Mike’s Place bombing victim to Media Line: Hollywood shuns Israel stories

Twenty years after surviving a terrorist attack, filmmaker Jack Baxter reflects on his quest for understanding the Middle East.

 (L-R) Joshua Faudem, Will Keenan, Jack Baxter, and Felice Friedson at the press event at Mount Zion Hotel in Jerusalem. (photo credit: BRUNO CHARBIT/THE MEDIA LINE)
(L-R) Joshua Faudem, Will Keenan, Jack Baxter, and Felice Friedson at the press event at Mount Zion Hotel in Jerusalem.

Jack Baxter is an award-winning filmmaker who has produced, directed, and written for film and television for over four decades. He is best known for his documentary films that explore complex social and political issues. Baxter has a unique ability to capture the human element of his subjects and create compelling stories that resonate with audiences. His work has been screened at numerous film festivals worldwide and has received critical acclaim. 

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Baxter was seriously wounded in a terrorist attack at Mike’s Place, a popular club on the Tel Aviv beach, while he was making a movie in 2003. The footage of him fighting for his life became an award-winning documentary, Blues by the Beach (2004). It was followed by a graphic novel, Mike's Place: A True Story of Love, Blues, and Terror in Tel Aviv (2015), and another film, The Last Sermon (2020), which was awarded the Prix de l'Espoir at the 6th International Human Rights Film Festival in Tunis, Tunisia.

Baxter sat down in the studio at The Media Line with Felice Friedson to reflect on the 20th anniversary of the Mike’s Place bombing.

TML: Twenty years ago, my guest Jack Baxter arrived at a popular club on the Tel Aviv beach called Mike’s Place. The purpose of his visit was to run down a piece for a movie in the works on terrorism. The Second Intifada, that time of unbridled terror in the streets of Israel typified by the bombings of buses and public buildings, was going strong.

That evening, the reporter became the story when a terrorist triggered his bomb. Baxter, who was seriously wounded, was filmed fighting for his life—footage that became an award-winning documentary called Blues by the Beach. It was followed by another film, The Last Sermon.

 Poster for ''The Last Sermon.'' (credit: JACK BAXTER) Poster for ''The Last Sermon.'' (credit: JACK BAXTER)

Jack Baxter, thank you so much for joining me here at The Media Line. Is it possible that 20 years have passed since the bombing at Mike’s Place?

Baxter: Well, most definitely! Now, it’s 20 years. The exact date is April 30, 2003 [at 12:45 am].

That next morning, on the 30th of April 2003, was the presentation of the US Roadmap for Peace plan with the Quartet: Russia, the Arab League, the European Union, and [the US]. And that night, two British nationals came into Mike’s Place. These guys were not Palestinians. This was an international terrorism incident right next door to the American Embassy, which Mike’s Place was.

TML: I assume that your life changed more than just walking with a carrying stick. What else happened?

Baxter: Well, both my eardrums were blown out—size-of-Tic-Tac holes in my eardrums. I actually had the first operation done in the United States after I got back to repair those holes in my eardrums because the doctor said that the reason that it has never been done before is that anybody that has holes in his eardrums like that is dead.

So that happened. I’m partially paralyzed right down the middle, so on my left side is the feeling of pins and needles, if you can imagine that. [On] my right side, I’m fine. So that’s … other injuries, but those are the lingering effects.

TML: Your experience apparently didn’t stop you from coming back to this region, to Israel and the Middle East. Is there something you’re looking for?

Baxter: Well, I originally came in 2002, after 9/11, because I had heard and I watched—I mean, I had no idea, I had never been to Israel before, but I saw terrorism experts explaining that, or trying to explain that a big reason for the terrorist attack on 9/11 in New York and in the United States was because of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. And that somehow triggered the international terrorism against the United States. 

So, that was my original motivation, to find out what that really was all about. Not that I could solve the Middle East conflict, but I thought that I could make it make sense to me, and through that process make it make sense to other Americans.

TML: Now, I ask this question because you have sort of relived the incidents of your life over and over through two films and a graphic novel. What happened? How did that evolve?

Baxter: Well, the graphic novel came about because Joshua Faudem and I, who was my director on Blues by the Beach, the film that we did, or that we were doing while the bombing took place. I guess about 12 years later, we came up with an idea to make a movie, a feature film based on this. So we started writing a screenplay. We finished that screenplay after about a year and went to Hollywood with it and gave it to various agents and everybody else. Of course, it went nowhere, and people promised us the moon.

I ran into a friend of Joshua’s who is a publisher of a graphic novel company called First Second Books in New York, and they are an imprint of McMillan, which is one of the biggest publishers in the world.

He liked the screenplay and said that this would make a perfect graphic novel, so that’s how that started. And three years later, the graphic novel came out. Beyond that, in 2017, we came up with an idea, Joshua and I, to actually speak with and interview the two British suicide bombers—their families—of course both of the bombers are deceased!

So, we went to England. First, we started out here, with The Media Line [which] had a town hall press conference for us at the Mount Zion hotel with Muslims, Palestinians, Arabs, Orthodox Jews, you name it, were at that town hall, seeing us off. And we went to refugee camps all throughout Europe, and eventually we wound up in England and that’s what that story is about.

TML: Jack, we had met prior. Blues by the Beach came out. The Media Line was running a press club, The Mideast Press Club, and we presented the movie to Israelis and Palestinians, and foreign press. Interestingly enough, cut to today, and I’m not sure that we can show that movie today with Israeli and Palestinian press coming together, because of the environment.

So, how do you look at the changes in history and what has happened over the last decade?

Baxter: During the Second Intifada in 2003, which this was in the height of, there was palpable tension on the street. And people were looking both ways when they would … people didn’t want to be in crowds on the street.

And I remember that. And the thing about Mike’s Place was that here you had a place next door to the American Embassy on the Tel Aviv beachfront, where not only Israelis were hanging out, but expats, a lot of Brits, Americans, Arabs. Because it was next door to the American Embassy, there were US marines who were guards over there who were in there, so it was a real coming-together place.

 Jack Baxter and Joshua Faudem in London, 2017. (credit: AVI LEVI) Jack Baxter and Joshua Faudem in London, 2017. (credit: AVI LEVI)

And the one rule that was told to me about the place by one of the co-owners, Gal Ganzman, the rule at Mike’s Place is no politics and no religion—having none of that on the bar.

So, when these two guys came in on April 30, that’s exactly the first rule that they were breaking besides the fact that they were breaking a couple of commandments—though shalt not kill. But they were bringing their religion and politics into the bar.

It would still be a persona non grata if you do that in Mike’s Place in Tel Aviv, Mike’s Place here in Jerusalem, or the Mike’s Place that they operate in the beautiful resort of Eilat.

TML: What’s going to put an end to the 20-year quest that you have had in finding closure to that attack on that very horrific day?

Baxter: We’re having a screening of Blues by the Beach at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, and a memorial service that they have every year at Mike’s Place.

I can tell you that 20 years … I’m looking for this to be wrapped up for me right now. I figured 20 years of dealing with this subject matter, it is time to move on for me. Not that I left it any different, probably, but we told a true story. We captured a real event that happened. For some reason, we were there at the first suicide bombing by a foreign national on Israeli soil when these two Brits who were linked to an al-Qaida cell that later blew up the London transit system a couple of years later and were linked back to Mike’s Place.

So, I do not know if there is closure, but I’m sure going to try to get some closure. And that’s why I am here. And it’s been wonderful to be in this position and to actually go back to Mike’s Place and be with all of our friends and the Mike’s Place family.

TML: The larger picture is a little bit bittersweet. Some Israeli filmmakers have been able to place their films on the international streaming circuit. Politics have been playing a role lately and it has been more difficult to not necessarily get out the information that you are trying to get out—documentaries—on the attack and what happened to you that very day here in Tel Aviv. Why is that, Jack? What do you think is happening in Hollywood?

Baxter: Well, I can tell you that in 2018 I was at the Cannes Film Festival where we showed a version of Blues by the Beach which was showing and screening in Tel Aviv, and we got picked up for this graphic novel for a major motion picture in Hollywood. Antoine Fuqua was involved. Todd Komarnicki, who wrote the Clint Eastwood movie Sully, and also Andrew Levitas, who is the director and producer of a terrific film called Minamata starring Jonny Depp, which kind of got lost in the whole COVID[-19] situation that happened.

I can tell you, in Hollywood, from everything that I’ve heard, because we have had to struggle for four years now, a lot of money has been spent. In my estimation, we’re talking over $100,000 on the script. These are major players: Antoine Fuqua, Todd Komarnicki [and] Andrew Levitas.

And the reaction that they’ve gotten from Hollywood, and other people that I know that are associated, and I think that I can say this very truthfully, one of the worst things that you can be referred to or thought of or accused of in Hollywood these days is the Z word. Now what’s the Z word? Zionist.

So, if you showed that maybe you have something positive to say about Israel, but in this case, we’re not dealing with politics and religion, we are dealing with a human story. Terrorism is there? Yeah! Religion is on the outskirts, politics is involved. But Israeli stories, I guess, from everything that I’ve been told and the reaction to our project, which has picked up steam and has been written about in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. Our option hasn’t been picked up. That just went by the wayside a couple of months ago so hopefully it will get picked back up.

But, if you are trying to do something about Israel, I would think the best thing that you can do at this point, and what we are looking to do, quite frankly, if nothing happens out of Hollywood, I guess the best thing to do is to do something in Israel à la Fauda and some of the great stuff that is coming out of here so that way you do not have to try to be politically correct, which is the big problem in Hollywood.

How do they slice the baby here? How do they show that Palestinians and Israelis are both nice people? How do you do that? Well, the name of this book is Mike’s Place: A True Story of Love, Blues, and Terror in Tel Aviv. “True” is the operative word here.

TML: Do you feel that Hollywood is slamming the doors on these kinds of films?

Baxter: Absolutely! I mean, I am not talking about a documentary now. I am talking about a feature film. I mean, you have heard the lineup: Antoine Fuqua, Todd Komarnicki, Andrew Levitas. These are guys signed to a creative artists agency in Hollywood. This isn’t small potatoes here! This is not a couple of guys running around with a Hi8 [camcorder] trying to figure something out.

A hundred thousand dollars has been spent on a script and we can’t get off the schneid. So I think that it’s definitely is a problem, it’s definitely a perception, and maybe the only way around it instead of being kicked around in Hollywood and shunted, and, “Sorry, we can’t take the chance” or “We don’t want to look like we have our thumb on the scale for Israel. We definitely don’t want to be accused of being the Z word: Zionists.” So maybe we will accept it, like Fauda, if it comes from Israelis.

But this is not just Israelis. I am an American, so I am just going to keep positive, and I am going to believe that all things work together for good.

TML: Israel’s 75th anniversary coincides with the 20th anniversary of Mike’s Place. So, as an American who has been to Israel many times, was wounded seriously in Israel, [and] has spent his life looking for answers, how do you feel today?

Baxter: I am very happy that I have actually had the experience of getting to know this part of the world, and not just Israelis, but Palestinians and Arabs. I have been to Dubai through this process, through the book. We have won an award for The Last Sermon in Tunis back in 2020. That’s remarkable!

That we can show a film, screen a film about an Israeli suicide bombing outside of the American Embassy and the related films, and screen it before Arab audiences and Orthodox audiences, and people that do not even know anything about Israel.

So, I’m really glad and overjoyed that I’ve gotten to know Israelis and that I consider Israel and I consider Mike’s Place, in particular, family. And that’s where I am at.

TML: Jack, what is it like to watch a Mideast thriller, an action film after you have been there, done that, and have been in a real-life coma?

Baxter: Well, Mideast thrillers, I mean, now they’ve become a part of my DNA watching them, so I’m into it, because I’m still carrying around what’s called organic shrapnel, embedded organic shrapnel which is part of the suicide bomber’s body. So, I’m part of this whole thing.

And I am hoping that peace comes here and all that. In the meantime, people have to live. Like I said, Israel is a family. I know that in East Jerusalem and in the [Palestinian] territories, Palestinians are family. Those are the kind of stories that I want to see done, that there’s a resolution and there’s hope for the future, even if that’s not always the case.

TML: Jack, thank you so much for sharing, as we are entering the 20th anniversary of the bombing at Mike’s Place. Wishing you peace of heart and mind, and that your story gets told. 

Baxter: Thank you for having me here at The Media Line. I really appreciate it, Felice.