When my Jewish mother dead-bolted the doors at night in our small-town Missouri apartment because, as she always said, "you never know" when the Nazis are coming back, I laughed at her. Now the Nazis are back. They're tagging synagogues with swastikas and threatening to bomb Jewish community centers in Seattle and around the world.
No better time then for the 22nd annual Seattle Jewish Film Festival (March 25 to April 2), which is loaded up this year with incredible films and special events that speak to a wide range of Jewish experience. Who's Gonna Love Me Now? gives you the perspective of a gay Israeli caught between a sense of home and freedom. Famous Jewish comedians discuss whether the Holocaust can be funny in The Last Laugh. And Wig Shop, a short film with some of the best acting I've ever seen, tells a tangled tale of racial tension between Jews and African Americans, infidelity, and the hard search for a good sheitel.
But too often, audiences treat festivals of this kind as a form of tourism and not a forum for discussion. Having such a big and wild variety of films, as SJFF does, gives us the opportunity to ask tough questions and to actually exchange ideas instead of just passively consume them.
It was in this spirit that I spoke with award-winning Israeli filmmaker Dani Menkin about his film On the Map, a thrilling documentary about an underdog Israeli basketball team whose 1977 championship win paralleled Israel's military dominance in the region (showing April 2).
In a recent interview with JewTube, you say that Maccabi Tel Aviv winning the 1977 European basketball championship was as important to Israel as walking on the moon was to Americans. You also say that team captain Tal Brody's post-win phrase, "We're on the map, and we will stay on the map—not only in sports, but in everything," became the 11th Commandment. Is that true? How pervasive is this "on the map" phrase in Israel?
If you see Tal Brody walking down the streets of Israel, you'll see people stopping him every other block and saying, "We're on the map." This phrase of his became such a slogan for him—and for us, for the people—in the way that "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" became a slogan for the United States. It was one small moment that became reflective of how everybody felt after Maccabi Tel Aviv beat the Russian basketball team during the Cold War.
This is a David and Goliath story about young American men choosing to leave America to play for Israel and experiencing great success. It makes me want to make aliyah and buy a house near Hebron! Is that kind of messed up though, given that the settlements in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip have been called "obstacles to peace" in the region?
I don't see it as a movie that supports any settlements whatsoever. I do see it as a movie that supports the story of the country of Israel, which is heroic and unbelievable and the number one democracy in the Middle East and probably one of the best in the world. I'm proud of this story. This is a story about Jewish Americans coming from America to play for the Maccabi basketball team and beating the Russians. This is also a story about a country that is striving for its survival in a very complicated political environment, finding itself united behind one basketball team that really represents the country at the time.
The United States has been criticized for creating stories about its greatness but leaving out the stories of marginalized groups that built the country. The Birth of a Nation painted a portrait of black people as rapists, even though black people built our country. We have this myth of manifest destiny—God gave us this land. While I was watching On the Map, I could see these same themes coming up.
My intention was to make a sports story, which—as the best stories always are—is larger than just the game. I would say that On the Map is the Forrest Gump of Israel's history. Having all those political stories interact with the film played to my advantage as a storyteller. I don't have a claim to any political dispute. I just made it for the love of storytelling, for the love of a great basketball team, and for the love of my country.
So it's not political but it is political?
It's definitely a story that crosses from the sport world into the political and diplomatic world, and that's what makes it one of the great sports stories. What it doesn't have is a political statement. Do you understand the difference between a political statement and a political story?
No. But sure. You say that this sports story crosses over from the sport world into the political world, but I'm asking if you see your movie crossing over from the movie world into the political world?
It doesn't come with an agenda or a point of view. It doesn't say settlements are wrong or definitely right. So if people think after watching this film they want to move their house to Hebron, they can be my guest! I have no intention to do it! I can only promise that I'm not going to come to visit. If it makes you want to come and eat ice cream and see all the beautiful girls in Tel Aviv and enjoy our country, then come and visit! We do have a wonderful country and our country has a right to exist, but that doesn't mean I think the right party is correct and the left party is wrong. There are movies that are like that, but mine is not! Sure, it's open to interpretation. That's what's nice about art.