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West Bank Story: Love, Politics, and Hummus

The opening number sets the scene for the rest of the film: There’s the turmoil of rival gangs coupled with a nascent love story that will either unite the warring factions or cause a violent rift. But because this musical is “West Bank Story,” the Oscar-winning short film by Ari Sandel, love, politics, and hummus intertwine in this musical comedy short with a message.

According to the film’s official site, director/co-writer Sandel’s goals were “to make a film that would get attention and also make people laugh; that was pro-peace and offered a message of hope; and that addressed the situation in an even-handed and balanced way so that Jewish and Arab audiences would feel fairly represented enough to let their guard down and laugh WITH the characters from the ‘other side.'”

Sandel took this mission seriously, recruiting Jewish actors to play the Israelis and actors of Arab descent to play the Palestinians. He and his co-writer, Kim Ray, brainstormed a list of things that Jews and Arabs have in common and came up with food. Clearly food as a uniting element between the two sides resonated–the film has played at more than 112 film festivals worldwide (including Sundance in 2005) and screened in 29 U.S. states and in 21 countries including China, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, and the United Arab Emirates.

In one scene, a group of Palestinians (snapping their fingers) approaches a security checkpoint where a young woman, Fatima, meets David, a good-looking Israel Defense Forces soldier. After Fatima and David lock eyes and trade a smile, the Palestinians continue walking toward their business, the Hummus Hut. Then a group of Israelis (snapping their fingers) walks toward their business, the Kosher King. Each group seems happy with their business, “if only our stupid neighbor was not [fill in Hummus Hut or Kosher King} here.”

The two groups sing and dance their way through the musical’s traditional “warring gangs” number, although both groups are saying the same thing: “Our people must be served, our people must be fed.” The groups freeze in a split screen after the song’s final notes–then a Palestinian breaks the freeze. “Your side of the screen is encroaching on our side of the screen,” he says to the Kosher King gang. An argument ensues. Fade to black.

This is only the first scene in a short film that seems to have it all, from the stereotypical (Palestinians smoke a hookah, there’s a fiddler on the roof of the Kosher King, and the music is identifiably “Middle Eastern meets the musical”), to pun-filled (a border guard mistakes a Palestinian’s “hummus” for the word “Hamas”), to funny (a camel snorts at the climax of a love song). The humor is at times cheesy and other times bittersweet, like the “Death By Chocolate Suicide Bomber” cream puff served by the Hummus Hut. (Oh yes, they went there. Now that’s a line that you laugh at and then instantly feel bad about–before laughing again.)

There’s a message in this film too: The hope that food can unite neighbors and love can tear down walls–which, of course, given kosher/halal restrictions and the fact that both groups frown on interfaith relationships, it can’t. Case in point: After meeting Fatima, David is so dizzy in love that he lets the next person at the checkpoint–a sketchy character in full camouflage and a mask–through without challenging him. It’s sweet that these two wacky kids found love, but I found myself thinking that the love-struck soldier probably just caused a suicide bombing.

The humor and music may not appeal to everyone. But there’s a proposed solution in the film’s conclusion. After an accidental fire burns down both restaurants, the Israelis and the Palestinians have to to work together to serve up meals to their patrons. Whether or not this kind of resolution has practical applications toward creating a functioning peace process, the point is made: Sandel and the filmmakers (and most of the rest of us) wish it did.

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