Thursday 30 April 2015

Blues by the Beach (2004)

Director: Joshua Faudem
This review of a documentary film was posted on 30th April, twelve years to the day since the event at the heart of its story, a suicide bombing of the blues bar of the title in Tel Aviv. This review is dedicated to the memory of the three who died, Dominique Hass, Ran Baron and Yanay Weiss, and with great respect for the Mike's Place family who refused to let this act define them, instead reopening their bar in a week to prove that terrorists cannot win in the face of love, peace and dedication.
I read an advance copy of a new graphic novel called Mike's Place for the Nameless Zine and was quickly caught up by its true story and its powerful message. While it's ostensibly about a terrorist act, a suicide bombing in which a British Muslim, Asif Muhammad Hanif, blew himself up outside a local blues bar in Tel Aviv, killing himself and three others and injuring fifty more, the story is surprisingly detailed because an American filmmaker happened to be shooting a documentary film there at the time. He's Jack Baxter and Blues by the Beach is that film. Over a decade later, Mike's Place tells much of the same story in graphic novel format, with many panels direct copies of film shots, but it adds other things to the mix. It's slower and more considered, due to the increased distance in time from the event, with a deeper exploration of relationships changed by it. It also, fascinatingly, adds the terrorists' perspective. I don't recommend one version over the other; I recommend both and suggest that people watch the film then read the book.

That's because the film is an urgent piece, full of observation, emotion and reaction, while the book is a more measured examination of the bigger picture. The film is an experience, as Baxter opens a portal to a surprising world that he didn't expect to find and beckons us through to join him. Oddly, for a film that wasn't about terrorism until the terrorists showed up, it really begins with terrorism. Told by experts that the 9/11 attacks were a response to America's support of Israel and Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, Baxter wanted to find a story that he hadn't heard before. His research suggested a story might surround Marwan Barghouti, a charismatic Palestinian leader then on trial in Israel, so he flew to the Middle East to find out. The Barghouti angle turned out to be a bust but, before Baxter could fly home, he found Mike's Place through unexpected blues music floating through the night to him, walking on the Tel Aviv beach. It was the story he had been looking for, a vibrant community where politics and religion are barred.

Baxter clearly felt immediately at home at Mike's Place. He found an odd extended family, a varied group of people from a variety of backgrounds on both sides of the bar. The book, perhaps inevitably, struggles with sound. It can't play the blues for us and it can't replicate the impressive diversity of accents flooding Mike's Place, but this film can and does. People flock to Mike's Place to eat, drink and dance, enjoying the universal language of music in a venue that conducts its business in English. We hear it spoken in a host of different accents: English, Scots, French, American and, of course, Israeli. This admirable diversity has a lot to do with why Mike's Place spoke to Baxter and why it works so well as the lead character in Blues on the Beach. Unfortunately, it's also why it was chosen as the target for a suicide bombing and, on 30th April, 2003, twelve years ago today, Avi Tabib the bouncer stopped Asif Hanif the bomber, who therefore detonated himself outside the venue instead of inside.
At this point, Baxter had shot forty hours of interviews at Mike's Place and was ready to wrap, expecting the entire story to be about the venue and its surprising international, secular and welcoming outlook in the heart of the Middle East. Gal Ganzman, the owner, was on board and hugely helpful. He even found Baxter a crew, as his new bartender, an old friend called Joshua Faudem, was a documentary filmmaker newly returned from a shoot in Prague with a new girlfriend, Pavla. With a snap judgement that matches the brusque, no-nonsense attitude we hear in his opening narration, Baxter hired them both on the spot to handle the camerawork. After the explosion hospitalised the producer and Faudem continued to shoot throughout its aftermath, Baxter upgraded him to director and Pavla to his assistant. Even if Mike's Place was the right subject for a documentary, it's hard to imagine that film today. The bombing transformed it into something else entirely: before, during and after coverage that hadn't been seen before.

Talk about being in the right place at the right time as a documentarian, but also the wrong place at the wrong time as a human being. The bomb goes off at one on a Wednesday morning in Tel Aviv, but right in the middle of a blues number for us, a startling and stunning edit with noise that rings in our ears like it must have done for the people unlucky enough to be there. Something else that the film does better than the book is record the aftermath. Confusion reigns supreme and it's palpable. There's news footage, of course, in subtitled Hebrew, but that's not what grabs us. It's everything else, as we try to fathom the scene. Faudem keeps his camera rolling, even though he clearly doesn't know what to point it at. People flounder around, asking about other who they know were there but can't find. One of the three victims, Yanai Weiss, started a band that evening with a man who didn't even know what name to ask about. The crowd piece it together for him and he walks away in shock.

And, with tragedy literally delivered to their door, the Mike's Place family are also in shock. What this film does better than any other I've seen is demonstrate how such a negative act can be turned into positive reaction to stop the terrorists winning. I remember 9/11 well, even though I was living in England at the time. When the word started to spread, we all stopped working and surrounded a small black and white television in the break room to watch the news. Even on that day, we wondered what America would do in reaction. The last fourteen years have shown us precisely what: the invasion of two countries and the War on Terror, with all the security theatre, mass surveillance and erosion of civil rights that came along with it. Terrorists want people to be afraid, hence their name. They want others to change who they are through fear, to spend their time, effort and money to placate that fear, to voluntarily abdicate freedom. The terrorists won the War on Terror by virtue that it exists. Mike's Place didn't make that mistake.
Instead, Gal Ganzman and the extended family that surrounded him, reopened Mike's Place in a week. It remains there today, doing exactly what it always did: providing a place for anyone to come and enjoy a beer, a burger and a live band, leaving religion and politics outside. The security is unchanged: Avi Tabib is still the bouncer, having recovered from his injuries and been released from hospital. In fact, there are no longer two Mike's Places, this one being the extension of the original in downtown Jerusalem. Now six bars and one pizza place comprise the Mike's Place family, which screen this film in the Tel Aviv location every year on 30th April in memory of the three who died, one of whom was a key player in the film as a waitress, bartender and cook. She's Dominique Hass, the first employee hired by Ganzman after starting up the bar, and her appearance in this film is chilling for a number of reasons, not least because nothing here feels staged, though the film was clearly carefully edited. It's loose and real and impactful.

And the reality of this film is why it's so immersive. Mike's Place appears to be a small club with cramped tables, a tiny stage and a portable television on top of the fridge. The music is local, Ganzman's brother's band a frequent performer. Yet the community spirit, the friendly atmosphere and the obvious cohesion, what Ganzman calls 'one big happy family', is infectious from the outset. By the time we get to the bomb, we're part of that family and it shocks us too. I'm sure it will change many of us as well, just as it changed many of the participants. One of the saddest angles was to see the break up of relationships through how people reacted to the bombing, even those who were shooting the film. There's more of this in the book, but the film deals with what was apparent at the time rather than what became so in hindsight. The loose video style aids this massively, because it places us right in the middle of the chaos. It's rarely handheld like a found footage movie, thankfully, but when it is there's good reason.

Blues by the Beach is a massively important film, a record of before, during and after a terrorist attack. It isn't always an easy film to watch, though it avoids some of the more gruesome details that surface later in the book. It also avoids a lot of basic detail that we might expect from a documentary; at no point are we told why Mike's Place is called Mike's Place, given that the owner is called Gal. Wikipedia fills in those gaps easily enough. What it does is make us feel at least a little of what Ganzman and his one big happy family feel on screen before, during and after the most impactful moment of their lives. It's the inclusion of all three of those stages that makes this so special. We see what this venue was like when everyone's blissfully detached from terrorism, what it's like when that unwelcome guest shows up and what it's like when they react in such a stunning way, reopening the venue in a week and celebrating peace, life and community. They refuse to be afraid and that's why they win. That's a lesson we should all learn.

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