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DAMIR LUKACEVIC: EIN NASSER HUND/WET DOG (2021) - San Francisco Jewish Film Festival 2021 (July 22 - Aug. 1)

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DOĞUBAN KABADAYI, MOHAMMAD ELIRAQUI AND OTHERS IN WET DOG

Adaptation of a German tale of hidden Jewishness among Arabs in Berlin

"Ein nasser Hund ist besser als ein trockener Jude" is a saying. "A wet dog is better than a dry Jew." Actually, in Iran. We learn that midway in this film. In German, because this takes place in Berlin. The family of Soheil (which, by the way, is an Arab name but not a Muslim one, see) has moved here from another German city, Göttingen. They immigrated from Iran. Now for the family businesses, they're in Wedding, a neighborhood of Berlin that has a lot of Arabs, Soheil complains. But he assimilates. Oh, does he assimilate.

The adept and appealing and effortlessly stylish young actor Doğuhan Kabadayı (who is German-Turkish, in fact) who plays Soheil looks very Middle Eastern. Maybe he could be a Sephardic Jew - or an Arab. He is thin and looks tall; dark, with big eyebrows, a long nose, thick lips, floppy black hair. He projects fun and confidence. From when he forces himself on a soccer game, he charms the local boys. The cool new kid on the block is a....Jew. In this feisty Berlin neighborhood "we're all one family, Turks, Arabs, Kurds..." they enthusiastically tell him when he says he's Iranian. Only not that. Not Jews. Not part of the "one family." After a bad experience wearing his Star of David neck chain at a market he leaves that at home and never mentions to anyone that he's a Jew. This is facilitated because of his looks and his confidence and because his family is not religious. They didn't give him a bar mitzvah, did not raise him as a Jew. He doesn't particularly think of himself as Jewish. But he did wear that Star of David chain. In Göttingen - not in Wedding.

Immediately he becomes a secret night graffiti artist, moniker "King Star." His giant tag appears everywhere. If this kid is 15 he is prodigious. Later, he reveals King Star is him, and he becomes a celebrity. The local gang welcomes him. He learns to hug and kiss everybody, call each other "habibi" and say "Assalamu alaykum." He even, when his new best friend Husseyn (Mohammad Eliraqui, nominated for a German newcomers award) begs him to, eventually dresses up and goes to the mosque with him - but he leaves abruptly, during prayer, feeling uncomfortable.

In a fight with another gang, Soheil uses a hand blade that's passed to him by Husseyn and boldly stabs a guy, immediately gaining increased cred. Nothing fazes Soheil. It all seems a lark to him. It's his father (Kida Khodr Ramadan) whom this hurts... when he finds out his son is a fledgling gangbanger.

Soheil attends the local high school, but the film seems most at ease doing gang fights and exploits, and the "multicultural" young German Arab-Turkish-Kurdish actors vividly create the feel of male camaraderie. The action might seem too schematic if it didn't have a clear relation to the eponymous autobiographical German bestseller by Arye Sharuz Shalicar. The fact that eventually Shalicar emigrated to Israel and became a member and then an official spokesman for the IDF suggests he had a knack for assimilation, and for violence.

Still it would all seem way too easy were it not for the charisma of the boys and the panache of Kabadayı. As a German review of the film on the programme guide Spielfilm says, he's "a real discovery" who "plays Soheil's development in all its facets very vividly" and is "just as engaging" as "a high-spirited street artist and rebel" as he is "as a shy lover and a courageous fighter for his convictions."

The film may have trouble with the big transitions. You'd think his pals' decision to rob the "Jew-lery" store that his father runs would stop Soheil but it doesn't seem to. He gets involved instead in a provocation (also impressing his buddies) by spray-painting a smiley face on a cop car in front of the store, which gets him arrested. Why his father is gentle and affectionate in retrieving him is a bit hard to figure.

It's a school provocation that finally brings Soheil "out." He paints a giant tag, "JUDE" (JEW) on a wall, which becomes a school scandal and hints at Soheil's desire to reveal himself, but he doesn't. (Perhaps he's inspired by Banksy. The book is set in the nineties but this film is set in the present.) He finally admits to the "JUDE" painting but what it means to him or to his parents isn't articulated. His father convinces him that he must acknowledge his Jewishness.

In a somewhat underwhelming and awkward scene, but also a fascinating one, Soheil slowly confesses to the gang that he is indeed the odious Jew one of them spotted in the store wearing the Star of David necklace at the beginning. It feels like Husseyn and the others want to hug him and forgive him, but the rules and the story don't allow it, and he walks out, leaving also Selma (Derya Dilber), his sweet Arab girlfriend.

Selma reappears, to hear his troubles:"For the Arabs I'm a Jew, for the Germans a Turk or an Arab, and for the Jews I'm a terrorist from Wedding," Soheil says, echoing the words on the book jacket. Indeed, when he visits a Jewish museum, he's received with suspicion. Some of the old gang try to betray him to the rival gang from Kreuzberg. Selma gets pregnant. Husseyn becomes a friend again - and Soheil becomes an Israeli, all in the blink of a final montage. Maybe they needed a miniseries - and a mindset complex enough to make this seem like more than a Young Adult novel.

The film was produced by Warner Brothers Germany, and an article on Deutsche Welle (DW)'s website about the making of the film shows much sincerity. All the cast members are Muslim, butl in workshopping they heard from a young Jew who'd suffered the same kind of ordeal as the protagonist/author. Kida Khodr Ramadan, who plays Soheil's father, is a Lebanese immigrant to Germany who grew up in Kreuzberg. He expressed concern that the anti-Semitism and resentment among groups are more open then when he was a student; he attributes it to social media. Kabadayı's Instagram shows he likes River Phoenix in Stand by Me, Ezra Miller in The Perks of Being a Wallflower ("The best and most beautiful coming of age film") and especially Ryan Gosling in Drive ("My favorite Neo Noir"). It's impossible not to like this young actor and want to see more of him. His male costar Mohammad Eliraqui has a Brandoesque intensity.

Ein nasser Hund/Wet Dog, 100 mins., is scheduled for release in Germany Jul. 29, 2021. It was screened for this review as the "Next Wave Spotlight" film of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (Jul. 22- Aug. 1, 2021), Suggested viewing time Friday July 30, 2021, 7:00 p.m. Available nationwide.

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DOĞUBAN KABADAYI, DERYA DILBER, MOHAMMAD ELIRAQUI

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