspired Israeli filmmaker Danny Menkin to tell his story and U.S. producer Lynn Roth to produce it.

The master class, one of the many reciprocal programs of the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership, is now in its fourth year. Under the program, Hollywood filmmakers travel to Tel Aviv to give summer seminars to budding Israeli filmmakers from Tel Aviv University and teach them about the industry. Past instructors have included "Father of the Bride" producer Tzvi Howard Rosenman, and "Boiler Room" director Ben Younger.

During the program, the students make a Hollywood-style pitch on a film project, and the instructors critique it.

Menkin pitched a video of Ankilewitz's story. He had seen Ankilewitz in a bar and mistakenly thought he was some kind of a doll. Menkin started to collect footage of Ankilewitz, which he edited down to a three-minute promotional video.

The video told the story of Ankilewitz's unrequited love for his Romanian nurse, his desire to ride a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and to travel to the United States to find the doctor who, when Ankilewitz was a baby, told his mother that he had no chance of survival.

"I told the producers I was going to tell them a story they had never heard before, and they all started laughing -- they didn't believe me," Menkin said. "But when they saw the video they said 'Wow.'"

Menkin's pitch was successful. Roth watched the promo and burst into tears and vowed to help Menkin make this "My Left Foot"-type road movie.

So Menkin, 32, came to the United States with Ankilewitz, his attendant and a small film crew. They embarked on a two-week road trip across the United States, beginning with Ankilewitz riding the Harley-Davidson and ending with him being united with his brother in Texas and the doctor whose prediction proved wrong.

They shot more than 80 hours of footage, which is currently being edited into a documentary. The footage is raw and emotional. Ankilewitz' meeting with his brother is happy and emotional, but it also reveals long-held bitterness when the brother in Texas tries to come to terms with the resentment he felt growing up because Ankilewitz received the lion's share of his mother's attention.

Menkin, who had been a director in Israel, credits the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership with enabling him to make his first international movie.

"The Tel Aviv-L.A. Partnership introduced me to Lynn Roth, and she opened the door for me here. She is letting us sleep in her house, and she is looking intensively for funding," he said. "The whole thing is unbelievable. I am pinching myself."

Although not all of the money has been raised yet for the film's budget, which Roth estimated will be $100,000, the producer is confident that the film will make it.

"I want the world to see this, and then I want to be nominated for an Oscar," she said. "Is that so much to ask for?"

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