Saturday, January 24, 2009

West Bank Story

A musical comedy about Jews and Arabs and fast food. It took more than a little bit of cajoling to convince the members of my household to watch West Bank Story with me. They were understandable skeptical. After all the genre of musical comedy tends to lend itself to simple story lines and absurd grand gestures and as even my 8 year old knows there is nothing simple or grand about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The success of this film is embedded in the exploitation not only of the stereotypes of the conflict but also the genre of the musical. From the start both the actors and the audience know that the story line is absurd, it is impossible and yet it will end well; it must after all, it is a musical. The film relies both on the genre of the musical for its context and structure, lavish dance numbers and sappy songs. Moreover, musicals thrives on archetypes, the perfect excuse to skip over the nuances of the political reality.

The real life conflict in the West Bank has been compressed into a 21 minute battle between two rival fast food kiosks, the Israeli Kosher King and the Palestinian Hummus Hut. Complications set in when David an Israeli soldier and Fatima the cashier at the Hummus Hut fall in love.

Throughout, stereotypes and assumptions about Israelis and Arabs are exploited for laughs and often pushed to the limits. Director Ari Sandel explained in an interview with the Mid East Press Club that he attempted to balance jokes about both sides making sure that if he made a joke about Palestinians he would make one about Israelis as well. While I do not feel qualified to judge his even handedness, many of the jokes made us laugh even as others made us squirm.

In 2007, Sandel won an Oscar for his efforts. In his acceptance speech and in interviews afterwards he spoke about the film being a piece that hearkens to hope for reconciliation between the two warring factions in the Middle East. Watching the film while the latest hostilities raged in Gaza, I found it hard to be so hopeful.

We all know that the original Shakespearean story of star crossed lovers did not end well. Neither did Bernstein lovers for that matter. At the end of the West Bank Story, Fatima looks into David's eyes and wonders if they will be able to make their romance work. Not to worry he says, he knows of a place where Jews and Arabs can coexist easily side by side, Beverly Hills.