You Can't Spell Layover Without Love

Stranded airliner passengers find romantic connections in Dani Menkin's new movie at the Syracuse International Film Festival.






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Publication: Syracuse New Times
Author: Drake, Rossiter
Date published: October 12, 2011

Considering the acclaim he received for his 2005 documentary 39 Pounds of Love, the award-winning story of a boy with a rare form of spinal muscular atrophy who ultimately outlived his doctor's predictions by some 35 years, one might expect Israeli filmmaker Dani Menkin to stick with a winning formula, following up with another slice of real life.

Yet Menkin's career has never followed a predictable script. Born in Tel-Aviv in 1970, Menkin was a sports reporter for an Israeli TV channel during the mid-1990s, then created a popular adventure series for the National Geographic Channel in 2001. Continuing the documentary route after the success of 39 Pounds of Love, Menkin guided (with co-director Yonatan Nir) the doc Dolphin Boy, about the effects of dolphin-assisted therapy on a distraught Arab teen. Now Menkin has returned with the romantic comedy Je T'aime, I Love You Terminal, an official selection at this year's Syracuse International Film Festival.

The subject is Ben, a 30-year-old Israeli singer-songwriter, recently engaged, whose love life takes an unexpected turn when he meets an impetuous Berkeley student on a flight headed for Prague. Is the restless, initially indecisive Ben at all autobiographical? "No, this is a story I wrote with two other writers, so every one of us contributed something from our lives," says Menkin. "Of course when you write a story, there are lots of elements from real life: the doubts, the fact that it's not easy to make decisions, the fact that when you travel it's a time to reassess your life, your destiny.

"Always when I'm going to a terminal, flying to promote my films and attend screenings, it's an adventure," Menkin continues. "I look at the other people on the plane and wonder what they're going through. You're high above the ground, usually with no phone, no Internet. You're at an intersection: It's a perfect time to quietly consider where your life is going."

Like Ben-played by Israeli musician Danny Niv, better known to fans as "Mooki"-Menkin knows something about making new friends on the road. It was during his press tour for 39 Pounds that he embarked on an unexpected adventure that influenced Je T'aime.

"We had a big layover in Hungary on our way to New York, and my friend and I were both single," he says. "We met two girls there, and we kind of stuck together. We were in this beautiful place that we'd never planned to go to, and it was almost like we were double dating. We had nothing else to do, and we had to find some way to pass the time. In Je T'aime, those two characters are forced to know each other. There's nothing else they can do. They have 24 hours, they're together and they share some mutual interests. What happens next is up to them."

That Ben and Emma, his coyly manipulative traveling partner, seem destined to be something more than friends is hardly a surprise. But how Ben will respond to this fly-by-night romance, and its potential to compromise his recent engagement, is one of the movie's inescapable mysteries.

Menkin says Je T'aime had at least three possible endings, and that he is always open to new ideas, whether they come from his co-authors-in this case, Alon Benari and Hagai Lapid-or his cast. "I am absolutely from the same school as Christopher Guest," he says, referring to the Best in Show director famous for his reliance on on-the-spot improvisation. "I come from a documentary world, and that's how you work. You have a script, but you have to stay open to whatever comes.

"With this film, the actors knew the script, but I told them in advance that I encouraged their input," Menkin says. "I think some of the best scenes in the movie are the ones that are improvised. Mooki is a rock star in Israel. Naruna Kaplan de Macedo {who plays Emma} is primarily a director. I felt like I was working with two creators, and I wanted to give them room to create."

Menkin exuberantly describes recruiting a group of British actors living in Prague, where he shot on location, to dance for a three-minute sequence in Je T'aime, without any real preparation or coaching. The scene typifies how the director likes to work: in the moment, always with an eye toward cinematic possibilities unanticipated during the screenwriting process.

Yet Menkin was sure of one thing. Although he shot three different endings, and showed them all to Israeli moviegoers, he never planned to dilute the integrity of his storytelling simply to please the crowd.

"This is the furthest thing from a Hollywood film," he says. "We tested the endings, but I was never going to tack on a conventionally happy ending just for the sake of it. People told me I was going to make audiences mad if I didn't, but look at what happens in the film. They're together for 24 hours. They're in a situation that happens very often in life.

"I wanted to stay true to that experience," Menkin concludes, "to make a realistic movie about what might happen. I might put those other endings on the DVD, like the directors {Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris} did with Little Miss Sunshine, which I loved. But the ending that's in the movie now, I'm happy with that."

To find out how Je T'aime, I Love You Terminal ends, visit Eastwood's Palace Theatre, 2384 James St., on Sunday, Oct. 16, for the Syracuse International Film Festival's closing program. Filmmaker Menkin will be at the screening, and he'll also be on hand when the Palace unspools Dolphin Boy on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 7 p.m. Tickets for either movie are $7 for adults, $6 for seniors and students.

And for those who want to complete their Menkin movie experience, the festival joins forces with the Jewish Community Center, 5655 Thompson Road, to present free monthly showings of the director's works at the center's Anne and Hy Miller Family Auditorium. On Monday, Oct. 17, check out 39 Pounds of Love, followed on Nov. 16 with The Wisdom of the Pretzel and Dec. 16 offers the basketball-themed double bill of Looks Like Aroesti and Tamir Goodman: The Jewish Michael Jordan. All screenings are at 7:30 p.m. and feature discussions with Menkin. For information, call 445-2360, Ext. 104.

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