A Familiar Story Could Snag Oscar

By Elissa Strauss

Published February 23, 2007, issue of February 23, 2007.
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This year’s list of Oscar nominees is rife with films that make political statements — “Blood Diamond,” “Babel,” “The Queen,” “The Last King of Scotland.” Add to this “West Bank Story,” a film nominated in the “live action short” category. Set in the West Bank, the film is about the eruption of love between an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian falafel-stand worker.

Except this one is a comedy. And a musical.

Director and co-writer Ari Sandel said that making such a lighthearted film about a topic this heavy terrified him at first. In fact, the project existed as only a title for five months after he first had the idea; his own doubts, as well as those of practically everyone he knows, got to him.

But Sandel said that, after teaming up with co-writer Kim Ray, he was able to see it in a new light. Together they decided that in order for the film to work, they would have to both simplify the story and, more importantly, illustrate the similarities between Israelis and Arabs. Sandel, who was raised in Los Angeles by his Israeli father, and has made yearly visits to Israel throughout his life, had no trouble tapping into the country’s culture for a little humor. But he wasn’t interested in just making Jews laugh. So in order to make the film fair and funny to Arabs, as well, Sandel and his team consulted in both informal and formal settings with Arabs living in Los Angeles.

“We made sure that for every joke against one side, we had one for the other,” he said. “Likewise, for every endearing or heartfelt moment for the Palestinians, we had to have one for the Israelis. Balance was crucial to staying credible.”

The film, shot in a mock “Arab village” in Santa Clarita, Calif., has received a warm reception from both sides. Copies are now in libraries worldwide, including some in Israel and in Egypt.

Now, Sandel awaits Sunday night, where what was once his ridiculous vision has a shot at an Academy Award. Win or lose, though, Sandel has no plans to stop. “I have a few more Middle Eastern films up my sleeve, I am sure,” he said.


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