Dialogue With Israeli Director, Dani Menkin

Dani Menkin

The growing prominence of Israeli films was evident in the recent Oscar awards when Joseph Cedar’sFootnote was a strong contender for Best Foreign-Language Film award.  At the 16th Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia, Dani Menkin and Yonatan Nir’s Dolphin Boy was shown to an appreciative audience on Saturday night, March 3.  Director Menkin also spoke at Drexel’s Judaic Studies Program about the making of fiction and documentary films in Israel on March 5.

Dolphin Boy is about an Israeli Arab teen, Morad, who’d been so savagely beaten by his classmates that he becomes catatonic, suffering from a form of post-traumatic shock.  His father refuses to commit him to an institution, and in desperation, he brings Morad to the Dolphin Reef in Eilat for aquatic therapy.  The documentary follows Morad over four years as he learns to communicate first with the dolphins, then with the human world, but with some kind of amnesia about his trauma.

Menkin, who’s spending the year teaching at Wesleyan University and is Artist- in-Residence at Syracuse University, showed clips of his movies and recalled his early career as a sports reporter for the Israeli sports channel in 1994.  In 2001, he worked on an adventure series for National Geographic.  During those years, Menkin worked as a directing supervisor for the Israeli feature Hochmat HaBeygale (The Wisdom of the Pretzel)  with the director Ilan Heitner.

Once he realized that the short documentaries that he’d been making on sports could be considered “films,” he started working on longer-length features.  Documentaries, said Menkin, offer more surprises than in fiction.  Menkin compares making a documentary to going fishing– you could come up with nothing, a little fish, or a dolphin (a reference to Dolphin Boy).  He normally shoots about an hour of footage for each minute of the final film.

Menkin named his film company, Hey Jude Productions, after the McCartney song lyrics, “Take a sad song and make it better.”  His 2005 feature 39 Pounds of Love is about a man named Ami Ankilewitz, who was diagnosed at childhood with an extremely rare form of spinal muscular dystrophy that severely limited his physical growth and movement.  When Menkin embarked on filming, he knew only that his subject was disabled.   He did not know that there would also be a love story and that Ankilewitz would be so funny.  In fact, the film never once mentioned the disease or used the term, “disabled,” at the request of Ankilewitz.  39 Pounds of Love was nominated for the Oscars and was shown on HBO.  Menkin could also do the converse: take a funny or light story and find the emotional, serious core, as in his recent Je T’aime I Love You Terminal about 24 hours in a young man’s life after his misses his connecting flight home to his fiancée.

Menkin never studied film-making but, ironically, he now teaches it.  Citing Paul McCartney who never studied music but played from the heart, so that “he didn’t know he wasn’t supposed to double his notes,” Menkin made many mistakes with his first film, but those mistakes have become his signature style.  For Je T’aime I Love You Terminal, he filmed without any professional actors, relying on real people (including his mother) and he allowed room for improvisation.  He does what “feels right” to him.

Director Joseph Cedar said to The Jerusalem Report [February 27, 2012]: “When you look at those [Israeli] films, the reason they were nominated or received attention outside of Israel didn’t really have to do with their political message or their subject matter.  It had to do with filmmaking.”  Menken also does not make movies about the political situation in the Middle East, but he does want to say that what is unique in Israel is the Film Fund, in which the government subsidizes film-making, including the ones that criticize national policies.   Last year’s Israeli version of Occupy Wall Street, which resulted in a turnout of some 350,000 people, was led by filmmakers in a citizens’ revolt against economic inequalities.  Menkin related that the government also applauded the protestors.  The freedom accorded to Israeli filmmakers is a luxury that he values, in light of the concern he has for his Egyptian friends and colleagues and the national turmoil they’re experiencing at home.

During a discussion, I asked Menkin that in comparison to early cinema in America and the thriving Bollywood cinema in India, why does Israel not make escapist movies?  ”The Wisdom of the Pretzel” wasan escapist movie, retorted  Menkin.  More seriously, he believes that Israeli films tend to be more realistic, because of minimalist  budgets that precludes elaborate sets, costumes, and fantasy sequences.  Under the constraints, Menkin chooses to tell an “honest, character-driven story” and he tries to be original.  He hopes that in two years, he could make an authentic American movie with a universal theme — “although they might still eat hummus,” quipped Menkin.  This was puzzling as he acknowledges that his best stories — even the ones that succeed in America — are of Israeli characters.  Professor Rakhmiel Peltz, Director of Judaic Studies at Drexel, was vocally aggrieved, pointing out that the real-life characters in Dolphin Boywere uniquely Israeli, and thus more interesting for their uniqueness.   Menkin recalled his wonder that an Arab father could be as nurturing as a Jewish mother.

Israeli films have garnered four Oscar nominations in the past five years, which is proportionally high for a small nation.  Since 1991, the Israeli Ophir Award winner for Best Film is automatically designated the Israeli submission for the Oscar.  In 2008, The Band’s Visit won the Ophir Award for Best Film but was disqualified from the Oscars for containing too much English dialogue.  The runner-up Beaufort was submitted in its place, resulting in Israel’s first Oscar nomination in 23 years.  Dolphin Boy will open in New York cinemas on April 23rd.