Film Review: On the Map

An engaging documentary about an unlikely Israeli basketball team beating the odds.
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At a recent New York screening of his documentary On the Map, director Dani Menkin said that it combined three compelling elements for him: his love of film, basketball and Israel. The Israeli-born director could also have cited its David vs. Goliath appeal and its wonderfully unlikely and little-known story: the struggle and triumph of a motley team of Israeli athletes, and by extension their country.

At the age of seven, Dani was not yet a basketball fan, but like everyone else in Israel on Feb.17, 1977, his attention was fixed on the TV screen (Israel had only one channel) as the European Cup semi-finals were unfolding for a global audience. The frequently defeated Israeli team Maccabi Tel Aviv was up against the odds-on favorite CSKA Moscow, the Red Army team that had walked off with the last four European Cup basketball titles.Israel won, 91-79.

Following the upset victory, Tal Brody, the team captain, said, “Israel is on the map, not just in sports but in everything.” It was a comment that resonated throughout the country, even for a youngster who couldn’t articulate its significance but on some level got it.

Decades down the road and still haunted by his memories, Menkin decided to make a documentary about the game, the team and its players (then and now). He too has scored.

On the Map has all the virtues of a fine theatrical feature, with suspense, momentum, and a cast of delightful characters that the audience can’t help rooting for, while placing the competition in a broad historical context. It’s a post-Holocaust world at the height of the Cold War and only five years after the 1972 Munich Olympics, when 11 Israeli athletes were killed by Palestinian terrorists.

Grainy archival footage is interspersed throughout, in addition to thoughtful interviews with the teammates, American sports icons, and reporters who covered the events.

Refusnik Natan Sharansky recalls in heady terms the team’s victory. NBA player Bill Walton (a classic embodiment of Midwestern Americanism) proudly recounts playing with Brody before Brody joined the Israeli team. Chris Boatwright, the ex-wife of the late player Jim Boatwright, tears up as she describes seeing Jim’s teammates again and visiting old friends in Israel. There is much unsaid in her comments.

Part of what makes this story so curious is that the team was largely made up of American basketball players who for a variety of reasons—in some instances having few if any good opportunities to play in the States—chose to join forces with the unimpressive Maccabi Tel Aviv team and brought American enthusiasm to the court. Not all were Jewish. Its captain and star Tal Brody happens to be. To this day he’s an icon in Israel. But then, so is basketball heavy-hitter Aulcie Perry, an African-American who ultimately converted to Judaism and still lives in Israel.

Forty years have passed and the players, now men in their 70s and still sporting Maccabi Tel Aviv t-shirts, have gathered to watch the game again and relive the experience. It is one of the most entertaining (and slightly disturbing) snippets in the film. Shaking their fists at the screen, they shout out corrective instructions at the wrongheaded moves while cheering the well-executed plays and fiercely congratulating each other as if they’re watching a contest they had waged yesterday.

The importance of the games to Israelis at that time cannot be overestimated. According to some accounts, almost everyone in the country—including those with no interest in sports—were glued to their sets. The streets were eerily silent as the country virtually closed down (not unlike Yom Kippur) to watch the competition, and when the team returned as conquering heroes, more than a million screaming fans were lining the roads from the Tel Aviv airport to Rabin Square. As if that weren’t enough, Macabbi Tel Aviv went on to win the European Cup that year, beating out the favored Spanish team Mobilgirgi Varese, 78-77, but the turning point was the game with the Soviets. On the Map is as celebratory as Breaking Away andRocky (the first one).

Menkin, who has helmed several other documentaries (39 Pounds of Love, Dolphin Boy) and a couple of features, including the delightful Is That You, moves with ease between the two genres. Despite what one might think, the skills required for each are interchangeable, he told me in a private interview. “The documentary has to tell a good a story and a fictional film needs to be as authentic as a documentary.”

Menkin’s future projects include a documentary about wildlife photographer Amos Nachoum and a biopic based on the experiences of basketball star Aulcie Perry (who plays a prominent role in On the Map).

But at the moment, his thoughts are focused on Map. “Forty years have passed and Israel is in a different place, but people all over the world want to boycott Israel,” he said. “The film should have more resonance than ever. But most of all, I want audiences to enjoy themselves, to be moved, to laugh, to cry. I want them to feel they’ve seen a fascinating story. Then I know I’ve done my job.”

Click here for cast and crew information.