An Israeli Filmmaker Finds an Unlikely Muse

What do “Easy Rider,” Johnnie Walker, Walt Disney and the State of Israel have in common?

Allow me to introduce Ami Ankilewitz. Born in Laredo, Texas, Ankilewitz was diagnosed with a rare form of muscular dystrophy as an infant, and his mother was told that he would not live past the age of 6. Now 34, he lives in a small apartment along with his caretaker. Ankilewitz weighs 39 pounds and is able to move only the index finger of his left hand.

Don’t see the connection? Let me try again.

Meet Ami Ankilewitz, a computer animator living in Israel. Ankilewitz speaks three languages: English, Hebrew and Spanish. He loves motorcycles, has a tattoo of a Harley-Davidson on his right arm, is an avid drinker of whiskey and has dreams of traveling across the United States.

Ankilewitz is the subject and star of the award-winning Israeli documentary “39 Pounds of Love,” directed by Dani Menkin. For Menkin — whose last feature film, “The Wisdom of the Pretzel,” was nominated for 10 Academy Awards in Israel — “39 Pounds of Love” is the first international offering. The movie has garnered top awards at four film festivals and won the prize for best documentary at the Israeli Academy Awards. According to Menkin, the film has also been short listed for the Oscars.

The filmmaker stumbled upon his subject while on a date — at first startled by Ami’s emaciated and contorted frame. “I was at a bar — not the type of place I normally go — and just happened to see Ami,” Menkin said in an interview with the Forward. “I was in shock, because I had never seen anything like that.”

The film began as a portrait of Ankilewitz and his refusal to succumb to the doctor’s prophesy. “But four months after we started shooting,” Menkin said, “Ami told me about Christina.”

Christina was Ankilewitz’s caretaker and, eventually, romantic interest. Taking this into account, Menkin broadened the scope, allowing his movie to become something new: a love story.

“She’s beautiful, young, alive,” Ankilewitz says at one point in the film. “There is nothing in this world I want more than to be with her. Even if I had to choose between walking or being with her, I would take being with her.”

But Christina does not reciprocate. Though heartbroken, Ankilewitz is changed by his experience of unrequited love — and the movie shifts yet again, this time to an adventure story. He sets out to fulfill his life-long dream: a road trip across America to find Albert Cordova, the doctor who diagnosed his illness and told his mother he would not live to be an adult. “I wanted to meet him,” Ankilewitz says, “to emphasize that doctors should not put a timeline on life… I’m just here to show the world that love for life and love for love itself is enough to bring about impossible things… like the fact that I live and enjoy life every day.”

Amid all this drama lies, perhaps, the most creative element of the film. Spliced with and, at times, superimposed over the footage are clips from Ankilewitz’s own animation. “I always wanted to use it in the film,” Menkin said, “but Ami only started working on the animation in the film after Christina left.” In fact, the animation is a kind of elegy to Christina. But don’t worry about Ankilewitz. “He does have a new love in his life,” Menkin said. “A new girl.”

Adam Stern is a writer living in New York.


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An Israeli Filmmaker Finds an Unlikely Muse

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