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[THE OSCARS] | THE FIRST-TIMER

Eastwood, Spielberg and now Sandel

A light musical about the Middle East, `West Bank Story,' is a young filmmaker's ticket to the Oscars. He loves it.

February 25, 2007|Mark Olsen | Special to The Times

ON the small screen of a digital camera, a series of pictures scroll by, images of some of Hollywood's biggest names -- Peter O'Toole, Clint Eastwood, Eddie Murphy, Steven Spielberg. Also in each picture is a positively beaming Ari Sandel.

Sandel earned a seat, and snapping privileges, at the recent Oscar nominees' luncheon with his short film "West Bank Story," which he directed and, with Kim Ray, co-wrote.

"West Bank Story" riffs on the classic "West Side Story" by portraying a microcosm of the Middle East conflict in a standoff between the owners of adjacent restaurants, Kosher King and Hummus Hut. And it all unfolds in a lively, light musical comedy.

"West Bank Story" has been a dream ride for Sandel, who was raised in Calabasas and attended film school at USC. After its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 2005, he picked up an agent and a manager.

The film has gone on to play at more than 100 film festivals around the world, winning 25 awards. Sandel also subsequently directed the feature documentary "Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show: 30 Days and 30 Nights -- Hollywood to the Heartland," which will be released theatrically this year.

"I made the movie with three reasons in mind," Sandel says of his short. "One, I wanted to get seen, I wanted a calling card. Two, I wanted to make a comedy. And three, I wanted to make a movie that was pro-peace." Everything about "West Bank Story," from the fonts in the title card to the lyrics of the songs, has been designed with balance in mind so that the film cannot be seen as pro-this or anti-that. Sandel, 32, says that for every joke at the expense of the Palestinian, characters, there is an equivalent jab at the Israelis, and vice versa.

Sandel was not able to attend when his short film screened at two festivals in Israel, but he was there when the film played at the Dubai International Film Festival. At a post-screening Q&A, which was scheduled for 10 minutes but ran for 90, the crowd's initial reaction was hostile, as the overwhelmingly Arab audience voiced concerns that the film diminished the seriousness of the Mideast situation.

Sandel faced down the crowd. "I said this is not a political solution, this is not a historical explanation. It's not meant to teach you what's going on. This is a movie about hope. It's a message about peace. And that's it. And as I started to explain why I made it, you could see the gears starting to turn in people's minds."

While he wasn't surprised by the crowd's response, he says he was relieved that the mood of the crowd shifted to talking more generally about the process of making the film and the positive note on which it ends.

"People assume you're trying to make fun of the situation," he says. "I think Arabs in general, and I would say the same thing about Jews, don't want a movie that's going to trivialize their side's suffering. So their defenses are up.

"My goal in evenhandedness was that I knew if anyone felt the film was biased, they would walk out and dismiss the end message. And that would be a failure. The fact people sit through it, and stay to ask questions and talk about it, to me that's a big success."

Having seemingly accomplished his objectives on all fronts, Sandel is hoping to keep up the momentum "West Bank Story" has brought to his career. He plans to take his mother with him to tonight's Academy Awards ceremony, and he is trying to make the most of being a nominee.

"I know it's cheesy," he says. "People always say it's great just to be nominated. But it's pretty awesome to be nominated."

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