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Could a soccer game bring peace to the Middle East?

Jochen Kürten / adJune 6, 2016

What would happen if Israel and the Palestinian Terrorities solved their decades-old conflict with a winner-takes-all soccer game? A new Israeli-German film poses this absurd question - with entertaining results.

Scene from The 90 Minute War, Copyright: GRINGO films GmbH/N. Fraczkowski
Image: GRINGO films GmbH/N. Fraczkowski

Could an irresolvable political conflict be decided with a game of soccer? The idea is absurd: The Israeli national team plays against a team from the Palestinian Territories and the winner gets to keep the land that has been in dispute since the founding of Israel in 1948. The loser has to find another piece of land somewhere else in the world.

In his film "The 90 Minute War," Israeli director Eyal Halfon poses the question: Can one of the world's longest and most difficult conflicts be solved by sports?

The last film about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

"People are tired of this conflict. And they're also tired of films about it," said Halfon, who was born in Israel in 1958. Since he can't stomach any more movies about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, his should be the last, added the filmmaker with a wink.

Being the last film on the topic, it only seemed fitting for Halfon that it should be "different and funny." And he achieved just that. It's a film where the cinema audience cracks up and then has to remind itself that it's fiction and that the reality out there cannot be altered so easily by a film.

Scene from The 90 Minute War, Copyright: GRINGO films GmbH/N. Fraczkowski
Israeli team manager (Moshe Ivgy, l.) his Palestinian colleague (Norman Issa, r.) and the organizer of the match (Alexandre Barata, center)Image: GRINGO films GmbH/Nadine Fraczkowski

So what can viewers look forward to in "The 90 Minute War"? "Fun and an understanding of the complexity of our terrible conflict," promises Halfon. While many viewers are likely so be informed about the conflict in the Middle East, they likely haven't yet had it dished out in such an entertaining way.

How to organize the game of the century

The story opens in Portugal, where the match is to be organized in the soccer stadium in the city of Leiria. Portugal has been chosen to serve as neutral ground for carrying out the competition that is to decide the political future of the two sides. That's at least one thing they agreed upon - and so far, the only thing. The conflict over all the remaining aspects is what the rest of the film is all about - like who should be the referee, which players should participate on each side, and what the rules should be.

Scene from The 90 Minute War, Copyright: GRINGO films GmbH/N. Fraczkowski
"Look, I've done everything I could for the match," the Israeli soccer manager seems to be sayingImage: GRINGO films GmbH/N. Fraczkowski

One major bone of contention between the two protagonists of the film, the team managers of Israel and the Palestinian Territories, is the role of footballer Iyad Zuamut, who is an Israeli citizen with Palestinian roots. Other aspects that are hotly debated are training locations, equipment and lineup.

As soon as they make progress in their negotiations, another disagreement arises. The game suddenly seems a lot like real life: One step forward, two steps backward.

"I though the story was brilliant because it's so convincingly simple," said the film's producer, Steve Hudson. "It's like the idea of two army leaders that approach and fight each other and one of them wins. Then they all go home and no one has to die.

Scene from The 90 Minute War, Copyright: GRINGO films GmbH/N. Fraczkowski
The two managers only agree in rare moments - most of the time, they seem to be ad odds with each otherImage: GRINGO films GmbH/Nadine Fraczkowski

The German trainer cannot meet the challenge…

In 2008, Hudson and his wife Sonja Ewers founded a production company in Germany, which makes "The 90 Minute War" an Israeli-German co-production. That's one reason why a small German aspect was woven into the already complex plot: The Israeli national team is coached by a German, played by Detlev Buck, which complicates things even further. Considering the historical background of the Holocaust, a German coach would hardly be accepted in Israel, especially as this one seems to be overwhelmed by the extremely sensitive historical and political context, which adds an additional aspect to the film.

Scene from The 90 Minute War, Copyright: GRINGO films GmbH/N. Fraczkowski
The German soccer trainer working for the Israeli team (Detlev Buck, r.) has a hard time dealing with the highly delicate situationImage: GRINGO films GmbH/Daniel Kedem

Scenes showing the German coach at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem were shot at original locations, which gives the film the feel of a documentary. During filming, the crew was confronted with reality on several occasions, such as little incidents involving Israeli soldiers or demonstrating Palestinians. Hudson and Halfon were well aware of the effects created by such confrontations. In this way, "The 90 Minute War" almost became an absurd piece of reality itself.

The German-Israeli co-production "The 90 Minute War" was shot in Israel and Germany. Scenes involving FIFA, based in Zurich, were shot at Deutsche Welle in Bonn. The film premiered at the 22nd Jewish Film Festival in Berlin/Brandenburg, which runs through June 19.