Sports have always been influenced by international politics. When it is hard to wrap our minds around the global order, one can always look to events such as the World Cup or the Olympics to gauge a sense of where the political division lines have been drawn. During the Cold War the global order was divided between East and West, and a nascent Israel was still developing its identity. On the Map captures this novelty and political excitement through the story of the country’s basketball performances with heightened tension and a dash of sentimentality. The assembly of the Maccabi Tel Aviv team, was not easy, with different members coming from even the U.S. However, the popularity of the Maccabi within their own country was also synonymous with a source of pride.
In 1977, the time came for the Maccabi to face the Soviet Union’s team. At first, the Soviets stated that they refused to play against Israel, demonstrating the politically loaded state of international games. Director Dani Menkin makes it a point to demonstrate how international politics played out both on the basketball court and in the political sphere. Basketball in particular became politicized after the 1972 Olympics when, according to the interviews presented in this documentary, the Soviet team stole a medal from the U.S. by playing dirty.
Menkin keeps the pace up throughout On the Map, reminiscent of a game of basketball itself. There are several interesting talking heads, including the players of the original game. Menkin also includes some high level political figures and activists who represent the Israeli side of politics. Along with these interviews, Menkin also presents archival footage of the games, including the Maccabi team practicing and playing. There are also a series of videos interspersed with archival footage that show the heavy political tensions being lived at the time.
The Cold War was characterized by tense moments where small decisions may have had serious consequences. Athletes were being heavily watched by strong states, as rivalries went well beyond the rules of the basketball court. This is where the documentary shines: at showing the fault lines of the Cold War and how politics seeped into personal lives in an insidious and persistent way. The dynamic editing is certainly one of the elements that contributes to heightening the film’s tension and maintaining audience engagement with the story, which may lead some to root for the Maccabi team.
When the two teams finally face off in the small, neutral Belgian town of Virton, in 1977, the focus turns away from politics and to the human spirit that fuels these athletes to face a team that, by some measures, was stronger than they were. The win by the Israeli team goes beyond simple sports, as the nation was still in the process of creating an international presence, and these seemingly small acts helped crystallize the political struggles of the country, which was born out of a contentious process. The continued presence of the team throughout Europe and other countries helped cement the fact that this new nation was part of the global system, and, in a matter of speaking, “on the map.”
The documentary offers more than a nostalgic retelling of a sports team but offers a holistic perspective of the country using basketball as the excuse for a larger story. Although, I must confess, I am not a sports fanatic, this documentary actually creates enough of a broad view of the context in which the games take place to engage a wide audience. By the end of the documentary, Menkin does, however, succumb to sentimentality, which feels out of place with the most thrilling parts of the documentary, yet this last misstep hardly detracts from the overall accomplishment of being able to tell a seemingly small story and showing more than the sum of its parts.
On the Map runs 85 minutes, is in English and Hebrew with English subtitles and is not rated. It opens in New York this Friday, Dec. 9. In our South Florida area, it will have its Florida premiere at the Miami Jewish Film Festival on Monday, Jan. 16, at 8:30 p.m., at O Cinema Miami Shores. There’s a second screening on Tuesday, Jan. 17, at 7:30 p.m., at Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center. Good Will Ambassador of Israel and basketball legend Tal Brody will be in attendance at the MJFF screenings. For details, visit this link. For screenings in other parts of the U.S., please click here. A screener link was provided by Hey Jude Productions for the purpose of this review.