James Journey to Jerusalem: Israeli Filmmaker Raanan Alexandrowicz

One of the pleasant surprises of the this year’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 prevailing mores of Israeli society.

Unlike the Cannes’s main competition, the Directors Fortnight series showcases the work of young, usually first or second-time, directors.

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.

The stories that James told Raanan simply startled him. 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.”

The protagonist that Raanan constructed (with 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.

The tales also centers on an evolving friendship between two disparate men, who could not have been more different: James and Shimi. While James is busy praying to God to be able to complete his holy mission, he’s bailed out by Shimi (played by the Arab actor Salim Daw), a hardnosed Israeli who collaborates with the authorities and handpicks illegals to exploit them as cheap labor. Shimi reckons that James, who speaks English, represents a good, profitable investment, while Jimmy reckons Shimi as his personal savior.

The saga unfolds as a moral awakening by James to the realities of contemporary life in the Promised Land. James tries to adhere to his Christian principles, but unbeknownst to Shimi (who trusts him) starts a private business. However, in due time, James has to learn the hardest lesson of all–that even in Zion, there’s inequality and hierarchy that distinguishes between the wealthy Jews and the working classes, separating the legit citizen from the illegal aliens.

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).

The script is anchored by a superlative performance from Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe (who speaks in the film Zulu, English, and Hebrew), as the young James. Shibe conveys effectively a man who somehow never loses his optimistic view. His rise from African togs to suits and cell phones, while still retaining his hopeful and religious principles, is thoroughly credible.

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.