‘David’ is highlight of annual film festival

“David,” directed by Joel Fendelman

by Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

“David,” a film about friendship and tolerance, will be featured in the St. Louis International Film Festival as part of its Jewish Sidebar. Although the film’s director, Joel Fendelman, is based in New York, he has family roots in St. Louis.

“David” will be shown at 7:15 p.m. Friday, Nov. 11 at the Tivoli and again at 2:30 p.m. Sunday Nov. 13 at Plaza Frontenac. The director and his father, who was born in St. Louis, will attend the screening.

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Filmed on location in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Borough Park and Bay Ridge, where Orthodox Jewish and Muslim communities abut, the film centers on the relationship of two 11-year-old boys, one Muslim and one Orthodox Jewish.

Through a misunderstanding that grew out of an act of kindness, the son of the neighborhood imam is mistaken for a student at a yeshiva. Unsure how to correct the error and worried about what might happen, Daud (Muatasem Mishal) finds an unexpected friendship growing with one of the boys, outgoing Yoav (Binyomin Shtaynberger).

The boys are played by non-actors from the communities where the film was shot. The movie also stars noted actor Maz Jobrani, who plays Daud’s father.

This excellent, thoughtful drama has sparked countless interfaith discussions. It won the Audience Choice Award for Best Narrative Feature at the 2011 Brooklyn International Film Festival and the Ecumenical Award at the Montreal Film Festival.

“First and foremost, this is a film about friendship,” said director Joel Fendelman, although the film also explores tolerance and the connections between a shared minority experience.

In fact, when Fendelman and his father come to St. Louis, they plan to catch up with some of their cousins in the area, including Randee and Terri Fendelman, Dean and Paula Fendelman, Nancy Schainker and Scott Schwartz. All are members of Congregation Shaare Emeth.

“My father grew up there, and graduated in ‘68. He lived in University City,” Fendelman said. “I think the first movie he saw was at the Tivoli. I have never been there, so it will be the first time going to see where he grew up.”

“He later ran an art cinema in Miami for 12 years, so my first introduction to the cinema was through him,” Fendelman said. “He and my uncle Richard Fendelman (his brother) opened the Grove Cinema in Miami, Florida in ‘74.”

One of the comments the director gets most frequently from both Muslims and Orthodox Jews about “David” is how accurately the film captured their communities.

“For me, making films is always about dealing with certain things within myself. This one looks at identity,” he said. “I grew up Jewish, had a bar mitzvah and didn’t really look back at that aspect of my life. In the last five years or so, I have been really questioning ‘what does it mean to be Jewish,’ a lot of the things people in their twenties really start to question.

“It was that, mixed with living in New York City post-9/11. I wanted to look at Muslims and Arabs and that identity. What does is mean to be Muslim in New York City post-9/11? And that’s where I got the idea about struggling to fit in.

“I grew up Jewish in Miami, which is a very Hispanic city. It was not the extreme isolation portrayed in the film but I can relate to the idea of being different. At that age, what we want is not to be different, but to fit in,” he added.

Fendelman teamed with a co-writer, Patrick Daly, who had an anthropologist background. Daley suggested Fendelman visit south Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge neighborhood, a mostly Muslim community. Fendelman began volunteering at the community association for the next year and half.

“The interesting thing is that right next to it is a very Orthodox Jewish neighborhood called Borough Park. There are actually a couple of streets where one could see a Muslim man in a robe walking down the street right past an Orthodox Jewish man in a black hat and suit,” Fendelman said.

One of the things that struck the director was how similar the two cultures were and how many family stories sounded alike as well. He incorporated those similarities into the film.

For the two lead roles in the film, Fendelman cast non-actors, two boys from the neighborhood. “Muatasem (Mishal) who plays Daud, and I met at this (community) association in Brooklyn. He was one of the kids in the youth group and he had this glow about him, this amazing spirit. We started hanging out, and he was light-years ahead in maturity and intellect,” he said.

“I met Bin (Binyomin Shtaynberger) in this kosher cafe in Borough Park,” Fendelman said. “I was there discussing who to cast for the Jewish boy in the film, and he walked in with his brothers and father after yeshiva.” The director thought the Orthodox Jewish boy looked perfect for the part, and approached the family. After several weeks of meetings, the family agreed.

“David” was shot on location and many smaller roles are played by people in the two neighborhoods.

“The teacher, who plays the yeshiva teacher that Daud goes to and who mistakes him for Jewish, is an actual yeshiva teacher who has a passion for acting,” said Fendelman.

One of the most moving scenes in the film is when Daud and Yoav, who are collaborating on a school project about family, interview Yoav’s great aunt. The aunt recalls growing up in a Midwestern city, which Fendelman said was based in part on stories his father told about St. Louis.

The film’s ending is particularly striking because it is open-ended, allowing the audience speculate on what might happen next for the boys.

“That was the one part of the film that was not already written out,” the director said. Fendelman originally planned to end with the scene where Daud is discovered not to be Jewish but decided to add a last scene in the rabbi’s office, where the boys meet again. The ending offers the perfect note of possibilities and tolerance.