James Journey to Jerusalem: Alexandrowicz Interview

One of the pleasant surprises of the this year’s Cannes Festival’s Directors Fortnight was James’s Journey to Jerusalem, the world premiere of Israeli filmmaker Raanan Alexandrowicz, a personal film that takes a strong stance about the mores of contemporary Israeli society.

A few years ago, Raanan knew a Nigerian man named James who was living in Israel on a long-expired touristic vista. James was around 40 years old, and a banker by profession. However, due to the dire political and economic conditions that prevailed in Nigeria at the time, he decided to relocate to Tel Aviv, where he was forced to work cleaning houses.

Recalls the director: “James used to share with me the hardships, fears, and sorrows of a migrant worker’s life. But he never neglected to tell me memories from his homeland, Nigeria, and the dream of the life he hoped to achieve one day.”

The stories that James told Raanan simply startled him. James described in detail how he had imagined Israel before he had come to live and work there: “He imagined the Holy land as a green, plentiful land, flowing with milk and honey (as the Bible describes it).” In this land, he thought, dwelled “the most peaceful and happiest people on earth, the most virtuous human being on the planet: God’s Chosen People.”

James recalled most vividly the moment he got out of the airplane that transported him to Ben-Gurion airport: “I literally smelled the sweetness of the air, and tears came to my eyes. I began to cry because, at long last, I had arrived at my destination: The Holy Land.”

Upon hearing those poetic words, Raanan immediately visualized the opening scene of a movie about James. As he recalls: “I didn’t know what specifically the film would be about, but the contradictions and irony I felt upon hearing those sentences, spoken by a man who was living in the most rundown part of Jerusalem, a man who made his living cleaning bathrooms and kitchens, inspired me to begin writing the story for James’ Journey to Jerusalem. From the outset, I conceived the movies as “a contemporary fable, a fairy tale with realistic economic and political dimensions.”

“The first thing I thought about the film was the fundamental contradiction between the Holy land as an abstract, spiritual entity in the mind of many people all over the world, and the actual Israel, a country with a very prosaic existence, a fast developing country with a modern economy, traffic jams, sprawling shopping malls, severe immigration laws and exploited migrant workers from third-world countries.”

The protagonist that Raanan constructed (with his co-screenwriter, Sami Duenias) was meant to be an “Everyman who comes to Israel as a pilgrim from far away, a man who knows the Holy Land only from the way it’s described in the Bible.” To make the film more interesting dramatically, the writers decided that, upon his arrival, a bureaucratic mistake will scuttle the man’s plan to become a tourist in a heavenly land, and instead, will throw him into trap, finding himself in the position of a migrant worker.

Raanan says he used this premise as a starting point of a journey during which James observes Israel society from a detached distance. The director feels that although the contents that comprises the story is typically and purely Israeli, the naive, fictitious assumptions that James make of Israel hold true and are valid not only for Israeli society but for every country in the world that’s sharply stratified and uses (and abuses) illegal immigrants for jobs that need to be done but are not particularly desirable or rewarding for its native sons.

The notion of an Israeli society, polarized along dimensions of race, income, and status, and living off cheap labor such as James could have become an easy target for a dramatic satire and even a tragic melodrama. Indeed, there’s enough evidence in the story for a more bitter and harsher movie, but Raanan decided that irony is a more powerful device than suffering or victimization, and he ends James’s saga on a wonderfully simple and moving note (that for obvious reasons can not be disclosed here).

Shot on Digital Video, the low-budget film was transferred to 35mm and shown on a big screen. At this phase of his career, Raanan shows no distinct cinematic style, but the movie plays nicely, makes its points without being too preachy, and with a running time of 90 minutes, never overextends its welcome.

Says Raanan: “One of the most significant and unique experiences of cinema is that it can make you (the viewer) see the world through the eyes of someone else’s. Good cinema can do something stronger than that: It can show you yourself through someone else’s. I see James’s Journey to Jerusalem as a reflection of my personal feelings about my society, especially the powerful interplay between economic factors and almost any other domain of human behavior.”

Raanan hopes that viewers, particularly Israelis, will empathize with James’s positions and dilemmas: “I thing there’s a bit of James in each and every one of us. We learn all too well, as members of society, how to talk about our noble dreams as an easy way of forgetting them. I think each one of us has his or her ‘Jerusalem’ toward which we aspired to reach. Whether we ever reach it, or even remember where we were headed, is another story.”