September 24, 2018

History and cultural struggles filmed in distinctive Jewish worlds

Among this fall’s cinematic gems are two from director Dani Menkin, an Israeli who now lives and works in Los Angeles. During a recent interview, Menkin indicated that both films are very personal, each in its own way. 

The first, a documentary called “On the Map,” chronicles events leading up to Feb. 17, 1977, when Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team — generally considered a “loser” — defeated a championship-caliber Russian team in a run-up to the European Cup finals. At the time, the Soviets didn’t even recognize the State of Israel, and, until that point, the European Basketball League had been dominated by Italy, Spain and the Soviet Union.  

Menkin uses actual game footage and incorporates interviews with Maccabi team members then and now, including Israeli players and Americans who were drafted for the team, such as Tal Brody (onetime team captain), Miki Berkowitz, Eric Minkin and Aulcie Perry. After the victory over the Soviets, Brody made a statement that inspired the film’s title, declaring, “We are on the map, and we are staying on the map, not only in sports, but in everything!”

The Maccabis progressed to the finals, defeated an Italian club and won the European Cup. 

The director remembers watching the European championship game on television as a boy of 7. “My father was celebrating with me and lifting me on his shoulders and taking me to the municipality square. And then we heard that the prime minister [Yitzhak Rabin] resigned.” Rabin was resigning because of controversial revelations that he and his wife illegally held bank accounts in the United States, but he had postponed announcing his resignation until the game was over.

“Everyone in the country was literally watching the game. The streets were empty. We were living for this game,” Menkin explained, adding, “Maccabi Tel Aviv became one of the most important basketball clubs outside of the United States. They won five more European championships, the most recent being two years ago.”

With this film, the director feels he is telling a kind of David and Goliath story against the backdrop of Israeli history and the Cold War. He makes use of archival material from the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War, as well as from Entebbe, the peace accords with Egypt, and other significant events, covering such prominent figures as Prime Ministers Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin and Menachem Begin, as well as former Israeli Defense Minster Moshe Dayan, who attended every Maccabi game and would shake hands with all the Maccabi players, as well as with the opposing team.

“My challenge,” Menkin said, “was to make it not only as a sports movie, but to make it very much a fascinating drama about an underdog trying to prevail and trying to make it in an unusual atmosphere.”

“On The Map” opens Nov. 25.

“Sand Storm”

On a heavier note, life’s road for Bedouin women in the Middle East is scarcely a matter of choice, but is strictly circumscribed, as depicted in the movie “Sand Storm,” which marks the feature film debut of Jewish-Israeli director Elite Zexer. The action is set in southern Israel’s Negev Desert, where the usually nomadic Bedouins have settled. As the story begins, 42-year-old Jalila (Ruba Blal-Asfour) finds herself in the humiliating position of having to be the host at the wedding of her husband, Suliman (Haitham Omari), to a second, much younger wife, and being obliged to help move some things into the home next door that he has fixed up for the second spouse.

To her dismay, Jalila soon learns that her oldest daughter, 18-year-old Layla (Lamis Ammar), is in love with a university schoolmate, a relationship that is forbidden, largely because he is not part of Layla’s tribe. Jalila rails at her daughter, but then takes her side when Suliman, who is modern enough to send his daughter to the university, teach her to drive and give her a cellphone, nevertheless arranges a marriage for Layla to a virtual stranger.

“This juxtaposition is at the heart of this movie and it drives a huge portion of the plot,” Zexer explained. “Like many of the young Bedouin women these days, Layla goes out to university and experiences a different, more modern world. But she must go back and live her life under the same traditional patriarchal rules with which she grew up in her village. This puts her in a difficult situation, and forces her ultimately to make very difficult choices, between her family obligations and the individual choices she would have wanted to make for herself.”

Zexer said the motivation to make this film came out of her experiences accompanying her mother, a still photographer, who was taking pictures of Bedouin women from various villages in the desert. The director recalled that she was immediately captivated, and a day turned into weeks, then months, then years, as she befriended the Bedouin women. 

“Their stories became very close to my heart. On one of our visits, we escorted a young woman during her wedding to a strange man, a man she only married due to her family’s wishes, while she secretly loved another. Minutes before she met him for the first time, she turned to me and said, ‘This will never happen to my daughter.’ I looked at her and felt my stomach twitching. That’s the moment I knew that I had to make this movie.”

“Sand Storm” opens Oct. 7.

“The Ruins of Lifta”

Two other films deal with the fallout from very different wars.

An abandoned Arab village on the western road to Jerusalem — the only such village which has not been settled by Jews, is still standing, and has remained empty since the 1948 Arab-Israeli War — forms the catalyst for delving into the history of Israel and of Palestinian-Jewish relations in the documentary “The Ruins of Lifta.”

The village was designated for luxury redevelopment by the Israeli Land Authority, a move that would eradicate a historical Arab site and is opposed by the Palestinian-Jewish Coalition to Save Lifta.

The movie, which may prove controversial in certain quarters, as it raises basic questions about the campaign to establish the State of Israel, is guided by co-filmmaker Menachem Daum, a Brooklyn-based orthodox Jew and the son of Polish Holocaust survivors. Daum’s parents taught him that Poles and Palestinians alike all hate Jews. But when Daum visits Poland, he is filmed meeting aged Poles who risked their lives to save Jews during World War II, and also meeting young ones who volunteer to restore old Jewish cemeteries that contain the remains of his ancestors.

Realizing that he has been fed a skewed view of Polish people, Daum wonders if the same overgeneralization holds for the perspective he has inherited regarding Palestinians, so he travels to Israel to get a more direct experience with them.

His major Palestinian contact is Yacoub Odeh, who says his family was forced out of Lifta during the war in1948 by a group of Jewish combatants that the Jews called Lehi, but who came to be known as the Stern Gang. As it happens, Daum’s uncle, Meyer Yosef, was a charismatic member of that militant group.

The issues become increasingly complex, as Odeh challenges Daum by asking why his family should have been forced out of their village by Jewish refugees, making his people pay for the sins of the Nazis.

On the other side, Yosef’s daughter and granddaughter remember him as a heroic icon, although they never learned anything about his tactics as a fighter. His daughter discusses her memories of Arabs in Lifta throwing grenades and shooting at Jews who were driving to Jerusalem. She also talked of the village as being a hiding place for Arab terrorists of the time. 

Ultimately, the film attempts to look dispassionately at conflicting claims arising out of the Holocaust and the Nakba (the Arab exile of 1948). 

The documentary ends at the point where, due to the Coalition’s campaign, Lifta is nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the Israeli courts have halted the redevelopment plans, at least for the moment; final approval depends on the Israeli government agreeing to preserve Lifta.

In the press notes, Daum’s co-filmmaker, Oren Rudavsky, says, “The beautiful village of Lifta, one of the few remaining sites where Palestinian homes have not been re-inhabited by Jews or been destroyed, serves as a reminder of our difficult history together and an opportunity to share the story of the conflict. We believe — as others do not — that through telling the story, as we Jews do of our exodus from Egypt, we will become more sensitive to the plight of those less fortunate among us. And this sensitivity may eventually lead us to the path of resolution. That is our goal in this film.” 

“The Ruins of Lifta” opens Oct. 28.