"West Bank Story," a short musical comedy touching on life in the West Bank, was awarded an Oscar for best live action short film on Sunday.
"Oh my God," the film's shocked American director, Ari Sandel, said in accepting the award. "I made a comedy, a musical about Israelis and Palestinians that takes place between two falafel stands in the West Bank. It's a movie about peace and hope." "To get this award goes to show that there are so many people who support that notion," said the California-born director, adding that the aspiration for peace was not "hopeless."
The film focuses on two fast food stands that specialize in falafel and hummus – "Kosher King," run by Jewish West Bank residents, and "Hummus Hut," run by Palestinians. The pretty cashier Fatima and the sweet Israeli soldier David fall in love despite the rivalry between their families, but the love story, laden with serenades and veiled glances, leads to the destruction of the two restaurants. At the end of the film, both sides are forced to work together to fill local residents' endless appetite for hummus.
"I was always interested in politics, primarily the Middle East conflict," said Sandel, 32, the film's director and co-writer, in a phone interview with Haaretz from his home in Los Angeles. He said he is active in several political organizations, including Peace Now. "I studied Islam and Judaism in college, and visited many countries in the Middle East, including Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Turkey and Dubai. I've watched around 100 documentaries about the conflict, and found that almost all of them were pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian. They were full of information, interesting and fascinating, but almost all are depressing and devoid of any hope.
"I decided I wanted to make a film that would give viewers a feeling that there is hope, because I really do believe peace between the sides is possible, that it can happen." Even though he visits Israel every year, Sandel, whose mother is American and whose father is Israeli, repeatedly noted that he was careful to maintain balance in his film. "I wanted to create a film that would do three things: draw attention, make people laugh and present a positive and balanced position in support of peace," he said.
"It was important to me to be very careful to maintain balance and equality between the sides, because most films show only one side of the conflict and then viewers from the other side feel the movie is biased." Therefore, workers at both restaurants are dressed in ridiculous uniforms, and there are equal numbers of jokes about both sides. The Palestinian cashier, for example, fires rounds from an automatic weapon at the ceiling when she greets customers at the Hummus Hut. And when the Israelis plan to build a separation fence between the restaurants, the Palestinians burst into laughter: "Jews and construction? That's the funniest thing we've ever heard."
Sandel chose a musical comedy, he said, because this is "a way of abstracting the story of the conflict, taking the suffering out of it so that people can let down their defenses and identify with the characters on both sides. I knew that dances and songs would make the subject more light-hearted, more accessible. It's a lot easier to see Jews and Arabs dancing together than to see them fighting. After all, dancing is so far removed from what people usually think about Jews and Arabs."
Yuval Ron, an Israeli composer living in Los Angeles, wrote the soundtrack and integrated Arabic and Israeli music with jazz. Sandel noted that he chose Israeli actors to play the Jewish characters and Palestinian actors to play Hummus Hut workers. And indeed, when things heat up on the screen, the characters from both sides drop English and start cursing in their languages.
The movie was filmed in Santa Clarita, near Los Angeles, in a quasi-Arab city a local resident set up on his ranch. The place is frequently used by the American film industry. "West Bank Story" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival two years ago in the short film competition. The film's Web site notes that it has been screened at 111 festivals, and has won prizes at 23 of them. Sandel related that he showed the film at the Dubai Film Festival, among others, and many Palestinians approached him and asked for a copy to show to their relatives in the territories.