[26 March 2004]
James’ Journey to Jerusalem, Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s first feature, joins a growing list of thoughtful, often dark, films about the casual exploitation of illegal workers sucked into the world’s voracious capitalist economies. Movies such as La Promesse (1996), Code Inconnu (2000), and Dirty Pretty Things (2002) have exposed globalization’s flipside, the hugely profitable trade in the economically and politically dispossessed.
On its surface, James’ (Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe) odyssey is conventional: a latter-day Candide sells his innocence for lucre, recognizing how much he has lost only after his increasingly selfish actions leave him a rich man with no friends and no dreams. Alexandrowicz, however, takes this familiar narrative in unexpected directions, set in the bustling, sparkling seaside city of Tel Aviv. Abjuring the solemnity of drama, he fashions a satirical black comedy that skewers not only the hypocrisy of global capitalism but also the mores of contemporary Israel.
As the promising young Christian leader in his rural South African village, James is dispatched on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, an experience intended to sanctify his succession as the next pastor. At Tel Aviv airport, he fails to realize that being “invited” for a customs interview might well lead to his immediate deportation, and instead asks the young, female, and very bored immigration official if she is one of God’s chosen people. She mistakes his exuberance at reaching the land of the Bible for a hackneyed con designed to win a “blackie” entry to the country’s workforce, and briskly dispatches him to prison to await the next flight home.
Ironically, in the first of number of delightful reversals, the immigration official’s refusal to allow the pilgrim temporary entry turns him into exactly what she dreads most—an illegal worker. In the dead of night, the hen-pecked and very dodgy entrepreneur Shimi (Salim Daw), who uses his links with a corrupt immigration cop to staff his businesses, “liberates” James and three other illegals into the maelstrom of 21st-century capitalism.
At first, James’ innocent insistence on his mission as a pilgrim to Jerusalem acts as a protective charm. In Shimi’s overcrowded lodging house, he meets fellow Africans, one of whom speaks his native Zulu. He wins an easy work assignment when Shimi’s somewhat cantankerous father, Sallah (Arie Elias, in a little too obviously a caricature of the cosmopolitan Zionist migrant who traded persecution for a tiny corner of the Promised Land), takes a fancy to him. Unlike the ever-hustling Shimi, James takes the time to talk to the old man, play backgammon with him and, most importantly, restore Sallah’s dead wife’s garden to a lush greenness.
But Sallah, the most sympathetic of the Israeli characters in the movie, again reverses expectation by initiating James’ corruption, when he explains to him the slang expression “frayer” means sucker, someone who is continually exploited. James cannot forget the contempt in the old man’s voice as he spits out the word and within weeks, his dream of seeing the Holy City is lost as he now seeks only one profit opportunity after another. Fallen angel, yes, but frayer? No.
The richest pleasures in Alexandrovicz’s movie come from the skill with he runs his indictment of capitalism parallel with his indictment of the fractured dreams of Israel’s founders. The first is more obvious. In Shimi’s crowded lodging house, James discovers that free markets foster class distinctions and racism, even amongst those who have nothing. The white workers sleep in one part of the house, the Africans in a dormitory next to the kitchen. The white workers gather in the kitchen to drink and eat: the Africans are confined to their bunks. The brutish Moldavian foreman lets the white workers watch his TV, for a fee, but won’t tolerate sharing the screen with Africans. Even religion is corrupted under capitalism: when the pastor of the African church James attends chastises James for missing church to work, he follows up his reprimand with the suggestion that a substantial donation to he congregation might renew God’s favor.
The latter theme, the “state of Israel” that obsesses so many of her citizens, is more complex. It’s hard not to see in James’ corruption the loss of the late 19th and early 20th century dream of Eretz Israel. Advocates of immigration like Theodor Hertzel shaped for the founders of Israel a vision (if not the reality) of an altruistic, agricultural, socialist state. The ease with which James is seduced by capitalism is also the ease with which the Jews of the Diaspora were seduced into capitalism alongside an intolerant nationalism.
This transition from idealism to pragmatism also plays out in the angry relationship between Shimi and Sallah, which articulates the deep rifts that cut across Israeli society today. This is a struggle between the generations who fought for Israel’s very existence, and those who have, according to their elders, grown “soft” in the years of relative peace and prosperity since 1973, seeking personal prosperity before national survival. Sallah operates on emotion and sentiment: he fears that only the value of the land on which his house sits keeps his son interested in him, while Shimi operates on globally sanctioned but selfish logic, and simply cannot understand why anyone would not exchange a rickety shack for a million dollars.
This could easily grow didactic, but the film’s satire remains sharp and broadly applicable. In a “Director’s Statement,” Alexandrovicz writes, “I think each of us has his or her Jerusalem toward which we aspire to reach. Whether we reach it, or even remember where we were headed, is another issue.” At heart, the film is about the erosion of dreams under the grind of reality, an inexorable process that one can mourn but which only unprecedented luck or pure goodness can avert.