Israeli filmmaker Dani Menkin’s new documentary, On The Map recounts the tremendous achievements of the 1977 Macabbi Tel Aviv basketball team. Born and raised in Israel, one of Menkin’s best childhood memories was watching Israel’s first sports television channel. In his latest work, he recounts the story of a team that captured a nation – and the world. Through interviews with NBA legends Bill Walton, David Stern, and Tal Brody, along with never-before-seen footage of the epic match up against the Soviet Red Army team, Menkin tells the story of “The Miracle on Hardwood.”
This month, Menkin will attend the opening night of the San Diego Jewish Film Festival as On The Map is screened for the first time in San Diego. After the film, he will speak to the audience about the filmmaking process and what it meant to work on a film that chronicled a historic time in Israel’s story. We spoke with Menkin on the day the film was to be screened in Las Vegas about what audiences can expect from On The Map.
L’CHAIM Magazine: How did you get involved with filmmaking and directing? Have you always wanted to make films?
Dani Menkin: Interestingly, as far as On The Map goes, I started out wanting to be in sports. I was attracted to soccer, I loved basketball, I thought maybe I would be a sports figure; and then when I wasn’t, and the first sports television station in Israel was formed, I joined them. I started to work on some short video profiles on Israeli sports stars, and working with these people was really exciting to me at the time. I took some workshops in the United States on directing, and then my fist international film, 39 Pounds of Love was really well received, and won an Israeli academy award, it was on HBO, shortlisted for the Oscars here, and [that was when] I officially made the leap to the film world.
L’CHAIM: How did the opportunity to tell the story of the 1977 Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team present itself to you?
DM: Three years ago, I was approached to tell the story of one of my first childhood memories, and my first love: sports. I remember growing up in Israel that everyone watched the basketball games on TV. There was one channel, and it was always on. You could not not watch it.
I was shocked that there had never been a movie about this team, but also that there was so much unseen footage and [so many] stories that had never been told.
I joined forces with executive producers Nancy Spielberg and Roberta Grossman who had just worked on the film Above and Beyond, and producer Jon Weinbach, and we made this film for an American audience.
L’CHAIM: What makes this story so powerful for you?
DM: I believe that the best sports stories are the ones that are larger than just the sport world. So, this wasn’t just about basketball, it wasn’t just about sports. This team represented the country [of Israel] and played against the symbol of the giant, or the team that represented our enemies. [The Russian team] actually boycotted the Israeli team and refused to play against [us], but at the end of the day, and after a lot of diplomatic efforts, they were actually forced to play against us on a neutral site.
To actually compete and win against all odds, makes that a moment that no one who was there will ever forget. Everyone [living in Israel at the time] felt that this was much bigger than the sport, and today it is not only an underdog story, it is a story about a country.
L’CHAIM: What was it like to speak to the members of the Maccabi Tel Aviv team so many years later about what has become such an important event in the hearts and minds of Israelis?
DM: These players are my childhood icons, so interviewing them was like being a kid in a candy store, and getting to speak to them and to work with the material that represented my childhood was a real treat for me. I really enjoyed making this film and I continue to enjoy the reception that the film has seen at the various film festivals we have traveled to.
If the movie is more than a sports story, [then] for me, it is much more than a movie.
L’CHAIM: Why did you choose to tell this story the way that you did, in terms of your directing style?
DM: This is the first time that I am following a team, a country, a moment and a year, and that is the structure of the film. I always have a main protagonist, a main character and lead roles that I will follow in the fictional films or even in the documentary films that I have worked on [in the past], but here, the main character was the country of Israel, and that was a very new challenge for me.
Still, there was a shining star in Tal Brody, and I was very privileged to work with some great storytellers for the film, like Natan Sharansky, Bill Walton and David Stern, among others, and all the team members are very intelligent, which made filming and working with them so much easier. Luckily for me, there was also a great archive of footage to work with to really bring the story to life.
Once you make a film [like this] and you understand that you are the person who will tell a story that no one has told and that no one will tell ever again, [it can be overwhelming]. I felt like I had a responsibility to tell the story using as much footage as I possibly could to bring the story to life; and there was a lot of footage out there, from Russian TV, and different film formats that had never been converted, so we got to work finding the best of the best for this film.
I think that what we’ve come up with is a film that audiences will enjoy. I don’t want to give away the ending, but there are a few surprises along the way, and the film really speaks to the spirit of Israel through a sport.
Check it out: onthemapfilm.com
The 27th annual San Diego Jewish Film Festival runs February 9-19. More than 70 screenings at five locations throughout the county will host world premieres, award-winning feature and documentary films, and the ever-popular Joyce Forum, featuring 23 short films screened on one day. Though the lineup is packed with great options to enjoy, a few festival highlights include:
OPENING NIGHT: On The Map
At the height of the Cold War, the 1977 Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team became “the team of the nation” when they brought the first European Cup to Israel by beating the four-time defending champions, the Soviet Red Army team. This documentary retells the story of “The Miracle on Hardwood” with the Maccabis embodying the spirit of Israel to win against all odds.
Clairemont Reading 14: Thursday, February 9, 7 p.m.
CENTERPIECE FILM: The People vs. Fritz Bauer
In 1957, Fritz Bauer, a Holocaust survivor, was the attorney general in West Germany. When he received a lead that SS-Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann was hiding in Argentina, Bauer set out to capture him. Based on actual events, this historical thriller depicts how one man overcame significant obstacles and personal risks to hold one of Germany’s most notorious criminals accountable for war crimes.
Clairemont Reading 14: Wednesday February 15, 8 p.m.
Edwards San Marcos: Thursday, February 16, 5 p.m.
Clairemont Reading 14: Sunday, February 19, 10:45 a.m.
CLOSING NIGHT: Body and Soul: An American Bridge
Body and Soul: An American Bridge looks at the relationship between African Americans and Jews during the height of the Jazz Age. The story follows the early jazz classic “Body and Soul,” which was written by Jewish composer Johnny Green in 1929, sung on Broadway by Jewish torch singer Libby Holman, and made its mark on the work of Louis Armstrong. The film shows how the song led to an historic Benny Goodman Trio recording that broke the color barrier by including a black pianist in the ensemble.
Clairemont Reading 14: Sunday, February 19 7:45 p.m.