Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s “James’ Journey to Jerusalem”; an Israeli Movie With Soul
by Liza Bear
In a startlingly upbeat fiction feature debut, Ra’anan Alexandrowicz presents a contemporary odyssey through the seamy underbelly of Israeli society in “James’ Journey to Jerusalem.” With his sagacious wide eyes and radiant smile, Siyabonge Shibe‘s brilliant performance as James, a modern Candide, breathes a joyousness rare in political entertainment.
A young Christian from South Africa sent by his village on a mission to the Holy Land, James gets a rude wake-up call on landing in Tel Aviv, where he’s immediately arrested. In a shady deal with the authorities, the immigrant jail doubles as a source of cheap labor for Shimi (Salim Daw) who whisks James off to a crowded prison-like hostel, takes his passport and forces him to work as a cleaner. But James’ magic touch earns him a better job tending the garden of his boss’ father Salah (Arie Elias), under whose tutelage he gradually wises up to the rules of the game. Being a quick study, James sets ups his own scam hiring other immigrants. Although he never loses hope, his search for Jerusalem becomes subverted by consumer lust.
At once a rueful comedy of manners and a scathing satire of a certain strand of Israeli society, the film’s wondrously light touch avoids both caricature and preachiness. Alexandrowicz springs ample plot surprises and to the film’s many deliciously wicked ironies adds his own penchant for casting Arabs as Jews.
I talked to Ra’anan Alexandrowicz on a windy afternoon at Cannes after the film’s premiere in Directors’ Fortnight. Zeitgeist Films opens “James’ Journey to Jerusalem” at Film Forum in New York on Friday, March 5 before its release in other cities.
indieWIRE: Tell me how you came up with this highly original story. Is it your story?
Ra’anan Alexandrowicz: It is. Five or six years ago I knew a 45-year-old Nigerian man named James. He lived in Tel Aviv on a long-expired tourist visa. He hoped to reach Canada one day. And once he told me how he had imagined my country before he came. In Nigeria people are very religious — the Holy Land has a very clear image, straight from the Bible. And he imagined it as this amazing, beautiful, calm, and happy place where the Chosen People live, very virtuously. And when he got off the plane and he smelled the air of the Holy Land, he began to cry. He didn’t come to be a tourist, he came in order to…
iW: On pilgrimage?
Alexandrowicz: No, to stay and work. What people can make in Israel doing hard labor is a lot of money for where they come from. From the contrast between his expectations and the reality of his life, I felt something very strong. It felt like the beginning of a film… I just knew that the tension between these two, the Holy Land one dreams of and the Israel one finds, was something that I should explore. And then I created this basic situation of someone who comes for a pilgrimage and then ends up as a migrant worker.
iW: So in the script you changed the nationality of your character from Nigerian to Zulu.
Alexandrowicz: Right… The nationality here is not really highlighted. In Israel there’s this new black community, for about 10 years now, which is mainly from Nigeria and Ghana, but also from many other countries, including South Africa. So in the end I had James be from South Africa because of the actor I was working with. But I don’t have a vision of Africa as a place where everything is so different regarding how people are with each other, or regarding the influence of money on people’s lives. And since I’ve researched, I know that there are remote places in the African continent where people still live a very different life, and a life that is less influenced by these strong forces of materialism that have infested our social behavior to a great extent. So James in the story comes from this place that’s the furthest you can go from Western society.
iW: Well, it’s idyllic — a place of innocence and naivete. You must have been thrilled to find Siyabonga Shibe because he’s the perfect actor to convey that. How did you find him?
Alexandrowicz: We worked with a casting agency in South Africa and saw about 20 actors on tape. We narrowed it down to two. I went to South Africa to work a couple of days with each of them and decide.
iW: What is the immigration situation in Israel? How realistic is it that people are slammed into jail the minute they get off the plane?
Alexandrowicz: There’s a slim chance. People are [eyeing Israel very critically] now. Just like when you make an American film about someone who goes on death row without being guilty: it’s a horrible statistic, but… you’re more likely to find yourself in a car crash.
iW: No, but the U.S. has more than 2 million people in jail, the largest incarcerated population in the entire world.
Alexandrowicz: And this is why it’s good to make films about it. So in Israel if you don’t get a visa you might get deported. And someone might bail you out and give you a permit to work. Legally, the situation is possible. How common it is, I have to say I didn’t check. By the way, in the last five years there have been amazing European films about this subject, such as “La Promesse,” a stunning Belgian film.
iW: Yes, and that film in England by Pawlokowski, “Last Resort.”
Alexandrowicz: It’s important for me to say this — because my last two works were documentaries… To study the community of migrant workers in Israel within a documentary film, their way of life and their problems, is very important. It’s something that I ignored from the beginning with this script. I wanted to make a film that talks about other things, but also comes from within this world.
iW: What was charming and delightful and a revelation was how James absorbs the values of the culture he finds himself in. And it must have been thrilling to come up with that turn in the script. This approach gives you a double insight.
Alexandrowicz: You’re right. This was definitely the moment of happiness when I had the idea, I’m going to make this journey through our culture through these very naïve eyes — it’s actually a bit of my own journey, how I feel. I let James ask the question for me and for us. Cinema is a shallow medium in many, many respects but what it can do stronger than most media is show you the world though someone else’s eyes. And when you take it one step further, it can show you yourself through someone else’s eyes. And this is a very strong experience for the audience. Again, I decided that if I want to put up this kind of mirror, I’d do it with humor. When I say “us,” I don’t mean only Israelis, or the many nationalities and religions who live in my country. The reason I made this film as a fairy tale was because these traits apply to us as Israelis, but also to everyone who lives within today’s ruling economic system.
iW: Whatever religion or ethnic group they are.
Alexandrowicz: Regretfully there are some levels of the film that may not be easily understood outside Israel. For instance, James’s strongest connection in the film is with Salah, his boss Shimi’s father… This character is actually an homage to a character in an old Israeli film, “Salah Shabati.” who’s an immigrant from an Arab country. [He’s actually a Moroccan Jew and very controversial]. Salah is an Arabic name. Salah is from Iraq. In my film, the actor who plays the part actually emigrated from Iraq in 1950. He knew how to do Shakespeare in Arabic. But once in Israel he was completely denied his status as an artist and as an actor because at the time Arabic was not accepted as a cultural language. So this man, the actor himself, in fact had a very difficult time immigrating to Israel. And the character that he’s playing also has this history for Israelis. So the old immigrant from 50 years ago who has learned the tricks of the society and gained his own power, and also weakness, is now teaching the new immigrant who’s just arrived…
iW: The tricks of the trade. What’s touching is that Salah is so attached to his backyard, this tiny plot of land that’s about to be engulfed by huge ugly building projects, and he represents…
Alexandrowicz: James in a way represents the development of the Israeli dream, how we came with very idealistic and pure dreams, about how we were going to develop ourselves as a country. And at the moment it seems to us that somehow on the way to making these dreams come true, he sort of loses his way. Now he’s no longer dreaming of Jerusalem but he’s dreaming of a new television. But he’s still talking about Jerusalem. So he symbolizes for me our confusion with ourselves at the moment.
Alexandrowicz: Materialism is the common denominator for all the roughness in human behavior now, whether it’s so-called political problems, or any form of social interaction between people, between nations.
iW: How do you feel about what’s happening in your country?
Alexandrowicz: My previous film, “The Inner Tour,” dealt with [the Israeli-Palestinian] situation. And that’s why in interviews I felt I had the right to talk about it. And now, since the new film does not in any way deal with the subject, I sort of restrict myself to… but I do have something to say regarding the film. And it’s about this concept of “frayer” [Yiddish slang]. The character Salah in the film is teaching James not to be a “frayer.” He’s teaching him to be strong, to not let go of anything, just as he did his son. But afterwards his two sons, his own creations, turn against him, and he finds himself in a weak position in relation to them — his real son and his adopted son. At one point James tells him, “Look, you can get $1 million for your plot of land. Why don’t you take it? Don’t be a frayer, take it.” It’s the other way around now. If I take the money I’m frayer. What do I gain from it? This is perhaps something the Israeli consciousness should understand, that we are trapped now, into not being “frayer” in the situation. Perhaps our way out is through being exactly the opposite of what we believe, the opposite of being strong.
iW: This is what you are contributing to the discourse.
Alexandrowicz: Yes. And the change of James in the film from someone who’s completely ready to be a “frayer” to someone who won’t be a “frayer” any more, and then begins to make enemies and to hurt other people, comes to a point in the end of the film where James wakes up, where he finds who he was and what he is now. And this is something that I hope for us very much.