With an international, multi-lingual show business career on stage, screen, television, concert halls and night clubs spanning over 60 years, actor, singer and dancer Mike Burstyn, at age 71, is now making his debut as a script writer and film director, proving it’s never too late.
Burstyn, who holds both American and Israeli citizenship, entertained Israeli troops in Sinai during the Six Day War, and knew even then that he wanted to make a film about the human aspect of the war.
For almost 50 years he walked around with the plot in his head, but somehow the time to fully develop it was never ripe until now – the 50th anniversary of the war.
Titled Azimuth, the film is about an Israeli and an Egyptian soldier who each reach an abandoned United Nations outpost in Sinai. The Egyptian is wounded, and the Israeli, who was driving an overheated jeep, was seeking shelter from the blazing sun.
When he approaches, the Israeli is shot in the shoulder by the Egyptian. Now both wounded men have to fight it out for survival.
To divulge anything more would be a spoiler, but the most important aspect is that while fighting in the field, they were more or less faceless enemies. They are now face to face.
It was important to Burstyn to make the film as authentic as possible, and that meant the soldiers had to be played by an Egyptian and an Israeli. Finding an Israeli actor to fit the role was not all that difficult, but finding an Egyptian willing to appear in the film was nearly impossible.
In the course of his search, it was suggested to Burstyn that he use an Israeli Arab actor or an Israeli Jewish actor of North African background, but Burstyn was still keen to find an Egyptian. When it looked as if that was never going to happen, he finally agreed to compromise and approached a Los Angeles-based American-born actor of Jordanian background. On reading the script, the actor said he would be honored to play the part, but felt that the person who was perfect for it was Sammy Sheik, 35, who was indeed born in Egypt and raised in Alexandria and who, after completing high school, went to America to study drama in New York and quickly landed a film role as an Al-Jazeera executive in the Albert Brooks satirical movie Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World. Since then he has acted in numerous film and television productions including Homeland.
In 2012, Sheik returned to Egypt to work on a television series, and has been back several times since in his professional capacity.
In addition to his work as an actor, he has been active in youth education and in 2010 was appointed goodwill ambassador to the Middle East for Y-Peer, a UN Population Fund youth education network that is active in almost 40 countries.
The Israeli actor is Yiftach Klein, 44, recently seen on cinema screens throughout Israel in the award winning film Fill the Void.
His current role could not be more different and illustrates the actor’s versatility.
Bursdyn is thrilled with both actors, whom he says are completely dedicated to the project and easy to work with. Neither, of course, is old enough to have served in the Six Day War, but curiously, the father of each served in both the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War.
The Jerusalem Post met with Burstyn and Sheik last week on the 14th floor of the business lounge of the Carlton Hotel overlooking the Tel Aviv Marina.
Sheik admitted that he was initially skeptical.
He knew practically nothing about the war. His father, who had never spoken of it to him, asked him after hearing of the offer if he was sure he wanted to do the film.
Sheik was hesitant before reading the script, fearful that it would present only the Israeli side. But once he read it and was convinced of its balance, he became very enthusiastic.
He even influenced an alteration to the script, telling Burstyn that one of the dialogues was flawed because no Egyptian would ever speak that way. Burstyn didn’t argue and made the change.
Another change was suggested by former Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren, who is a personal friend of Burstyn’s and a historian by profession, whose definitive book Six Days of War June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East won the Los Angeles Times History Book of the Year Award and the National Jewish Book Award. In the original script, the building in which the two soldiers confront each other was simply an abandoned house. It was Oren who suggested that it would be more authentic to make it an abandoned UN outpost.
This is not Sheik’s first production in Israel.
He was previously here in 2015 to shoot the television series Tyrant, whose original cast included Israeli actress, model and television presenter Moran Atias.
Having heard stories about how people from certain countries are detained at the airport, Sheik arrived that first time with some degree of trepidation, expecting to be questioned and detained for five or six hours. But he was breezed through. His younger brother, also an actor, came later for a visit and was held at the airport for four hours before receiving clearance to enter the country.
That first experience of Israel was an eye-opener for Sheik.
“This was Mars for me – another planet, populated by aliens – probably vicious. But I came, because as an actor you get to see new things.”
Tel Aviv was a revelation for him. Like his native Alexandria it has a long sea shore, but there were differences.
“People were nicer than in Alexandria. It’s much cleaner and more modern.”
Many of the people whom he met had never encountered an Egyptian before, and they were excited at the opportunity to speak with him. That experience “broke every stereotype I had in my head. This was the complete opposite of what I grew up thinking.”
On the other hand, he was more than disappointed with Jerusalem. The contrast between Israel’s capital and Tel Aviv was overwhelming. Albeit secular, Sheik is a Muslim, and therefore wanted to visit Islam’s second holiest city after Mecca, where he had already been.
“The air in Jerusalem was so full of tension you could cut it with a knife. I expected a very peaceful, Zen place, and it was very hostile. I felt that violence would erupt at any minute and for no reason. There was so much contrast with Tel Aviv which was so lovely and friendly.”
Assured by his interviewer that there were many places in Jerusalem where he would not feel tension and which he would find just as friendly as Tel Aviv, Sheik said that he was willing to try another visit. On his previous visit, he had intended to spend a whole day in the capital but left after two hours, having spent time at both the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock.
ON THIS current working visit to Israel he has developed a warm relationship with Burstyn and Klein, and says of the film “it makes you feel as if you added something to the world. Most artists start to do their art to make a difference, but you get carried away and forget until a project of this kind comes your way.”
“There’s no excuse for us not to know the details of that war,” said Sheik, adding that when he was at school Egyptian youngsters learned history and geography at an early age and were able to draw a map of the world while still in elementary school.
Israel was never included in that map nor was there any mention of the Six Day War in history lessons.
Sheik doubts that the Egyptian soldiers who fought in that war knew why they were there, but believes that the film carries a universal message.
The film is a quick-shoot, low-budget production, but using state of the art equipment, and is being edited as it goes along.
The location is mainly Mitzpe Ramon, but also elsewhere in Israel. Burstyn wants to premiere it at the Cannes Film Festival in May. The closing date for submissions is March 10, so the project is running against the clock. Sheik, who has worked with numerous directors, including Clint Eastwood, says that Burstyn is the best director that he’s ever worked with. He is full of praise for the level of cooperation.
“It’s everything to work with a director who wants to make the best out of a project.”
The film’s first “angel” was banker and philanthropist Oudi Recanati, who is a personal friend of Burstyn’s and saw in the film “a message of hope.” Soon afterwards Moshe Edery, who is undoubtedly the key supporter of Israel’s film industry, came on board. He and Recanati are co-producers of the film, which will have its Israeli premiere on June 5 at Cinema City, Jerusalem.