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May 11, 2012
 

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PAGE 2A By Naomi Pfefferman Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer, screenwriters of Sacha Baron Cohen's latest film, "The Dictator," were bantering in the comic ac- tor's office as Alec Berg, their co-writer, joined in by speakerphone--he was home babysitting his young daugh- ter. Baron Cohen, star of the prankster mockurnentaries "BrOno" and "Borat," was about to move out, and the of- fice was bare except for some black-leather furniture, wigs from his turn as a gay fash- ionista in an antechamber and posters of"The Dictator," looming large. Notoriously reclusive, Bar- on Cohen eschews interviews except in character, and on this day he was behind a closed door in a nearby office, where the screenwriters were about to join him to concoct further publicity stunts for the dicta- tor character in advance of the film's release on May 16. Among other stunts so far, the writers helped plan Baron Cohen's spilling"ashes of Kim Jong-il" all over Ryan SeacreTst (it was actually pancake mix) while Seacrest was live on camera on the red carpetatthe Oscars. They also helped Baron Cohen--er, the dictator--blame "The Acad- emy of Motion Picture Arts and Zionists" for banning his character from the ensuing Academy Awards ceremony. There is a philosophy be- hind even the crudest of their By Ron Kampeas WASHINGTON (JTA)--If Israel goes to elections this summer, will it be a replay of 1988 or 1992? Both Israeli election years also were American presiden- tial election years, as 2012 is. In 1988, the Dukakis-Bush race had no discernible effect on a race that saw Yitzhak Shamir edge Shimon Peres for Israel's premiership. Four years later, how- ever, Shamir's contentious relationship with President George H. W. Bush is believed to have helped cost the Israeli prime minister the election. So far, 2012 is looking more HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, MAY 11, 2012 'Dictator' skewers post-Sept. 11 world pranks and scenes, thewriters say: "What Sacha always tries to do, with 'Borat; 'BrOno' and even 'The Dictator,' is to make sure your victims are worthy, so that there's a sa- tirical aspect to the comedy," said Schaffer, who like Berg and Mandel, is a Harvard graduate in his early 40s with executive producing credits on "Seinfeld" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm." "These aren't innocent vic- tims. And nobody is going to feel sorry for Ryan Seacrest." Whether this last is true has been up for debate. Baron Cohen became an international sensation in 2006 with his character Borat, a sexist, anti-Semitic TV anchor allegedly from Kazakhstan who descended upon the United States only to elicit the worst in American culture. In one cringe-worthy se- quence, he enlisted unsus- pecting patrons of a country- western bar to sing along to his ditty, "Throw the Jew Down the Well." In "BrOno" (2009), his fashionista char- acter tries to broker peace between dour Israelis and Palestinians while confusing the word "humrnus" with "Hamas." The social satire may be pushed even further in "The Dictator," Baron Cohen's first scripted film, for which he shares writing credit with Mandel, Schaffer and Berg. The story spotlights Adm. Gen. Shabazz Aladeen, a fascist, misogynistic, Zionist- hating North African despot who is meant to skewer post-Sept. 11 America as he traipses about New York. Only trailers and a two-minute snippet of the film were avail- able before press time, but the action appears to take off as Aladeen arrives in the United States to address the United Nations, only to be kidnapped, shaved and stripped of his identity and left to wander the city until he is rescued by a naive grocery manager played by Anna Faris. Along the way, Aiadeen spars with his ex-head of se- curity (and "Chief Procurer of Women") played by Ben King- sley; teams up with his former top scientist, a.k.a. Nuclear Nadal; encounters post-Sept. 11 prejudice; and has a run-in with the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations. Will he shake the ambas- sador's hand? "He does more than shake his hand," Schaf- fer said, declining to reveal more. During the interview, the three writers, who met while working on the Harvard Lampoon, weren't above skewering their own Jewish- ness--or lack thereof. Mandel is an Upper West Sider who attended Hebrew school until his bar mitzvah and not a day afterward, Schafferwas such a prankster at his own religious school that he was expelled, and Berg has a Jewish wife but is actually a Swedish- American non-Jew--not that that prevents everyone from assuming he's a member of the tribe. Berg, in fact, said he was the inspiration for a "Curb" episode inwhich Larry David's prickly character is mortified to discover his divorce attorney, also named Berg, is not Jewish and is thus, he fears, "out to screw him." In person, "Curb's" creator is actually a "total mensch," unlike the show's epony- mous character, who says all the things David wishes he could say in real life, the writers said: "TV Larry is like Superman to real Larry's Clark Kent," Mandel said. "Even though Larry could not be more different than Sacha, what they share is a very businesslike approach to what is funny." Baron Cohen's work hasn't been without its critics. Back in 2006, the Anti-Defamation League worried that "Borat" might enhance, rather than dash, anti-Semitism in some quarters; "The Dictator" could well elicit charges of encouraging, instead of skew- ering, Islamophobia since the World Trade Center attacks. In the Jerusalem Post, Pal- estinian writer Ray Hanania suggested that the obser- vantly Jewish Baron Cohen would do better to satirize his own people, instead of "pick- ing on easy targets," such as Arab dictators. Mandel, Schaffer and Berg quickly stop joking when confronted with these ques- tions. "Let's be as clear as humanly possible," Mandel said. "Technically speaking, the dictator is North African. But he is not Muslim. There is no mention of Muslims, or Muslim humor. "Of course, Aladeen is clearly not a Zionist," Berg added. "He dislikes Jews, but only as part of an anti-Zionist, anti-West agenda. To us, he's always been an amalgam of world dictators, like Kim Jong-il, Idi Amin, Gadhafi, and Serdar Turkmenbashi of Turkmenistan," Mandei said. The writing team came up with the idea for "The Dictator" after Baron Cohen, who had brought them in to collaborate on "Borat" and "BrOno," asked them to pitch ideas for a new film. When they described a spoof based on the crazed despots of the world, Baron Cohen was hooked. "You can't make this stuff up," Mandel said of some real-life events that inspired scenes in the movie. Turk- menbashi really did pass a law changing the words for two days of the week to his own name; Kim Jong-il, according to North Korean propaganda, hit nine holes-in-one the first time he played golf; and Gadhafi traveled with his all-female security force, "so the dictator travels with his virgin guard," Schaffer said. And don't forget the kitschy, pseudo-heroic black-light portraits Saddam Hussein's sons hung all over their pal- aces: "So, in the movie, there's sort of a black-velvet painting ofa muscularAladeen riding a jaguar, clutching the severed head of Albert Einstein," Man- del said with a laugh. The writers describe "The Dictator" as the first main- stream-studio comedy to With Obama and Bibi both running, is 2012 a replay of 1988 or 1992? elections as early as August, although his term isn't up until the fall of 2013. His for- mal announcement was held up by the death of his father, Benzion. Netanyahu, despite having a relationship with President Obama that at times has been difficult, scores well on all three criteria, Miller said. Nothing catastrophic occurred under his watch, he is credited for rallying in- ternational support for Iran's isolation and the issue that has dogged his relationship with Obama--peace talks with the Palestinians--is all but moribund. "I don't see Israelis out in Miriam Alster/Flash90/JTA Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, head of the Likud Party, attend- ing a March meeting in the Knesset. the streets protesting the prime minister's policies on the peace process," Miller said. The conditions of a nascent peace process were seen as being in place in 1992. Arab countries that for decades had gone out of their way to snub Israel were ready to meet with Israel's leaders in Madrid, however stilted the encoun- ters. Israelis saw Shamir as balking at advancing talks in any meaningful way. "Shamir was perceived to have misplayed his hand even though you could argue that Jim Baker and Bush were more hostile than Obama," Miller said, referring to the U.S. secretary of state and president at the time. Another factor distinguish- ing this year from 1992 is that like '88 than '92, according to Aaron David Miller, a former Iongtime State Department Middle East negotiator who worked for the Bush admin- istration. "An Israeli prime minister is judged first and foremost by whether he can avoid cata- strophic political decisions, then on the capacity to give Israelis a sense of security, then on the capacity to man- age the U.S.-Israeli relation- ship," said Miller, now a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested last week that he would call Shamir faced a formidable opponent, Yitzhak Rabin, who had a history of strong relationships with American leaders, said Peter Medding, a professor of political science at the Avraham Harrnan In- stitute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "Rabin was starting from a much better position," Med- ding said. Netanyahu, by contrast, faces not one but an array of possible opposition lead- ers, including newly elected Kadima Party leader Shaul Mofaz, Shelly Yachimovich of the Labor and TV personality Yair Lapid. None has the heft of the late Rabin, who by '92 already had served as prime minister and military chief of staff. And he also was a war hero. In the absence of a vi- able peace process and with Obama unpopular among Israeli voters, Medding said, tensions with Obama "may make more voters vote for Netanyahu." In Israel as in the United States, voters are likelier to focus on domestic issues than on Iran, the peace process and foreign policy, he said. Netanyahu may face a resurgence of the social protest movement that erupted last summer, and he must address conflicts over military conscription of haredi Orthodox men within his own governing coalition. The one possible disrup- take on the Sept. 11 attacks and the ensuing fear of Ar- abs-or people mistaken as Arab--particularly where flying vehicles are con- cerned. "We do a scene in which Aladeen is somewhat in- nocently taking a ride in a helicopter, but it's really about what the two other pas- sengers, Midwestern Ameri- cans, are seeing and hearing," Mandel said. "He's having a normal conversation in his native tongue about all the wonderful things that New York has to offer, like the Empire State Building, while the other passengers begin to get worried. Then he's __ tlling a story about how he crashed his Porsche 911 so he's hoping to get the new 2012 911. But he couldn't be more innocent." The Arab Spring, which took place while "The Dicta- tor" was shooting, required copious revisions of the script. "None of those countries took into account how much rewriting we had to do," Schaffer quipped. But for the trio, anyway, writing a scripted film may have proved in some ways easier than Baron Cohen's previous mockumentaries. "Whereas in 'Borat' and 'BrOno' you're going, 'I hope this person says this,' in a script you just go, he says this,' "Schaffer said. Naomi Pfefferman writes for the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, from which this article was re- printed by permission. Yossi Zamir/Flash 90 Shelly Yacimovich, head of the Labor Party, during the party's January meeting in the Knesset. tor--as it happens, for both American and Israeli elec- tions-would be a heighten- ing of tensions with Iran. Ne- tanyahu has hinted that Israel may strike Iran's suspected nuclearweapons program this year, whereas Obama wants Israel to allow diplomacy and sanctions to play out. "If, say, the Israeli Air Force is on the tarmac and they're careening for takeoff and Obarna is seen as pulling them back, maybe" the Obama- Netanyahu relationship would come into play in the election, Medding said. "But I don't see that happening." Miller agreed. Speaking of the chances of a military at- tack on Iran, he said, "Unless the Iranians give someone a pretext for doing it, it's not going to happen."