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No Home Movie: Danae Elon’s "P.S. Jerusalem"

Out of pain, a portrait: this spiky diaristic Israeli documentary is now playing on MUBI in the United Kingdom.
MUBI in the United Kingdom is showing P.S. Jerusalem in partnership with the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. The film will run on MUBI from March 15 - April 14, 2016.

“We have seen that what men thought was true was often more than the truth itself. The origins of Israel bear witness to the power wielded by ideas over the minds of men.”
                       —The Israelis: Founders and Sons, Amos Elon
“You never went back there?”
“Sometimes to return is a vulgarity.”
                       —The Magus, John Fowles
Under a falling iris sky, three boys huddle in hooded sweatshirts; conspirators at dusk. All are under ten years of age. Cloaked in streetlamp bronze and clutching skateboards longer than their torsos, they creep along a thin alleyway leading to the car park that serves Heikhal David Synagogue in Pat, a Jewish neighborhood in Southwest Jerusalem. They near Nishmat, an advanced school for women studying the Torah. One of the boys says, in Hebrew: “Don’t speak Arabic, you need to speak only Hebrew here.”
We’re on the Israeli side of the so-called 1949 Armistice Agreement Line, but close enough to this boundary (Jerusalem/East Jerusalem, Jewish/Arabic, Israel/Palestine) that navigating its immediate surroundings becomes a matter of linguistic dexterity. No sooner have the boys established which language they’re speaking than we jump-cut to another part of the same neighborhood: as they shuffle down a cycle track foregrounded against a dense web of power cables and the ceaseless belt of highway traffic, Arabic becomes the language of choice. “You know why you can’t speak in Hebrew? Because if the Arabs hear you speaking in Hebrew, they will curse you.” The curse in question can’t, so the boy claims, be repeated.
Just as our young subjects begin to roll belly-down along this quiet tarmac tongue, a citywide siren sounds—ushering in Yom Hazikaron, the national Day of Remembrance for Israeli Soldiers (and “Victims of Terrorism”), inaugurated in 1963. The boys halt their frolic. One of them racks his brain, says in Hebrew: “It’s for, how do you call it… It’s for Memorial Day!” He stands, like a stone statue, and imitates a gesture seen elsewhere. The other two follow: heads down, legs apart, eager to participate in this grown-up custom despite understanding very little about it. The camera frames them, backs to us in unison, like three neatly arranged sculptures whose eternal stillness is ensured by the ongoing drone.
One of the skateboarders, we know, is Tristan—the eldest of three brothers parented by Philip Touitou, an Algerian-born French photographer, and Danae Elon, a Jerusalem-born filmmaker. Elon, who shot P.S. Jerusalem over the course of four years, follows her son and his best pal Luai to a classroom discussion of Remembrance Day the morning after the siren: located on the border of Pat and the Arab village Beit-Zafafa, Hand in Hand is the only school in Jerusalem where Arab and Jewish children study together. As a teacher divides her class into two groups—Jewish children are to partake in a memorial service, Arab children are to join an alternative activity—Elon focuses on the bored, barely comprehending faces of Tristan and Luai.
Culture, however respectfully partitioned, is trumped rather predictably by friendship. Luai, the son of Arab parents, clings onto his pal, crying: “I’m coming with you, I’m coming with you!” At the ceremony itself, children of both genders belt out a cautionary singsong: “Keep the world safe, boy / Don’t exaggerate in your thoughts / Because the more you know, boy / The less you will understand.” Watching on, Tristan and Luai are united by nothing but their own innocence—and, perhaps, their blank expressions. Do any of these kids understand the implications of the song? Can they understand? Watching as an adult, it’s easy to see in these young boys everything from (understandable) boredom to (heartening) precociousness, from a (welcome) disinterest in segregation to a premature (and upsetting) need to ask or face political questions.
Aided by some expert editorial compression by Sophie Farkas Bolla (also credited as writer), P.S. Jerusalem is a spiky diaristic dispatch etched from the anguished contours of a torn heart. Elon, born in Jerusalem in 1970, begins her film in 2009 when she, Philip and their sons Tristan and Andrei decide to leave their apartment in Williamsburg (fire escapes, bare trees, a back yard quilted in snow) for the Lego-like, sand-colored blocks of the filmmaker’s birthplace. Though her childhood was divided between Jerusalem and Italy, and despite graduating from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 1995 and receiving various grants in the U.S. (Hartley Film Foundation, the Sundance Institute, the Rothschild Foundation, a Guggenheim fellowship in Film), she claims never to have felt at home anywhere other than the eponymous city. 
Elon, as she reveals early on, was the only child of Beth and Amos Elon—the former a New York literary agent, the latter one of Israel’s most famous writers and historians—and, in later years, one of its most fierce critics. Amos Elon, née Heinrich Sternbach, was born in Vienna in 1926. His family emigrated to Mandatory Palestine in 1933: he was a correspondent for Haaretz from the 1950s onwards, and was an early and frequent critic of Israel after its Six-Day War in 1967. By 2005, he had grown so disillusioned with what he called “a country of thieves” that he moved permanently to Tuscany, where he died in 2009. 
Amos Elon is, in many ways, the starting point for P.S. Jerusalem. The film opens on a close-up of his smiling face, before the director reveals that, in moving back to Jerusalem, she’s breaking a promise made to her father, whose dying wish was for her to never visit there again. Carved with mesh fences and razor wire, this is religio-territorial terrain—a landscape, furthermore, in which manhood and history are as manufactured as those pale-stoned hillside settlements, which have been thrown atop the city’s razed patches of green since the 1990s. Philip, who himself had moved to Israel in 1982 before leaving to avoid military conscription, is happy to follow his wife “into the craziness.”
Craziness, indeed. The director was six months pregnant when she arrived in Jerusalem; third son Amos was born three months later. At first, Elon’s decision to expose these children to the absurd racism that cuts through this precariously poised urban labyrinth comes across as a misjudged indulgence, a facile exercise: “Filming in this city was an addiction,” she says. To what cost? “I feel lonely,” Philip says at one point, his sadness palpable and his resignation affecting. Still, Elon films: still, we watch. 
Conceptually, the film emerges from an active decision—and, let’s not forget, financial capacity—to uproot, to pitch a tent elsewhere. Elon makes no secret of her relative wealth: note the hammock and garden swings during one brief sequence in their Jerusalem home. Her intentions are likewise clear: under her lens, the city is shown (to quote her own press notes) to be a “jail in which the Zionist narrative of Israel has mentally and emotionally imprisoned both Israelis and Jews… I did not want to tell my story through the experience of Palestinians, nor tell another story of the occupation. I rather focused on how Israel’s narrative imprisoned my own identity.” Hers and many others. 
Out of pain, a portrait. The depth of the emotional puncture here correlates to the extent of Elon’s artistic excess. The more she insists on documenting an increasingly unhappy home, the more fascinating the family album becomes. “It was hard for Philip to understand why I was so comfortable here,” Elon says in voiceover. Hard for us, too: beautiful though its uniform blocks of beige are, Jerusalem seems predicated on a lie. “We are helping this country,” Philip growls. “We are helping the devil.” Syndromes of liberalism. It’s deeply painful to see fissures open between these people—and in Philip, Elon has a husband with seemingly exceptional reserves of patience. His moments of honesty lend the film its much-needed balance. 
You can’t really have a proper conversation with someone whose default response is to film it. “Are you listening?” Tristan impatiently asks his mother as they walk across Gazelle Valley, a plot of land in the shadow of Holyland Park—a tower block and adjoining complex of luxury apartments in the southwest of the city. But his mother is listening: her camera listens, witnesses, captures. It sees: a rubble-strewn land built out of bribery and corruption, of incitement and wickedness, of top-down terrorism that results, through its propaganda and prejudice, in all its people being tarred with the same brush.

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