[Marxism] James' Journey to Jerusalem (Dir. Ra'anan Alexandrowicz)

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at osu.edu
Sun Mar 7 19:15:38 MST 2004

_James' Journey to Jerusalem_ (Dir. Ra'anan Alexandrowicz,  2003): 

*****   The New York Times, March 5, 2004
For One Earnest Pilgrim, No Land of Milk and Honey

It is hard these days to imagine Jerusalem without thinking about the 
grim modern realities of political violence and ethnic hatred. But 
for the hero of "James' Journey to Jerusalem," a young African 
Christian who wants to become a pastor, the city retains its aura of 
almost otherworldly holiness.

At the beginning of this touching and insightful film by Ra'anan 
Alexandrowicz, the prologue to James's story is related like a folk 
tale, accompanied by brightly painted pictures and an ecstatic 
African chorus. James (Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe), his open, eager 
face framed by short dreadlocks, is an old-fashioned religious 
pilgrim and also a kind of holy innocent.

The reality he encounters on his way to the promised land, however, 
is thoroughly secular, not to say sinful. Interviewed by a bored 
immigration officer, James expresses enthusiasm at meeting one of 
God's chosen people, and amazement that he has at last arrived in the 
place he has read so much about in the Bible. The officer, however, 
informs him that she has heard all that Holy Land business many times 
before, and James, denied entry into Israel, is locked in a holding 
cell with other illegal immigrants, who have come to the country on 
more mundane pilgrimages.

Soon he is bailed out by a businessman named Shimi (Salim Daw), who 
keeps a ready supply of illegal laborers in a cramped apartment and 
hires them out as construction workers and housecleaners, holding 
onto their passports and paying them in cash and humiliation.

What follows is somewhat predictable but nonetheless affecting. James 
is good-hearted and guileless, but Israeli society, as depicted by 
Mr. Alexandrowicz with a relentlessness that might be offensive 
coming from an outsider, is organized around guile. "Don't be a 
frayer," advises Shimi's father (Arie Elias), a crusty old Zionist 
whose small, cherished garden James tends. The word, one of the 
film's touchstones, might be translated as sucker or patsy.

James's innate honesty turns out to be a clever strategy, and before 
long he is thriving in the grasping, Darwinian world of the Israeli 
informal economy. His rise - he becomes superintendent of the 
workers' dormitory and then, behind Shimi's back, a successful broker 
in black-market African labor - is both a classic immigrant success 
story and a grainy video illustration of Max Weber's "Protestant 
Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism."

Unsurprisingly, James's material ascent, fueled by the glittering 
consumer goods displayed in the high-rise shopping mall he visits on 
his day off, is also a spiritual fall. He forgets Jerusalem and 
spends his money on clothes and cellphones. Once the pride and joy of 
his village, he becomes a big shot in the local congregation of 
African migrants, donating money and recruiting new workers for his 

If he succumbs to temptation, James is also betrayed by the hypocrisy 
and petty racism that surround him. Shimi's father takes his 
protégé's transformation into the opposite of a frayer - a macher, 
perhaps - as a personal affront, and the boundaries of class prove 
much harder to cross than national borders. To Shimi and his friends, 
James belongs to a limitless, exploitable and renewable group, whose 
members can always be shipped back where they came from if they 
assert their humanity.

As social criticism - not only of Israel, but of other affluent 
countries as well - "James' Journey, which opens today in Manhattan," 
is both potent and a little didactic. Were it not for Mr. Shibe's sly 
subtlety, James's smiling naïveté might have slid easily into 
caricature. As it is, the contrast between his radiant religiosity 
and the grubby materialism of the Israelis seems exaggerated, and the 
smudged, shaky video photography feels like a deliberate attempt to 
emphasize the ugliness into which James is plunged.

But the film's moral, which goes well beyond the particularities of 
its setting, is both clear and hard to shake: it is not so much that 
the love of wealth weakens the love of God, but rather that the 
pursuit of money, which in our modern societies is a condition not 
just of comfort but of survival, undermines the capacity for 
friendship and fellow feeling.


Directed by Ra'anan Alexandrowicz; written (in Hebrew, English and 
Zulu, with English subtitles) by Mr. Alexandrowicz and Sami Duenias; 
director of photography, Shark De-Mayo; edited by Ron Goldman; music 
by Ehud Banay, Gil Smetana and Noam Halevi; production designer, Amir 
Dov Pick; produced by Amir Harel; released by Zeitgeist Films. At the 
Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, South Village. Running time: 87 
minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe (James), Arie Elias (Sallah) and 
Salim Daw (Shimi).

<http://www.nytimes.com/2004/03/05/movies/05JAME.html>   *****

*****   About a Goy
The passion of the naïf: A Christian Zulu makes a pilgrimage to the 
broken-promise land
by J. Hoberman
March 3 - 9, 2004

James' Journey to Jerusalem
Directed by Ra'anan Alexandrowicz
Opens March 5, Film Forum

A young Zulu, devoutly Christian and the pride of his South African 
village, makes a pilgrimage to the Holy Land -- with tragicomic 
results. James' Journey to Jerusalem, the first dramatic feature by 
34-year-old Israeli director Ra'anan Alexandrowicz, is a deceptively 
modest fable of innocence abroad that resonates with the situation 
within Israel and without.

Mutual misunderstandings begin the moment that wide-eyed James 
(Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe), resplendent in his traditional robe, 
deplanes in Tel Aviv. "Are you a Hebrew woman?" he excitedly asks the 
bored Israeli soldier at passport control. He imagines her an exotic 
biblical heroine from the Land of Milk and Honey; she assumes he's 
looking for illegal work. ("We barely get by in this godforsaken 
place," another soldier says.) Despite James's protests that he's on 
a pilgrimage, or perhaps because of them, he winds up in a sort of 
international holding pen.

Could this actually happen or is it a metaphor? Despite 
Alexandrowicz's documentary background, James' Journey to Jerusalem 
is not a naturalistic movie about the plight of imported or 
undocumented labor in contemporary Israel. Thanks to his evident 
virtue and fluent English, James is selected by Shimi the contractor 
(Arab actor Salim Daw) and taken through the cruddy backstreets of 
Tel Aviv to the hostel where this harried guardian angel warehouses 
his exploited employees. Initially regarding Shimi as his savior, 
James is only somewhat disabused when he's put to work as a menial 
laborer. He accepts this as a necessary preparation, although the 
seeds of disillusion have been sowed: "If I tell [the people of my 
village] how it is in this place, they won't believe me. They'll be 
mad at me."

Alexandrowicz's deeply involving yet unpretentious documentaries, 
Martin and The Inner Tour, raised human interest stories to the level 
of revelation. Shot just before the intifada of September 2000 would 
have made it impossible, The Inner Tour follows a mixed group of 
Palestinians across the Green Line and through the looking glass on 
their first trip to Israel; Martin is a haunting portrait of an 
ex-Dachau inmate who, in effect, has never left the concentration 
camp. Similarly, James' Journey is shot on DV in a loose, informal 
style that showcases Shibe's focused, remarkably natural performance.

James is a naïf. In Yiddish literature his prototype would be the 
protagonist of Mendele Moykher Sforim's late-19th-century satire 
Benjamin III, who leaves his Russian shtetl on a search for the 
legendary "red Jews." But unlike Mendele's Benjamin, James is also 
industrious and intelligent. (Nor is James the primary target of 
Alexandrowicz's humor.) Shimi is so impressed that he assigns James 
the task of looking after his irascible father, Sallah (Arie Elias). 
The old man, whose name recalls the most popular Israeli movie 
character of the innocent, pre-Six Day War '60s, lives in a shack on 
a derelict patch of land; with his uncanny luck, James makes the 
garden bloom.

In a sense, James' Journey dramatizes the Jerusalem syndrome -- a 
form of delusion first identified in the 1930s wherein tourists to 
Jerusalem begin to believe they are living in biblical times. (An 
unkind view of Zionism might find the entire enterprise a version of 
the syndrome.) But as unexpectedly lighthearted as James' Journey can 
be, it carries a measure of allegory. The appealing hero is a model 
Christian more than once compared to Jesus -- and held as a 
near-slave by mercenary Jews who would hardly seem out of place in 
The Passion of the Christ. At the same time, James's yearning for 
Jerusalem is profoundly Jewish; indeed, in his optimistic idealism 
and capacity for hard work, he is also equated with the original 
Zionist settlers.

Thus, Alexandrowicz uses James's education to criticize a society 
that has long since lost its communitarian spirit and socialist 
ethos. Profit is the only concern and everyone is viewed as a 
potential frayer (the Hebrew term for "sucker," often applied to new 
immigrants). Over the course of his journey, James learns how to make 
and spend money, but mainly he learns how not to be a frayer. The 
transformation may be too complete, but the movie is, after all, a 
fable; the economic history that it telescopes is by no means 
restricted to Israel.

<http://www.villagevoice.com/issues/0409/hoberman.php>   *****

*****   Voiceover
by Anthony Kaufman
A young Israeli director ponders lost dreams and greedy realities
March 3 - 9, 2004

If I wanted to make a film about migrant labor in my country, I would 
have made a documentary," says Israeli filmmaker Ra'anan 
Alexandrowicz. "But James' Journey to Jerusalem is really an economic 
fairy tale about how money influences human behavior and what happens 
to our dreams when we want to make them true."

The 34-year-old Alexandrowicz is best known for Martin and The Inner 
Tour -- documentaries that bear little outward resemblance to James' 
Journey, his affable fiction debut about an African pilgrim who 
visits Israel and inadvertently becomes an illegal worker. But all 
three films examine issues of disillusionment, or as Alexandrowicz 
admits, "the gap between the ideal and the reality." While Martin 
focuses on a Dachau tour guide who may be lying about his experiences 
in the Holocaust and The Inner Tour chronicles a busload of 
Palestinian tourists seeing how the other half lives, the new film is 
about a man whose dreams about the "Holy Land" don't match the grubby 
and greedy actuality.

Alexandrowicz sees the same illusory ideals in the "Zionist dream" of 
a Jewish state. "There's this very spiritual and pure dream about a 
place," he explains, "but as you deal with the friction of reality, 
not only does the dream change, but you change." For Alexandrowicz, 
the Zionist model collapses not only because of Israel's unfair 
treatment of the Palestinians, "but also how the state that was 
supposed to fulfill the Zionist dream is actually fulfilling the 
American Dream."

As James gets sidetracked, he goes from devout Christian to thriving 
Tel Aviv entrepreneur: Religion gets waylaid in favor of a new TV. 
But Alexandrowicz points out that he's not making a critique of 
capitalism. "I'm part of that system," he says. "Money is a very 
strong thing and there's something very human about how tempting it 
is." In Israel, Alexandrowicz says, such problems of "economic 
motivation" are intensified by an obsession with not being a frayer, 
a Hebrew word that pops up in the film and translates to "pushover" 
or "sucker." "A lot of our politics is based on not being frayers," 
he says, "because we have been such ultimate frayers in the past -- 
the Holocaust as the basic Jewish trauma of being pushed over in the 
worst way."

More fun than the political subtexts suggest, James' Journey succeeds 
because it doesn't preach. "The best way to convey an idea is through 
entertainment that hurts you on one hand, but makes you laugh on the 
other," says Alexandrowicz, citing as an example Ephraim Kishon's 
1964 satire Sallah Shabati, about a Jewish family who emigrate from 
Morocco to Israel in the early 1950s. (As homage, Alexandrowicz names 
one of his central characters Sallah.) "In that film," he says, 
"Sallah and his son are sitting in a refugee camp in the rain, and 
the son asks his father, 'Why are they treating us like this?' And 
Sallah says, 'Don't worry, son, now we are the newest ones here, so 
they're all screwing us. But one day, there will be newer people here 
and then we'll screw them.' " Adds Alexandrowicz, "And I think this 
is true of every immigrant society, certainly true of the United 
States, Europe, and also of Israel."

<http://www.villagevoice.com/issues/0409/kaufman.php>   *****

* Bring Them Home Now! <http://www.bringthemhomenow.org/>
* Calendars of Events in Columbus: 
<http://www.freepress.org/calendar.php>, & <http://www.cpanews.org/>
* Student International Forum: <http://sif.org.ohio-state.edu/>
* Committee for Justice in Palestine: <http://www.osudivest.org/>
* Al-Awda-Ohio: <http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Al-Awda-Ohio>
* Solidarity: <http://www.solidarity-us.org/>

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