In his startlingly upbeat feature fiction debut, Ra’anan Alexandrowicz presents a contemporary odyssey through the seamy underbelly of Israeli society. With his sagacious wide eyes and radiant smile, Siyabonge Shibe as James brilliantly evokes a modern Candide, breathing a joyousness rare on screen.
James, a young Christian from South Africa sent by his village on a mission to the Holy Land, gets a rude wake-up call when he lands in Tel Aviv, where he’s immediately arrested. The immigrant jail doubles as a source of cheap labor for Shimi (Salim Daw), who in a shady deal whisks James off to prisonlike digs, takes his passport and forces him to work as a cleaner. But James’s magic touch soon earns him a better job tending the garden of his boss’s father, Salah (Arie Elias), under whose tutelage he gradually wises up to the rules of the game. A quick study, James sets up his own scam hiring other immigrants. Though he never loses hope, his search for Jerusalem becomes subverted by the lure of economic gain.
At once a rueful comedy of manners and a scathing satire of a certain strand of Israeli society, the film has a wonderfully light touch that 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 Alexandrowicz on a windy afternoon at Cannes last summer after the film’s premiere in Directors Fortnight. James’ Journey to Jerusalem began an open run at the Film Forum on March 5 prior to release in selected cities by Zeitgeist Films.
Liza Béar 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 told me once how he had imagined my country before he came. In Nigeria people are very religious—they have a very clear image of the Holy Land, straight from the Bible. He imagined it as this amazingly beautiful, calm and happy place where the chosen people live, very virtuously. And when he got off the plane and smelled the air of the Holy Land, he began to cry. He didn’t come to be a tourist, or on a pilgrimage; he came to stay and work. People doing hard labor in Israel can make a lot of money for where they come from. From the contrast between his expectations and the reality of his life, the Holy Land one dreams of and the Israel one finds, I felt something very strong. It felt like the beginning of a film. So I created this basic situation of someone who comes on a pilgrimage and ends up as a migrant worker.
LB In the script you changed the nationality of your character from Nigerian to Zulu.
RA In Israel there’s this new black community, for about ten years now, which is mainly from Nigeria and Ghana, but also from many other countries, including South Africa. I had James be from South Africa because of Siyabonga Shibe, the actor I was working with. I don’t have a vision of Africa as a place where everything is so different with regard to how people are with each other or the influence of money on peoples lives. But from my research, I know that there are still remote places on the African continent where people live a very different life, 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 farthest you can go from Western society.
LB Well, it’s idyllic—a place of innocence and naïveté. You must have been thrilled to find Siyabonga Shibe, because he’s the perfect actor to convey that. How did you find him?
RA 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.
LB What is the immigration situation in Israel? How realistic is it that people are slammed into jail the minute they get off the plane, as James is?
RA There’s a slim chance. People are eyeing Israel very critically now. It’s like when you make an American film about an innocent person on death row: it’s a horrible statistic, but you’re still more likely to find yourself in a car crash.
LB Well, the US has over two million people in jail. It’s the largest incarcerated population in the world.
RA And that’s why it’s good to make films about it. Anyway, if you don’t have a visa when you get to Israel you might get deported, or 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, the Belgian La Promesse, a stunning film—
LB Yes, and that film in England by Pawel Pawlikowski, Last Resort.
RA It’s important for me to say this, because my last two works were documentaries: To study the community of migrant workers in Israel in a documentary film, their way of life and their problems, is very important. With this film, however, I wanted to talk about other things but also come from within this world.
LB How was your passage from documentary to fiction?
RA With me it was the other way around. I didn’t study documentary at all. I concentrated on fiction. The first documentary film I made, Martin, was completely accidental. I was visiting Germany for a film festival with my short fiction, Self Confidence Ltd, and I met this man, Martin, and I just rented a camera and shot for five days. It was a very strong experience, and that’s why I made this detour to documentary work. But I kept on working on fiction scripts and finally made it.
LB So you’re comfortable weaving elements that you happen upon into a final work.
RA Yes. I hope to continue in both forms, documentary and fiction, and I find very different interests in each. In documentary, when the projector is turned off, the people in the film will continue to have the lives you saw in the film. In fiction, there’s much less mental complication and responsibility.
LB With a documentary, do you feel guilty that you’ve got your film, you’re gaining from it, while for the people that you’ve documented, their lives go on, their problems go on?
RA I don’t believe films help anything, though I think they cannot hurt. I tell the subjects of my films that it’s their decision if they want to share their lives with the world. It’s the toughest ethical question for a filmmaker. I make a lot of effort in my life to tackle this problem. I imagine each filmmaker deals with it in a personal way.
LB What was charming and delightful and a revelation in this film was how James absorbs the values of the culture he finds himself in. It must have been thrilling to come up with that turn in the script. The approach gives you a double insight.
RA You’re right. This was definitely the moment of happiness, when I had the idea to make this journey through our culture through these very naive eyes. It’s actually a bit of my own journey, how I feel. I let James ask the questions for me and for us. Cinema is a shallow medium in many respects, but what it can do more strongly than most mediums 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. This is a very strong experience for the audience. I decided that if I wanted to put up this kind of mirror to us, 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 that these traits apply to everyone who lives within today’s ruling economic system—
LB No matter what religion or ethnic group they are.
RA 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; Salah’s character is an homage to a character in an old Israeli film, Salah Shabati(1963), who’s a Moroccan Jew. Salah is an Arabic name. In my film, the actor who plays the part, Arie Elias, 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 actor because at the time Arabic was not accepted as a cultural language. So Arie had a very difficult time immigrating to Israel. And the character he’s playing also has this history for Israelis. So the old immigrant from 50 years ago is now teaching the new immigrant—
LB 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.
RA James 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 somehow on the way to making these dreams come true, he loses his way. He’s no longer dreaming of Jerusalem but of a new television. But he’s still talking about Jerusalem. So he symbolizes for me our confusion with ourselves at the moment.
RA 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.
LB How do you feel about what’s happening in your country?
RA My previous film, The Inner Tour, dealt with the Israeli-Palestinian situation, and in interviews I felt I had the right to talk about it. But since the new film does not in any way deal with the subject, I sort of restrict myself… . But I do have something to say regarding the film. It’s about this concept of frayer, a slang Yiddish word for sucker. I think it comes from German, actually. Salah is teaching James not to be a frayer—to be strong, to not let go of anything—just as he did his own son. But afterward his sons—his real son and his adopted son, James—turn against him, and he finds himself in a weak position in relation to them. At one point James tells him, “Look, you can get a million dollars for your plot of land. Why don’t you take it? Don’t be a frayer, take it.” Its the other way around now. But Salah thinks, “If I take the money, I’m frayer. What do I gain from it?” This is perhaps something the Israeli consciousness should understand: that now we are trapped. Perhaps our way out is through being exactly the opposite of what we believe—the opposite of being strong.
LB This is what you are contributing to the discourse.
RA Yes. James changes into someone who won’t be a frayer anymore, and then he begins to make enemies and to hurt other people. At the end of the film he wakes up and finds who he was and what he is now. And this is something that I hope for us very much.
A version of this interview was first posted by indieWIRE: DAILY and also appears at www.indiewire.com, since 1996 the leading news service for independents.