Amidst the hubbub over the snubbing of supposed sure thing Dreamgirls in the best picture category, Oscar devotees may not have noticed another, lower-profile musical that did garner a nod for best picture, albeit best short picture: Ari Sandel’s West Bank Story, a musical comedy set against the backdrop of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Imagine a mash-up of The Naked Gun and West Side Story trimmed down to 20 minutes and you’ll have a decent impression of the film’s quirky sensibility.
Falafel restaurant owners face off in West Bank Story
The short, which has played at more than 100 festivals including Sundance, reimagines Tony and Maria as David and Fatima, star-crossed lovers whose dueling families own neighboring falafel restaurants. The cast sing, dance, and snap their way through an allegory of the current political situation: After a Kosher Kitchen employee installs a falafel machine that crosses the property line, a Hummas Hut worker throws a rock into the gears. In response, the Kitchen owner decides to erect a wall between the two establishments. Threats and angry words are exchanged. Can David and Fatima’s love overcome their families’ mutual animosity? Does Maria feel pretty?
Sandel, a California native and USC film school graduate who has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East, says that he made a comedy about what many consider to be a categorically unfunny subject to “counteract the multitudes of negative documentaries and news reports that, while very informative, usually seem to be skewed to one side and always leave the viewer feeling like this conflict will go on forever.” He wanted his film to be a hopeful one. “I truly believe that peace between Israelis and Arabs will be achieved and don’t believe it is a hopeless endeavor,” he says. “We wanted to make a film that would convey that feeling.”
Over the years the Academy has honored many movies dealing with Jewish themes: Schindler’s List, The Pianist, and five of the last 11 best documentary winners, including One Day in September, about the killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The Academy also regularly rewards performances in such movies—as perennial nominee Kate Winslet, playing a fictional version of herself on Ricky Gervais’ show Extras, put it, “if you do a film about the Holocaust, guaranteed an Oscar.”
Dance scene in the Hummus Hut
Needless to say, none of these pictures have been musical comedies. Did the Academy think they were nominating your straightforward drama about the West Bank? How did a movie about a group of Israelis and Palestinians sporting hats shaped like kebabs and pitas score a shot at an Oscar?
Nominated shorts tend to be on the idiosyncratic side—this year’s crop, for example, includes films about a Mormon, a young African girl, an abandoned husband, and an old man who locks himself in an armoire—but increasingly the Academy has favored politically relevant subjects, just as it has for features: Best picture nominees in the last two years have included Babel, Letters from Iwo Jima, Crash, Good Night and Good Luck, and, of course, Munich. Compare that to the 1997 nominees: As Good As it Gets, The Full Monty, Good Will Hunting, L.A. Confidential, and Titanic—five perfectly good movies that don’t have anything more political between them than an iceberg.
Like many of the Jewish-themed films that have been nominated before, West Bank Story has a positive “message.” Schindler’s List and The Pianist, though devastating, ultimately gave viewers something to take heart in, a lesson about humanity’s capacity for good even in the most brutal, debased circumstances (a moral embodied most fully in Holocaust “comedy” Life is Beautiful, which, of course, snagged Roberto Benigni an Oscar in 2000). West Bank Story has a similarly upbeat message, advising us, it seems, “take heart, peace might be as easy as making falafel.”
But is making peace (or falafel, for that matter) so simple? At the end of West Bank Story, both the Hummus Hut and Kosher Kitchen have been destroyed, and the Israelis and Palestinians realize they must work together to stay in business and keep their customers fed. After screaming at each other for most of the film, each family dancing as the other’s storefront burns to the ground, the two sides reconcile in about a minute.
This warp-speed resolution has struck many viewers as overly simplistic, a criticism Sandel acknowledges is accurate. He says the film has to be simple—it’s a comedy, after all—and besides, it’s “not meant to be a learning tool for the situation in the Middle East. It is not an historical explanation, or a political solution on screen. It is a movie about hope and peace and that is it.”
For critics who find the film to be in poor taste, Sandel points out television shows such as Israel’s Wonderful Country, a kind of Daily Show-Saturday Night Live hybrid. “Palestinians and Israelis joke about this all the time. [They] are a little more comfortable with it because they’re in it and they’re close to it, whereas sometimes American Jews and Arabs feel an obligation to speak on behalf of.”
Still, it’s difficult to take heart in the film’s “hope,” when the situation it presents so faintly resembles the one unfolding in that “multitude of negative documentaries” we’ve all seen. By forgoing the complexities of the conflict, we’re being given hope about a problem we don’t have. It’s like having a mechanic fix your tire, when what you need is a whole new engine—it’s nice, but really not the point.
Despite this, and the fact that only a fraction of the jokes in West Bank Story actually land, the movie has an ineffable goofiness that makes it easy to dismiss but hard not to enjoy. As Sandel says, “In a world of hundreds and hundreds if not thousands of news reports, articles, and documentaries that are all very serious, surely there’s room for a comedy here and there.”