Las Vegas Jewish Film Festival: ‘On The Map’
by Josh Morris
In 1977 there was a basketball game; one that, for all intents and purposes, had a pre-ordained winner.
But they lost.
The trophy that day went instead to the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team, who defeated CSKA Moscow during the Cold War. It is a victory that helped form the identity of the 20th Century Israel and gave the country international bragging rights; it literally and figuratively– and in the annals sports history– put them “on the map.”
So the story is told in the upcoming film from Dani Menkin (which was shown as the official premier of the 2017 Las Vegas Jewish Film Festival at the Brendan Palms Theatre). The events unfold in a manner reminiscent of traditional sports films, but they are far from cliché.
Almost 40 years ago, Tal Brody, a young Jewish-American from New Jersey forgoes the fame of the NBA by rejecting an offer from the Baltimore Bullets and decides instead to play for a more inferior team in Israel, the Maccabi Tel Aviv. From his decision, and with his leadership, an underdog lineup of Israelis and Americans forge their way to unlikely victory, and provide the much-needed emblem for a broken community to rally around.
The story begs to be dramatized by Hollywood talent.
This documentary is so engaging not simply because of the athletes’ efforts or the game(s) themselves, but due to the complexity of their context among historical events, specifically those that were shaping a newly-proclaimed, post-Holocaust State of Israel, including the Munich massacre of 1972, the Yom Kippur War of 73, the scandalous resignation of Yitzhak Rabin in 77.
“It’s not just for Israel” though, according to the Menkin, who was present at the screening and hosted a Q&A, “and it’s more than propaganda.” He’s correct to a certain extent. The film’s significance for Jewish Americans and Israelis is blatant, as it represents a “new Jewish destiny” both culturally and politically, but even as non-Israeli, areligious American, I personally found the film very human and touching.
Further, “On The Map” centers on a story intersecting at Menkin’s trinity of passions: film, sports and his country. It has everything a viewer could want in a documentary, regardless of nationality: heart, humor, heft and, of course, never-before-seen footage of the events.
But the film isn’t without its flaws. A majority of the film follows Tal Brody in both the influence he has on his teammates and his personal struggle during their athletic journey (the title stems from his now-legendary quote), but it doesn’t seem to follow through with him, nor does the story every fully evolve into one where its protagonist is unnecessary. As a result, it seems incomplete. (Menkin admitted to creating a “sequel, of sorts” about Tal Brody, and I suspect that might have something to do with this.)
Also, during the climax of the film, Menkin chooses to intersperse footage from the game with both interviews of the athletes as well as footage of them re-watching and commenting on their symbolic match; what should be an immersive few minutes turns into an uneven and sometimes downright frustrating viewing for the audience, especially for those unfamiliar with the whole of it. It could very well be, however, that those more conversant with the game – and how it ends — might be less affected by Menkin’s decision.
I will admit, also, the charm in these individuals reliving their historic moment in undeniable.
Though the film may not have an official theatrical release for some time (it’s still in the distribution/festival phase), I can only recommend you keep an eye out for it. You’ll be glad you did.
You may even find yourself thinking (as I did), “Why have I never heard of this before?”