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Director Mike Burstyn’s ‘Azimuth’ Distills a Lifetime of Wisdom About the Middle East (Guest Blog)

”The whole idea that we can survive is that we cooperate,“ the 71-year-old debut filmmaker says

It was the “summer of love” in 1967 when Israel repelled a concerted effort by its Arab neighbors to drive it into the sea. What took Moses a generation to achieve was about to be ripped apart by a blistering phalanx of artillery, air power and troops. It was an ambush. A 50-to-1 imbalance putting Israel into a role that it has grown accustomed to. This time, the underdog served the combined armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan a stunning David vs. Goliath defeat. In six days Goliath was brought to his knees. Had God planned this war, he would have reserved the seventh day for a day of rest. Had God created a movie of it, it might look like the new movie “Azimuth.”

The film was written and directed by Mike Burstyn, the Bronx-born son of Yiddish actors who got his start in Yiddish theater, and at 71 years old, made his first foray into directing with a movie that should be a precursor to every diplomatic mission to the Middle East.

“Azimuth” exposes conflict and salvation between two soldiers — an Israeli (Yiftach Klein) and an Egyptian (Sammy Sheik) — deadlocked in an abandoned UN outpost, during the ceasefire that ended the Six Day War.

It is not a war movie. It is more like a dance — a pas de deux in time to the staccato riffs by Messrs. Uzi and Kalishnakov, choreographed to a brilliant score by Sharon Farber that seamlessly weaves an ethnic delirium without overpowering the action. The final scene seeps into your consciousness. When asked how he directed that scene, Burstyn claimed it was beshert — a word that means “destined.” In those final seconds, the movie combines cinematography with divine intervention, and makes it all look real.

“The metaphor is that at the end, the whole idea that we can survive is that we cooperate, or we are going to die in the desert,” he explained.

There’s a certain yiddishkeit, both damning and forgiving of the world, that glistened in this movie. I remembered it with the kvetching and moaning of my parents: “Complain that you had no shoes until you saw a man that had no feet.” Burstyn also envelops the audience in empathy. You care for both characters, because in their isolation it’s difficult to remember who they are fighting, or why. It becomes about two men, who fight for all of us.

Burstyn recently played a rabbi in Tzion Baruch’s “Juda,” an Israeli vampire dark comedy that is earning rave reviews in Israel. But that seems to be his modus operandi — go for what is unfamiliar and turn it into art. His storied career has included live theater, a Dutch television variety show, as well as film, most notably playing an Israeli Forrest Gump called Kuni-Lemi in 1966’s “The Flying Matchmaker.”

How did that prepare him to write, co-produce, cast and direct his first feature film at the age of 71? “The Six-Day War changed the Middle East, it changed the world and it changed me. I didn’t think I was mature enough to direct, but I had this story that I decided to do something with,” he said. “I wrote a first draft and showed it to my neighbor who is a professional screenwriter. She said it was amazing and thought that the first draft was enough to submit to an investor.”

The investor was also impressed. “He said, ‘Mike, this is something that we have to do. It’s a message that we need to get out to the world, it’s a message of hope,'” Burstyn recalled. “This movie is about hope.”

It dawned on me why the UN outpost was abandoned. With the 50th anniversary of the war approaching, the metaphor of that abandoned outpost was relevant. When it comes to Israel, the UN is an absentee parent out on a bender. Mike Burstyn might think the movie is about hope, and to those who live in Israel with a gas mask within reach and the steps to the nearest bomb shelter part of muscle-memory, I can see that. What is beautiful about “Azimuth” is that doves do not fly out of exploding grenades. “Azimuth” bleeds for humanity.

Winner of the Los Angeles Press Club's best blog award and a Southern California Journalism Award for his HollyBlogs, as well as an award for the Facebook group that helped to muscle the salvation of long-term care for the motion picture and television industry, Stellar's "vituperative blog on TheWrap" (Vanity Fair) focuses on issues related to the motion picture and entertainment industry. Stellar is founder of The Man/Kind Project, Inc., a 501(c)(3) corporation whose mission is to fight religious and cultural intolerance through the arts while building bridges of tolerance for all people. Stellar lives in Woodland Hills, California, with his wife of over 30 years, Nuala, and much too much Beatles memorabilia.