Based on the novel "Panther in the Basement" by the world renowned author, Amos Oz, "Little Traitor" takes place in 1947 Palestine, just a few months before Israel becomes a state.
Proffy Liebowitz, a militant yet sensitive twelve year old, has grown up under British occupation and wants nothing more than for the occupying British to get out of his land. Proffy and his two friends are always plotting ways to terrorize the British until one evening, while he's out after curfew; Proffy is seized by Sergeant Dunlop (Alfred Molina).
Instead of arresting him, Sergeant Dunlop escorts him back home and a friendship begins to develop in the following weeks. Proffy starts to consider Dunlop a father figure, as his own father is cold and remote. Dunlop, lonely and poetic, loves the spirited boy and reads the Book of Samuel, Dunlap's favorite part of the Bible. Proffy helps Dunlap with his Hebrew while Dunlap teaches Proffy difficult English words and provides the fatherly guidance missing in Proffy's life.
As neighborhood tensions escalate between the British and the underground Jewish rebellion, their relationship becomes increasingly complicated. While Proffy has learned a great deal from his mentor, he is also shunned by his friends for this friendship and thus called a "traitor" by his neighbors and community. The resulting trial and shock that he could have such genuine affection for his "enemy" will change Proffy's life forever.
Many movies begin as a book. "The Little Traitor" was born of a short novel, Panther in the Basement, by the brilliant Israeli author Amos Oz. It is a lyrical story of a young boy growing up in Jerusalem during the British Mandate, when Israel (then still Palestine) lived under occupation. This boy, the son of Holocaust survivors, shares the passionate longing of his parents and Jews everywhere: for Israel to become its own state. One day he is befriended by the warm and avuncular British Sergeant Dunlop, and as their friendship evolves, the boy finds himself caught between his hatred of "the British"—whom he dreams of destroying—and his growing affection for a member of the detested enemy.
A filmmaker is almost always asked, "What was it about the book that made you want to adapt it? Direct it?" There was so much in this tale: a period of history relatively untouched in cinema, the themes of friendships that cross enemy lines, and the author's pacifism. But, for me, the deciding factor was that as I read the book, I could see the expressions in the eyes of the characters. And when that happens, the language of film begins.
I knew that putting this movie together would be no easy task. For the film to have the authentic quality created by its pristinely authentic author, it would have to be filmed in Israel. It couldn't be Crete, or Rhodes, or Morocco standing in for Israel; it had to be filmed in the streets of Jerusalem.
There hadn't been an American-Israeli co-production in about twenty years; the two Intifadas during that time were certainly a deterrent to filmmakers and filmmaking. But when we began to piece together financing, there was relative quiet and peace in the region.
We'll skip over the "raising the money for the film" part of this story, but suffice it to say it was a rocky and perilous process. Many potential American investors were afraid that the film would never get done; "Yeah," they would say, "there's a little peace now, but what about next week?" But, miraculously, we got the funds. Alfred Molina became our Sergeant Dunlop. We found glorious, authentic locations in Israel. We hired a gifted cinematographer, Amnon Zalait and production designer, Ido Dolev. Our daunting dream was about to come true.
The first two days of filming went fabulously well.
Then, on the third day, the faces of the crew who had arrived on the set at the crack of dawn were ashen. War had broken out between Israel and Lebanon. After laborious, backbreaking steps to make this movie happen, were the skeptics right? Would the movie come to a screeching halt? Not if the Israelis could help it. An important aspect of being victorious for the Israelis is that the enemy will not take away the precious activities and rituals of daily life. But there was that word again: "enemy." Arabs and Jews were fighting each other, but was each individual an enemy of the other? Must they be? The war around us was scraping against the theme of our movie.
Thanks to CNN, Fox news, and MSNBC, with their Sam Peckinpaw approach to reporting news, this war was broadcast to the world as though there were not an inch of Israeli soil that was not hit. Friends, partners, and investors called and e-mailed. I got this message from one of my closest friends: "Dear Lynn. Hope the movie is going well. Please forget about it and get the hell out of there." Even people who didn't like me sent e-mails asking if I were okay.
Some members of the camera crew were called to duty. The hotels were jammed with people fleeing from the north. Molina's representatives got him on the phone, their hysteria palpable. "Do you want us to bring you home right now? We will bring you home today if you are in any danger, we know top people in Israel, and we have offices in Rome and London and…." "What are you talking about?" Molina told them. "The movie is still shooting, and besides, I just had the best pita and hummus I've ever eaten in my life."
The war continued, but so did we.
Cameras rolled as the character of Sergeant Dunlop says to the young boy: "Don't be in such a hurry to get us out of your country. Eventually there will be trouble between the Arabs and the Jews. It's in the Bible, the Prophets predict it." And as he spoke, the building started to shake — five military jets were flying overhead on their way to Lebanon. "Cut!" I yelled. "I'm so sorry," I tell Molina. "They flew over during your best take."
Ironies persisted. Filming one midnight in Jerusalem, we recreated the night when Israel learned it had become a state. Every single family in that nascent nation had sat by their radios listening to the vote at the United Nations. After filming that scene we created our own modern parallel, crowding around our radios and internets for an update on the war.
Later, we filmed actors coming out of their homes to dance in the streets to celebrate the results of the U.N. vote that created the state of Israel. Several of the actors burst into tears — some because they remembered that night 60 years ago, and some because they had brothers and sisters and sons and daughters who had just been sent to Lebanon.
We were filming a movie about Israel's right to exist as she fought for her continued existence. The movie, the reality, the characters, the history, the news jumbled together. We saw the war through the perspective of our movie, and made the movie through the perspective of the war around us.
But louder than the sounds of the planes above us, we heard the words of Amos Oz:
"You make peace with your enemy precisely because he is your enemy. It's for the sake of life, not love."