AJFF: Film Commitment Pays Off for First-Time Director

AJFF: Film Commitment Pays Off for First-Time Director

Michael Jacobs

Atlanta Jewish Times Editor Michael Jacobs is on his second stint leading the AJT's editorial operations. He previously served as managing editor from 2005 to 2008.

Jewish and Muslim families clash in northern Germany in "Family Commitments."
Jewish and Muslim families clash in northern Germany in "Family Commitments."

You might expect the director of “Family Commitments,” a film about a gay couple crossing Jewish-Muslim lines in northern Germany, to have a special interest in the subject matter.

Perhaps he’s a German Jew or part of a Palestinian family taking refuge in Germany. Maybe he has fought for marriage equality, or, given one of many subplots about an unwed teenage mother, he’s concerned about reproductive rights. Maybe he’s just trying to make a grand statement about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

At the very least, considering the heights of the film’s farcical comedy, he must be dedicated to the art of making people laugh at all costs.

But “Family Commitments” director Hanno Olderdissen isn’t any of those things. He’s just a guy who has worked for more than a decade to get a chance to make a feature film, and when opportunity knocked, he opened the door. The possibility that a drunken artist was having sex on the other side wasn’t important.

“I was searching a long time for a project that I could direct,” Olderdissen said in a phone interview from Germany, adding that it was a coincidence that “Family Commitments” wound up being that project.

A TV station had the scripts and financing to make four movies it wanted to broadcast, but it needed directors. The head of the station knew Olderdissen from a student film he made almost a decade ago, and although that film was a drama, not a comedy, Olderdissen got the call.

“It’s hard for young directors to break into the industry,” he said, because there are so few slots for so many aspiring filmmakers.

The script had most of the elements of the final film but did need a significant rewrite to get the details right, Olderdissen said. For example, he changed the business of the lead Jewish character, David, from a clothing store to an art gallery because “I thought it was too much of a cliché, a gay man running a clothing store.”

He said a lot of work went into getting the Arab culture and the family dynamics right, although he felt a time crunch with only six months to prepare the script for shooting.

Much of the effort went toward amplifying the insanity of the story for the full screwball comedy effect. Not only did that allow him to mine laughs simply from David running from his flat to his business to his artist’s apartment, but it also insulated Olderdissen from criticism of his portrayal of cultures that aren’t his own.

“I think this is quite freeing for me that I have no boundaries in any direction,” he said about his lack of Jewish and Muslim ties. “We just thought we have to kind of show the same loving and disrespect to every religion in the movie. … Everybody is a little bit crazy.”

He certainly wasn’t trying to say anything about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which he said is interesting in the context of his film only because they’re gay men. “Even in Germany it’s still a big taboo. It’s very hard for young Arab men to be openly gay.”

Olderdissen said the movie got good ratings on German television and has been well received now that it’s on the festival circuit, particularly among LGBT and Jewish film festivals in the United States. It helps that “Family Commitments” isn’t meant to be viewed as much more than light entertainment, with no message beyond the craziness of all families and the value in just getting along.

“It doesn’t fit the complexity of the theme in real life,” Olderdissen said. “That’s what comedy is for, to be a little bit freeing.”

Olderdissen himself is free of comedy for now. He’s completing editing on his first feature made for theatrical release — a young-adult drama about horse racing (his father used to train horses). It’s a genre that has succeeded in the United States with the likes of “Seabiscuit” and “Secretariat” but doesn’t exist in Germany, where horse racing is much less popular, he said.

But now that he has cashed one winning ticket with “Family Commitments,” he’s hopeful of hitting the daily double.

Click here for screening details and tickets.

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