David and Fatima: An Israeli - Palestinian Love Story
By Joshua Spiro
When discussing why his 1936 film Romeo and Juliet didn’t age gracefully, Director George Cukor said if he could remake it he would "get the garlic and the Mediterranean into it." While Cukor was likely thinking of escaping the stuffy soundstages of Hollywood for fair Verona, the film David and Fatima, which premiers in New York September 12 at the Quad Cinema, lays its scene someplace more political.
In Jerusalem, David, an IDF soldier, and Fatima, a young Palestinian woman, fall in love through the mesh of familial and cultural forces that discourage them at every turn. Sounds like two familiar star-crossed lovers, but Alain Zaloum, the film’s director said, “I don’t like pushing the Romeo and Juliet angle too much — although people will make that connection — because I think it makes our film more of a fairy tale.”
Following a series of six directors who were hired and fired, Zaloum was lucky number seven for the project, a director who finally matched the demanding vision of the executive producer and creative engine Kari Bian. Like Zaloum, Bian aimed for verisimilitude, and in an interview by email he said, “The goal was to make this film to be as true as possible — no favorites — just the true story of the people and the way they react to one another.”
It was also this desire to avoid favoritism in the film that got Zaloum the job. He said that, “[Bian] knew that I understood the topic very well because I was born in the Middle East. I [grew] up understanding the mentalities of both sides, I [got] involved in an interfaith relationship and I have a daughter who is Jewish because her mother is Jewish, so I understand the tensions that these types of situations can bring.” Bian also felt that having a Muslim or a Jew directing the film would not do, which gave Zaloum, an Egyptian Christian, another tally in his favor.
Equally as important as the directorial vision is the brio brought to the movie by its two young leads. Cameron Van Hoy, who plays David, and Danielle Pollack, in the role of Fatima, both stumbled serendipitously into the arms of the fledgling movie. Van Hoy submitted himself for the role of David sans agent, and after getting called back repeatedly, secured the part. He then suggested that Pollack, who had help him rehearse for his audition, try out, though she had never auditioned for a movie role before.
Van Hoy has been acting since an early age and he reflected, “like some people do sports I did community theater.” His early roles included a stint on Nickelodeon’s Hey Arnold! and the lead in the indie gun-control commentary, Pups,in which two teens hold up a bank. He and Pollack attended LaGuardia High School for performing arts in Manhattan, and though Pollack was initially more of a stranger to the silver screen, they both had a lot to learn to get into their roles.
Pollack said, “I had to do a lot of research because basically, growing up in a Jewish household, and going to Hebrew school and having a lot of Israeli friends, I’d only really heard one side of the story.” In addition to researching the history of the region and the Palestinian point of view, Pollack went shopping at the supermarket in a black hijab to feel the tension of being observed and being different.
Van Hoy was also in unfamiliar territory. He said, “I can relate to being a young guy, I can relate to feeling out of place and wanting more and not wanting to listen to my parents, but I couldn’t relate to growing up in Jerusalem or living in that world with the politics over there and I couldn’t relate to being Jewish or Israeli.”
But despite the adjustments the actors had to make, from attitudes to accents, and the initial revolving door of directors, the film hit a run of good fortune, or as Pollack described it, “this movie was just the little movie that could.”
Zaloum also expressed this sentiment saying that the film, which was shot in just five weeks in Los Angeles, with the exception of some establishing shots taken in Israel, had “a guardian angel.” He elaborated, “there was a force behind it, and it wasn’t just our enthusiasm, there was something else. People wanted us to do it right.” And some of those people included Martin Landau and Tony Curtis who joined the cast, and Oscar-winning film editor Richard Francis Bruce who worked on Shawshank Redemption and the first Harry Potter movie.
The first payoff on all these lucky breaks came for Zaloum when, at the private screenings, people had strong emotional reactions to the movie. He recounted, “people were haunted by the film days afterwards, which I was very happy to hear.” The movie was also a watershed moment in his career. “After doing this film I’d like to do [more] films that have substance. I’ve spent many years doing low-budget thrillers that went straight to DVD and this is the first film that is not only personal, but also has some meat on its bones,” he said. One idea he is playing with is a retelling of the stories of Arabian Nights, though he would also like to make a film that would appeal to his daughter.
Though he thinks David and Fatima is more substantial than his past endeavors, Zaloum, was not as optimistic as the films tagline that “only crazy people change the world.” He said, “I think that there will always be this type of hatred between families and different cultures and nationalities, and so long as that hatred lingers, so will Romeo and Juliet.” Van Hoy was more optimistic about the reason this type of story has been adapted so many times saying it was “because we still have things to learn from it, we still have a lesson to learn from the tragedy of that story, we’re still captivated by it.”