Hollywood’s Other Ari

At the 79th annual Academy Awards, along with Scorsese, Mirren and Whitaker stood a fresh-faced newcomer Ari Sandel, accepting the statue for Best Live Action Short Film for his musical West Bank Story. The sing-songy paean to Arab-Israeli relations was … Read More

By / March 20, 2007

At the 79th annual Academy Awards, along with Scorsese, Mirren and Whitaker stood a fresh-faced newcomer Ari Sandel, accepting the statue for Best Live Action Short Film for his musical West Bank Story. The sing-songy paean to Arab-Israeli relations was shot as a USC thesis film in the middle of a ranch in Santa Clarita, just outside of L.A.

Sandel imported goats, camels, sand and hummus – a whole lot of hummus. (The neighbors must have thought either a remake of Lawrence of Arabia, or a not-very-inviting revision of the South Beach Diet, was underway.)

Arabs played Arabs, Jews played Jews. Everyone got along just beautifully. It was all very un-Hollywood.

Before the fame and swag had a chance to go to his head, Jewcy spoke to Sandel for 17 minutes, on his cell, shuttling between big studio meetings. Hell, our boy’s a macher now (with a name like Ari, what’d you expect?) we’re lucky we didn’t have to leave a voicemail.

You just won an Oscar.

I did.

How’s it feel?

It’s crazy. It’s a total range of emotions that I can’t even explain. It takes a while to set in. Then it does. Then you get used to it for all of a second and then you think about it and can’t believe it all over again. I had 215 text messages on my phone by the time I sat down in my seat, followed by over 3,000 emails from people all over the world. My 4th grade teacher wrote to me, friends I haven’t talked to in years wrote to me, Israelis and Palestinians who liked my speech wrote to me, girls who want to date me wrote to me. It’s been crazy.

Talking of speeches, some would say that the way you deliver your Oscar acceptance speech is as important for the future of your film career as the Oscar itself. Yours was pretty impressive; poised, succinct and you managed to get in both peace in the Middle East and fight for the little guys in Hollywood. Not bad for a first timer.

It wasn’t prepared, memorized or anything like that. I just knew the subjects that I wanted to touch on. My issue was, was I going to have enough time? How fast could I get it out? And how do I make sure I don’t say anything stupid? And I honestly remember nothing about what I said. Nothing. I can remember walking up the stage and I can remember getting back off the stage, but that’s it. I have virtually no memory of being on stage. It was kind of an out-of-body experience.

So, listen, you’re clearly a very busy man now. We should probably cut to the chase. If Borat can put Kazakhstan on the world tourist map, can West Bank Story single-handedly be responsible for peace in the Middle East?

Ha. I would never purport that my film or my speech would have any effect on peace in the Middle East. It might be a little grandiose to assume that. Realistically, it’s probably just another drop in the bucket of positivity, in what I see as a sea of negativity. But I don’t think it’s fair to portray the situation without leaving some kind of avenue of hope. In any situation, whether it’s a documentary, a feature film, I think it’s crucial to leave the audience members with some feeling of hope, otherwise it’s a misrepresentation of the reality.

That’s really interesting. A misrepresentation of the reality? Some would say it’s precisely the other way around.

I think if you don’t leave an audience with some form of avenue by which they can take something good from what you’re trying to convey, then you’re representing the situation as absolutely insolvable and hopeless, and how can anything constructive come from that?

So you look at entertainment and film as something that should be constructive?

I’m not saying that it has to be constructive from an educational perspective. But the specific intention of my movie was to portray a hopefulness. I wanted Israelis to watch it and find themselves liking the Palestinian characters. I wanted Palestinians to watch it and find themselves liking the Israeli characters, particularly because I don’t think that’s something that happens often enough.

In movies where Palestinians are portrayed, they’re generally portrayed as angry, fanatical, sweaty, out of control. Then when you look at Israeli soldiers in any of the Arab movies I’ve seen, they’re brutes, they’re sadistic, they like to deliver pain to Palestinian boys. For those two audiences to see the other in a different light, I think, is a huge plus. Some people will say it’s not completely realistic. Well it’s not designed to be realistic in the sense of the situation on the ground.

And I have got some emails that have blown my mind, that are so touching, from Palestinians who have spoken about their own personal experiences and yet they’re still hopeful. Israelis who talk about their own experiences and yet they’re still hopeful. When you see that and you see the effect that a little movie, even a comedy, can have on people, it’s a meaningful thing. That’s a huge reward for me.

But you’re clearly a nice Jewish boy from Los Angeles. Were you not worried that that would skew people’s reactions to the film or indeed create a sense bias within the film itself? Kind of like if Shakespeare had been a Capulet?

It was my prime concern that the film be balanced. I knew that the entire credibility of the film rested on how even-handed the piece was. We literally made sure that for every joke about Palestinians, we countered it with one about Jews. For every endearing moment with the Jews we made sure to have one with the Palestinians too. In terms of the actual script, I consulted with Palestinian friends, Egyptian friends, Lebanese friends. I spoke with Jews and Israelis, even a Hasidic rabbi, who wasn’t at all offended by the concept of a Palestinian and an Israeli dating, but who was mortally offended that there were going to be scenes with men and women dancing together.

I heard that the film recently played at the Dubai Film Festival. How did that go down?

It was a really phenomenal experience. I went to the festival and did a talkback session after the film. It provoked some really tremendous dialogue, with many people who had never had open dialogue with a Jew before, let a lone regarding a movie that was a comedy. There were some people in the audience had a problem with the movie initially, but you could see them becoming more comfortable with the realization that I didn’t make this movie to make fun of people, that I didn’t make this movie to trivialize anything, that I made it to promote the idea of hope. And when they realized that they were very open to it. Several of them came up to me afterwards, they shook my hand, they told me they were glad I came.

A good friend of mine, the documentary filmmaker, Daniel Chalfen, who has made many films in the Middle East and most recently Iraq was just saying to me that it’s easier to laugh if you’re the oppressor, but it’s not so easy to laugh if you’re the oppressed. Do you have a response to that?

I think it’s a valid point. The question always comes down to the fact that each side views themselves differently. Certainly the Israelis don’t view themselves as the oppressor, though I know the Palestinians view themselves as the oppressed. But when you’re trying to be evenhanded, you can’t get involved in looking at it as who is at fault and who is not at fault. The one thing that I wanted to convey, the reality that I wanted to portray was that both sides are human. And that’s it. And to me, anyone that thinks that is not a reality is wrong. Whatever you’re opinion is of Israel or Palestine.

You’re a pretty hopeful person? Doesn’t the old adage go that it’s the bleak depressives who write the comedies and the happy-clappy hopeful love stories?

I guess I’m an idealist. I grew up in America with a strong sense of the American dream, with the American ideals of justice and opportunity and hope and freedom. I’m not so naïve as to think that this movie is going to be responsible it, but I do believe in my hearts that there will be a peace in the Middle East between Palestinians and Israelis.

You really do?

Yes, I really do. Now the question is what is your definition of peace? Will there be hugging and mingling and going to school together all day? No, probably not. But eventually there will be some kind of amicable solution where they can move forward with some sense of progress. I believe it. I really do.

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