World Film Festival: On the other side

On the other side

Actor Muatasem Mishal and director Joel Fendelman will attend the screenings of David at the World Film Festival
Photo: Robbie Renfrow

Muslim and Jewish kids bond in Joel Fendelman's David, one of the films in competition at the 35th World Film Festival

When Daud, a Muslim boy, somehow befriends a group of young Orthodox Jews (who think his name is "David," hence the title), he discovers that while they do have their differences, they’re ultimately mostly similar. Chatting, hanging out, playing around… They’re just kids being kids.

"It’s amazing, there’s so much that we have in common," says writer-director Joel Fendelman. "The things that separate us are not so real; it’s just politics and ‘adult’ things. They’re not ingrained in our humanity, they’re just things we create."

Before making David, Fendelman shot Daud, a short that dealt with some of the same themes and also starred little Muatasem Mishal. "It was an opportunity to work with him, to see how he reacted and how he looked on camera, to get a good feel for a lot of things." The filmmaker then quickly moved on to the feature, putting his own savings into it so he wouldn’t have to wait to find financing. "I really wanted to make it over the summer [of 2010] because with kids, a year goes by and they look very different. If we didn’t make it then, Muatasem would’ve hit puberty and wouldn’t have looked like an innocent 11-year-old anymore."

With the notable exception of Maz Jobrani, who plays Daud’s imam father, and a few others, most of the David cast is made up of non-professional actors, including the young lead, who delivers a moving, surprisingly understated and nuanced performance. But even though they’d made the short before, it was a bit of a challenge to get there. "With adults, you can talk more intellectually, but with kids, it’s much more literal, you have to kind of spell it out," explains Fendelman. "Sometimes you really have to tell them, ‘Hey, sit here, stand here, you need to have this sort of feeling…’ Otherwise they’re just running around and being kids until you’re like, ‘Come over here, we’ve got to shoot this film already!’"

Working with what he calls a "micro-budget" didn’t stop Fendelman from shooting a lot of exteriors and multiplying crowd scenes, practically making New York a character in his film. "It gave me a lot of grey hairs! I mean, I wouldn’t change the film for anything, but if I did another film with that little money, I couldn’t do that many locations and that many actors." To pull it off, he often had to resort to what he describes as "guerrilla filmmaking," shooting in real places with real people. "We would just take the kids and have them act in a real environment," remembers the director. "It’s almost like a documentary approach. The budget didn’t allow us to block off locations and hire all these extras, but it also adds to the style of the film."

The Muslim and Orthodox Jewish communities of Brooklyn helped a lot in the making of David, both in front of and behind the camera. And based on the feedback he’s had so far, Fendelman’s message of open-mindedness and tolerance was well received by people on both sides. "We had a private screening a while ago, it was half Jews and half Muslims, men with black hats and women in hijab, we all watched the film together," he says. "[Everyone was] very much accepting of the film, they thought it was very fair and authentic."

A movie can’t change the world, but it can do some good, one person at a time. Fendelman tells a story about how Binyomin Shtaynberger, who plays one of the Jewish boys, admitted that he was nervous at first to be working with a Muslim kid. "But then he said, ‘When I got to know Muatasem on the first day, I realized that we’re not all that different. And now we’re Facebook friends!’"


During the 35th edition of the World Film Festival, organizers have decided to shine a light on the event’s strong connection to French cinema by paying tribute to actress Catherine Deneuve and inviting filmmakers Claude Lelouch and Bertrand Tavernier; Lelouch will give a master class and Tavernier will show some of his favourite films.

Spanish director Vicente Aranda will act as president of the jury, which will have to assess 20 features, including Joel Fendelman’s David, André Forcier’s offbeat fable Coteau Rouge (which will open the fest), the Fuica brothers’ crime thriller La Run, Eran Riklis’ sports drama Playoff, Geoffrey Enthoven’s Flemish sex comedy Hasta la vista, Emmanuel Mouret’s romantic comedy L’Art d’aimer and Zhao Tianyu’s anthology film The Law of Attraction.

Hundreds more titles from over 70 countries will screen, the most high profile of which is Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist, a black-and-white silent film starring Jean Dujardin, who won the Best Actor Award at Cannes last May for his performance. Also of interest is "Bollywood, Hollywood… et les Demoiselles," a series of outdoor screenings of such classic musicals as Devdas and Kabhi Khusi Kabhie Gham from India, Singin’ in the Rain and Moulin Rouge! from the U.S. and Les Demoiselles de Rochefort and Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, which both star the aforementioned tribute recipient Catherine Deneuve. Bon cinéma!

World Film Festival at Place des Arts’ Théâtre Maisonneuve, August 19
At Cinema Imperial, August 21

Posted in