Ari Sandel at the 2006 Academy Awards.
By Suzanne Kurtz
Every Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominee knows a little something about hope. Sitting inside the Kodak Theater on Hollywood’s most glamorous night, some are hoping to win an Oscar ®. Some are hoping not to trip on the stairs when accepting their award or during their acceptance speech.
For the 21-minute film “West Bank Story,” the 2006 Academy Award winner for “Best Live Action Short,” hope was a central plot point.
In an emotional 60-second acceptance speech, the film’s director, Ari Sandel, told the audience he “made a comedy musical about Israelis and Palestinians…in the West Bank… and it’s a movie about peace and about hope. Hope is not hopeless.”
Set in a West Bank town, the film is a love story between an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian girl. Their romance is complicated by a feud between two nationalistic falafel restaurants, the Palestinian Hummus Hut and the Israeli Kosher King. Featuring song and dance numbers with absurdly costumed Arabs and Jews, the film is reminiscent of “West Side Story,” a take on Romeo and Juliet. Initially a student project, Sandel, 32, borrowed $74,000 from friends and family and devoted a year and a half to making the film before it premiered at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival.
Raised in Calabasas, in southern California, Sandel attended the University of Arizona where he was a member of the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity. After graduation in 1998, Sandel moved back to California and began his career as a production assistant for the FX channel’s “The X Show.” Soon he began hosting and producing a comedic seven-minute travel segment for the show, “The Traveler,” which aired for two years.
Eventually, Sandel enrolled in the MFA program at the University of Southern California to study directing and started brainstorming ideas for his required thesis project, an under-30 minute film.
Acknowledging that short films are frequently an aspiring director’s “calling card,” Sandel and his writing partner, Kim Ray, knew they had to come up with a compelling and interesting story idea if they were going to get noticed.
With an Israeli-born father, Sandel has visited Israel nearly every year since he was a child. Making a film about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seemed natural, if not challenging. “I am very familiar and comfortable with the history and culture of the Middle East,” he says, explaining his motivation for choosing his subject matter. “And I have a personal obsession with politics.”
But making a musical comedy about the issues proved more complicated. “We started off with something about checkpoints and suicide bombers,” says Sandel. “It had all the complications of the reality of the world. And it was really not funny. We needed to come up with a more absurdist approach so people would know that this is supposed to be a comedy.”
A comedy, yes, but one with a serious message.
“The message of the film is to promote the idea that both sides are more similar than they care to admit,” concedes Sandel. And what they have in common, he says, is food -- hummus and falafel, specifically.
After our interview, Sandel is off to Israel where he’ll screen the film for the Eilat Film Festival and the Mideast Press Club. Soon he’ll begin promoting his next project, "Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show: 30 Days & 30 Nights – Hollywood to the Heartland," set to be released in February 2008. “It’s very funny and has a lot of heart,” says Sandel who directed the full-length documentary film.
Yet there’s no denying the attention “West Bank Story” has garnered. Immediately after accepting the Academy Award, Sandel says he received 215 text messages. By the next morning, he had 1,500 e-mails in his inbox from former teachers, Muslim and Jewish interfaith couples and girls in New York wanting coffee dates.
But for all the accolades and praise, there were some critics of the film who found its message of love and hummus both simplistic and naïve.
Sandel responds to the criticism with categorical optimism. “It certainly is simplistic. It has to be; it’s a comedy,” he says. “But naïve? I don’t think there’s anything naïve about being hopeful.”
Suzanne Kurtz is editor of Hillel Campus Report, a monthly e-newsletter on Jewish campus life.