Among the 26 feature films at this year's JCC Ames Amzalak Rochester International Jewish Film Festival, which continues through July 18, is a special preview of the inspirational sports documentary, "On the Map." The film, which will be screening for Rochester audiences ahead of its official U.S. premiere, chronicles the gripping story of the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team's unprecedented success in the 1977 European Championship Tournament.
Not expected to make it very far, a tenacious team of Jewish-American athletes ended up making history, and in the process inspired a nation struggling to find its place in the world. In an interview from his home in Los Angeles, director Dani Menkin about his film and why the Maccabi team's story is such an important one to tell. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Menkin will be in attendance for the screening of his film, at 6 p.m. Thursday, July 14, at the Little Theatre. More information and a full festival schedule is available at rjff.org.
CITY: Can you talk a little bit about your background as a filmmaker?
Dani Menkin: I've been doing this for 20 years. My background actually started in sports. I was in Israel making short films about sports for what you'd call the Israeli ESPN. Then I started to do other non-sport movies like "39 Pounds of Love," and that's how I started to make an actual career as a filmmaker. After that, I crossed over into fiction movies.
As you mentioned, your career has alternated between narrative and documentary features. Has that been a deliberate choice on your part? Is there one form that you prefer working?
I really love them both. It all depends on if I'm telling a good story. I think today in the new cinema, the borders between documentary and narrative have faded. My last fiction film, "Is That You?" - which I shot in Syracuse, not too far from you - really played with the two genres, the documentary world and the fiction world. I just enjoy telling honest stories, whatever the form. Even if they're fiction, I try for them to feel honest, and with documentary, I enjoy sometimes giving them the quality of a fictional story.
What was it that first attracted you to the Maccabi Tel Aviv story?
I was actually approached by Israeli TV to research this story, and I immediately felt like a kid in a candy store. Because you have to understand, these guys are my childhood heroes. I don't know what you admired as a kid, but I'll give you the best example. Did you like sports?
I'll be honest, I was never a big sports guy. Movies were more my thing.
Ok, so imagine you get to do, say, a documentary with rare, never-been-seen footage, about the way Steven Spielberg made "E.T." Stories nobody has ever seen and people will be blown away because they only know part of the story. It's the same thing for "On the Map." For Israelis, this is like the first man who walked on the moon for the Americans. So for us, when Tal Brody says "We are on the map" after Maccabi Tel Aviv beat the Russians, it's like for the United States when Neil Armstrong said "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." That's how we felt.
When I started to do my research, I discovered from private resources and also from TV stations' archives that there is so much footage that had never been seen. And for those next few years, I felt like a kid in a candy store. And what also struck me was the fact that people in the States - where I live now - don't know about this story. They all know about the "Miracle on Ice," but this is the Miracle on Hardwood.
For me, making this film allowed me to combine my three big loves: the love for filmmaking, the love for sports, and the love for Israel.
How long have you been working on the film?
I've been working on it for three years, but probably subconsciously I've been working on it for 40 years. Because I was 7 years old when it happened, and next year it's going to be 40 years since the events took place. And honestly, these are my childhood heroes: I like the team, I love the players, I love what they represent. So I've been working on the film since my childhood in many ways. But practically, for the last three years it has been a big part of of my life.
As the film goes on, [team captain] Tal Brody becomes sort of the focal point of the story. Did you always know he was going to be the central figure, or is that something that became apparent during production?
I think as I was putting the film together, I realized it's probably the first movie I've made where the hero is a team. I really didn't have one specific hero. Not like "39 Pounds of Love" or "Dolphin Boy" or "Is That You?" where they have a specific hero that I could rely on. In this case, I really didn't have that.
But when I was pushing myself a little bit more, I said, "Who is the leader of the story? Who is the guy that's being changed and who's the guy that is in some ways changing the history of our country?" And it was obviously Tal Brody. Here's a guy that gave up on the NBA in order to establish basketball in Israel. Here's a guy that waited all his career to reach that level where the team could beat the Russians, and make it to the championship game. And in the last year of his career, he's making that impact live on TV and saying to the world that we are on the map.
People in Israel still use that phrase today, and that's how we really felt. Four years after the Yom Kippur War, and not too long after the Holocaust, the country's fighting for existence, and here he is saying it loud and clear. And he's doing it after he's beating the Russians, who did not want to play Israel because they did not recognize Israel. They didn't think it should exist. So Tal Brody is really the engine of the story because of what happened to him and because of that larger idea.
The film makes great use of archival footage. What was the process like for tracking down that footage, then combing through it all to see what worked best for the film?
I say that documentary filmmaking is like being a fisherman. We're going fishing, and we're looking to find documentary gold. And that's what I was doing. For the last three years, I don't think there was one stone left unturned, at least not that I know of. And I had a big team of people that worked with me, who researched every piece of footage that existed about the team and about that year specifically. And luckily we found a lot of footage that had never been seen before, so we could really bring this story to life.
You mentioned that your background was in sports. Is that a subject you see yourself possibly returning to, and possibly telling other stories from the world of Israeli sports?
I love to just make good stories about the underdog. That's kind of where I'm coming from. If it's in the sport world, wonderful. I do love it, but I'm not sure. I'm actually writing another sports movie now, on Aulcie Perry, one of the Maccabi players, and I'm also writing another love story. So it's always a question of finding the right story and whether the production comes together. That's what makes the movie for me.
"On the Map" is showing in Rochester as an advance preview screening. What are the current plans for the official release of the film?
We are doing a world premiere in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival this summer. Then we're going to be in New York City for Doc NYC. The film is already being requested like crazy in the Jewish film festival world. The response to the film has been superb, and we're really proud of it and obviously very happy. So far in my life, my films have taken on their own life and they have their own path. To that end, with this film, I don't know where it will go. "39 Pounds" was shortlisted for the Oscars, won the Israeli Academy Award, and aired on HBO. "Dolphin Boy" was sold to Disney. So I let my films go the way they need to go and thank god so far they've done great.
I just hope that people will enjoy the film, that it will touch people's hearts. That they will see a good story and the fact that it's a good story coming out of Israel will hopefully allow people to see us in a different way, a positive way. It's possible to win games, and it's possible to win in life even though nobody believes you can. I think Tal Brody and all the other teammates proved it is possible. That's always inspired me, and I hope it will inspire the audience.