On Monday evening, just one night after the 2008 Academy
Awards, one recent Oscar winner decided there was no place he?d rather be than
Madison, Wis., the country?s most culturally sophisticated isthmus.

Granted, he had had his Oscar for 366 days, but Ari Sandel?s
visit was exciting nonetheless. The director, whose film ?West Bank Story? won Best
Live Action Short Film in 2007, held a screening of his award-winning work and later
held a question-and-answer session at the Orpheum Theatre.

It is difficult to classify Sandel?s film, probably because
?Musical Comedy Set in One of the World?s Oldest Conflicts? is still a
relatively new category of films. With its musical numbers and Molotov
cocktails, ?West Bank Story? is a
genre-buster for sure, but it is far more than just a gimmick. It is the
heartfelt story of two lovers: David, an Israeli soldier whose family owns a
falafel stand named Kosher King, and Fatima, a young Palestinian woman who
works for Hummus Hut, David?s family?s competitor.

The film traces the blossoming of their love in the face of
the apparently unfounded feud between the older pita-peddling partisans. While
some critics felt a discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that
incorporates fast food joints and catchy tunes trivializes the issue, Sandel
said he merely meant to show hope in the situation, albeit in an ?absurdist

Monday evening?s event was the first in the Wisconsin Jewish
Film Festival, a weeklong celebration of Jewish film sponsored by the Jewish
Cultural Collective, UW Hillel and the Wisconsin Union Directorate.

The story of Sandel?s film, which he relayed to the audience
after the screening, was as captivating as the film itself. The short was
actually his master?s thesis at the University of Southern California film
school, and it combined his love of film with a knowledge of the Middle East he
had gained from his Israeli father and his undergraduate studies.

Although the film itself is farcical at times, the
production of the project was not at all lighthearted. Because of his lean film
student budget, Sandel was forced to obtain much of the production funding
through donations.

Once Sandel made his masterpiece, his work was not over ? he
also had to promote it. Lacking enough funds for a comprehensive marketing
campaign, he became a master of the great American art of self-promotion. By
passing out free ?West Bank Story? parkas,
giving promotional DVDs to cab drivers and packing the audience of the 2005
Sundance Film Festival with his friends, Sandel created the kind of
word-of-mouth buzz that only ingenuity and a good film can buy.

This media blitz, though, brought considerable attention to
his work. Its popularity continued to rise, eventually culminating in an Oscar
and, finally, a visit to the kickoff of Madison?s Wisconsin Jewish Film

Also on the agenda at the festival?s opening night was UW
Madison?s first Jewish Film Challenge, a competition for short films addressing
Judaism in some way. The only formal requirements were that the films
incorporated the lighting of a candle, included the line, ?Is that a Jewish
last name?? and had at least one scene portraying tzedakah, a Hebrew word that translates roughly as ?charity? or

Before Sandel made his appearance, there was a screening of
all three finalists in the competition. ?Simcha on State? was a Madison
original that dealt with the interconnectedness of the good deeds performed by
various individuals on State Street. ?Pieces of Eight? was a sentimental
examination of a relationship in crisis. ?Widow?s Meal,? however, a film
depicting a widow?s loving preparation of a meal for her lost husband, bested
the two other films and won the award for best short.


The Wisconsin Jewish
Film Festival runs through Mon., March 3.?Tonight in the Play Circle Theater at Memorial
Union, ?Praying with Lior,? a film about a pious boy with Down syndrome, will play
at 7 p.m. A screening of ?Sweet Mud,? a coming-of-age story set in Israel, will
follow at 9 p.m. in the same location. For a complete list of the films being
shown, visit UWhillel.org.