P.S. Jerusalem: A Jewish family return to Israel, but struggle to find their place within a society
A beautiful, unsettling, and deeply poignant film, told through the eyes of a Jewish family returning to Israel. The filmmaker and narrator, Danae Elon, delves into the thoughts and reactions of her family as they learn to adapt to their new environment, and come to terms with the deep cultural and political divides separating the Israeli and Palestinian communities. Danae explores her own memories of Jerusalem, and tries to reconcile her childhood nostalgia with the reality of living in Israel, today.
In the beginning, a serene mise-en-scène of children playing in a swimming pool, the audio dimmed as Danae's words float over the top- words which continue to switch between Hebrew and English. Her father, Amos Elon (1925-2009), prominent Jewish academic and outspoken critic of the Israeli state, is present in these opening clips. Even after his death, his memory and parting words echo in the air. An avid videographer, Danae's clips go far back, to a time when she herself was a child, and her father still alive. She recounts that on her father's deathbed, as she holds his hand, he whispers to her that he does not want to be buried in a Jewish ceremony, instead, he wants his ashes scattered in the garden- a final rejection of an identity which he considered damaged beyond repair. He also made his daughter promise him that she would never return to Jerusalem.
Now living in New York, Danae feels a deep 'heimweh', a longing to return to the land where she grew up. Not feeling at home in New York City, and concerned that her children be brought up to share and understand their culture, Danae along with her husband, French-Algerian Jew, Philip Touitou, decide to pack up their belongings and begin a new life in Jerusalem.
My response to Danae Elon's decision to bring her family back to Jerusalem fluctuates from deep admiration at her courage and sense of loyalty to her Jewish heritage, and anger at the inherently intrusive and arguably exploitative nature of her filming, and the profound disruption that the decision to emigrate has on her children's development. There were many moments of filming when her subjects expressed their reluctance or annoyance at being filmed, from her father Amos's, 'Why are you filming?', to her younger child's blatant, 'Don't film me', to her husband's side-eye glances that gave away so much. The on-and-off screen tensions continue to escalate throughout the film, as the racism and division of modern day Jerusalem begins to get under all of their skins.
Danae Alon digs deep beneath the surface of her family's words with her calm yet relentless style of questioning. For instance, when asking her eldest son, and main muse, Tristan, if he likes being Jewish, and he replies 'No', she keeps probing until he reveals that at school he has been told that Arabic people are more clever than Jews. Trying to demystify and rationalize some of her children's statements, in an effort to bring clarity to their own perception of what it is to be Jewish is a constant struggle. With an awareness and strict non-bias, their mother attempts to cultivate a love for their heritage, but an understanding of its shortcomings- taking them to protests when a Muslim family is evicted from a nearby apartment- trying to instill a balanced sense of justice, and self-scrutiny. But how can this be achieved in such a politically charged melting pot? How can Danae foster her son's pride in their Jewish identity, when they get shouted and spat at in the street for being Jewish, and their Arabic neighbors are forcefully evicted from their homes for being different?
Watching her children try to make sense of all of this is fascinating, but heartbreaking. So full of curiosity, of questions and childlike perceptions, they take in everything, and try to learn where they fit in. By the end of the film both children are fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, switching with ease depending on which neighbourhood they are in, quickly learning to navigate the strange cultural waters they inhabit.
Their father, however, finds it more difficult to acclimatize, struggling to learn Hebrew, and deal with the feelings of inferiority and isolation this engenders. "This is a fucking racist place", he says at one point, explaining how he doesn't feel he fits in here. In another clip, he breaks down in tears after coming back from a walk with his son, recounting how an Arabic kid hit his son, and he had hit the child back in retaliation. "Of course it is bad, but there was nothing else I could do.... This is not like the stupid racism you get in France, this feels like revenge."
Some of the most fascinating parts of the film were shot from inside the Judeo-Muslim school that their sons attend. Teaching both Arabic and Hebrew, and observing all religious holidays, the school tries to teach the children the history of both cultures, the traditions of both faiths, and an honest and fair narrative of the history of Israel. There are moments in class where one child explains something, and another child disagrees. One scene captures a class exercise involving keys- all Jewish and Arabic children each get given a key, and then the keys of the Palestinian children are taken away. "Imagine how you would feel." says the teacher. "But it is the Palestinians who took our keys", says one boy. "He is right- but the opposite way round", responds another girl.
Watching these children grow up together, make friends with one another, and try to reconcile the impartial syllabus of the school with whatever version they have been taught at home is fascinating. The most wonderful part of this film, for me, was the friendship that arose between Tristan and one of his Palestinian classmates, Luai. On a Jewish religious holiday at the school, the teacher lets all the Muslim children choose whether they would like to join the Jewish children in celebration, or do a separate activity. Most Arabic kids choose the latter, but Tristan's new friend says that he wants to stay with Tristan, and joins the Jewish group instead.
Throughout the film, both boys exhibit an affection and protectiveness of one another that is beautiful to see. They both innately seem to understand and accept each others differences, but do not feel the need to discuss this, or let it encroach upon their friendship. They accept and follow their different faiths, and understand the conflict surrounding their heritage, but with a certain level of detachment- beyond their religion, beyond their culture, they are first and foremost, friends.
When each boy is playing in the other boys district, they speak in the language of that place, reminding the other to be careful not to speak the other language, protecting them from any potential abuse or violence. At one point when Tristan is playing in Luai's Palestinian neighbourhood, he says something in Jewish and Luai says 'No, they will say bad things to you'. 'What things?', Tristan asks. "I cannot say", says Luai, with an inscrutable look on his face.
I came away very moved by this film, particularly the closing scene when Tristan has to say goodbye to Luai. Both boys cry, and Luai even tries to hide inside Tristan's car. So many questions remained, and an overwhelming sense of brokenness. How can this situation ever be fixed? Will those two boys ever meet again- and if they ever did- would they still be friends?
I couldn't help but feel that Danae's journey back to her homeland, although clearly a vital part of her own journey, will affect her children in ways which probably won't become clear straight away. Was it selfish of her to expose her kids to all of this? Yes, they will have learnt a lot, but, moving countries twice, and having to leave their home behind and say goodbye to their friends must have been deeply traumatic. However, what is the alternative? To turn her back forever on her homeland? To let her children grow up with no tangible sense of who they are, unable to even speak Hebrew? And of course, there is the question of privilege- this family have the option to leave Israel. Many Jewish and Palestinian families do not have this luxury. By being there at all, does their presence amount to tacit support of the current Israeli regime? “Being part of this place, as a Jew, I feel like I’m part of their building", reflects Philip Tatous, “It’s like being part of the stones that they put into the new settlements.”
I think of Tristan's friend, Luai, left to grow up in Jerusalem. What has happened to him now? Are his family still living there, or will they be removed too? How will this affect his perception of Jewish people? As the memory of his friendship with Tristan inevitably fades, will the bond that they forged be enough to keep his heart open to other Jewish people? As childhood turns to adulthood, and the prejudice and anger that he experiences all around becomes ingrained into his own sense of self, will he also begin to hate the other side?
No questions are answered here, but what P.S. Jerusalem manages to do is bring a vivid sense of the place, the people, and the problems of life in Israel. The poignancy and fragility of Tristan's friendship, and bereavement at their parting cutting a razor of light through the story, reflecting probably many similar stories. But of course, there is hope too. Hope can be found in Tristan and Luai's friendship; hope can be found in inclusive schools such as the one Tristan attended; hope can be found in families like Danae's, who defy their own government by standing up for Palestinian people, in the face of abuse from their own community. And hope can be found in films like Danae's- works which capture the essence of Israel, and share it with the world, in the hopes that, one day, a peaceful solution may be reached.
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