P.S. Jerusalem

Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2016: ‘P.S. Jerusalem’ + ‘Inside the Chinese Closet’

Two documentaries, about a family searching for peace in Jerusalem and gay individuals fighting to have a family of their own in China, focus on the universal desire for a sense of home.

P.S. Jerusalem, screening at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York, begins as filmmaker Danae Elon is searching for home. But when she moves her family back to the city of her youth, she finds that nothing is as simple as she might have imagined. As she contemplates her discoveries, her downbeat narration sets a questioning tone for a film without certainties.

To begin, Elon explains her decision to move from New York to Jerusalem during a trying time: she is pregnant with her third child and her father has just died. It’s not incidental that her father was writer Amos Elon, for decades one of the most celebrated voices of the Israeli left. Danae opens her film with a quotation from Amos: “We have seen that what men thought was true was often more than the truth itself,” underlining her own exploration of truth and perception during her emotion-wracked and politically challenging multi-year journey.

“New York never felt like home,” Danae Elon notes, while only providing the barest glimpses of her life there. We see a cramped and cozy apartment life, and her young boys Tristan and Andrei marveling at weather (“It’s snowing!”), a scene her film will echo plaintively near its conclusion. But Jerusalem, which she left at the age of 20 with mixed feelings, isn’t an easy fix.

Amos’ legacy looms large in her memory. As a young writer, he covered the 1948 Arab-Israeli War; as an older man, his disquiet over the changes he perceived in Israel over his lifetime pushed him to leave the country in 2005, disillusioned and heartbroken. And yet for his daughter, the country, and Jerusalem in particular, still carry “a lingering sense of home”.

Her pursuit begins with small signs of caution, as when she queries her husband Philippe about the move. His demeanor is at once kind and fatalistic, while her voice, from off camera, is anxious. Still, they push forward with the move. They enroll the boys in the only school she can find that has both Arab and Jewish children. Danae takes them to protest new settler developments, as we also learn of her own activism when she used to live in Jerusalem.

After these first stages of the transition, the film’s approach turns less chronological, more impressionistic, tracking a three-year period in leaps and bounds. The passage of time is delineated by visible changes in Danae’s sons, particularly the oldest, Tristan. Beaming, argumentative, and querulous, he functions throughout the film as her barometer for how the family is adapting to their fraught and schizophrenic new environment. Or not.

Tensions arise in brief moments and observations: the boys discover a gas mask; Tristan and his Arab friend whisper warnings to each other to speak only in Arabic or Hebrew, depending on what neighborhood they’re skateboarding through at the moment; and in a real life analogue to the famous Blitz scene in John Boorman’s Hope and Glory, children run and scream with glee, followed by Elon’s handheld camera into the school’s shelter while sirens blare.

While Elon encounters a childhood home that doesn’t feel so much like home anymore, her camera works as a kind of refuge. “I always felt better when filming,” she admits at one point. But as she watches Philip, a French Jew of Algerian descent, struggling to find acceptance or even work in Jerusalem, and comes up against her own inability to protect her family from the city’s violent ethnic and religious discord, her film reveals the difficulties of coming home again. It’s no longer clear what or where her home might have been.

Inside the Chinese Closet

For the gay subjects of Sophia Luvarà’s introspective Inside the Chinese Closet, home is hardly an option. They don’t seem quite so closeted as they might have had to be even a decade or two ago. China’s modernization has brought some loosening of cultural mores, so that some gay individuals might come out to their parents or feel somewhat safe in the urban anonymity of Shanghai. But still, the documentary shows, many must deal with an overriding social imperative to get married to somebody of the opposite sex and have children.

Luvarà’s film follows Andy and Cherry, both young, gay, and struggling to find some way of placating the desires of their parents and the society at large while also acknowledging their own desires. In an earlier era, they might have remained in the closet for their entire lives. They might have endured an unhappy marriage and fathered children, while living with shame and secrets.

In the new millennium, they are freer in some ways, and in others, still trapped by convention. Both have come out to their parents, who have accepted it to a greater or lesser degree. But the reality of their children’s sexual orientation hasn’t changed the parents’ demands for marriage and children, demands that result in a series of increasingly surreal moments and mounting distress.

While the film suffers occasionally from a shallow approach to such complex experiences, it plainly shows the difficulties of accepting the most common current solution, as Andy and Cherry agree to fake marriages. Andy’s father harangues him over the phone in drill-sergeant manner to just get on with it, to find some lesbian who also wants a fake marriage, now. To that end, Andy attends one of the more disturbing spectacles to be seen on screen this or any other year: a fake marriage market, where gay men and women churn through a kind of closeted speed dating to find a partner with whom they can get along well enough to pretend to be married to for the rest of their lives.

The process underscores the disconnection between their own aspirations and their families’ pressures. Cherry, a vivacious 29-year-old tomboy from a small town who had been expelled from her school after her relationship with another girl was discovered, has married a gay man and seems already to have found a steady girlfriend. But that relationship is threatened by Cherry’s mother, whose worry over her daughter’s future reflects a very real concern (who will take care of a childless Cherry when she’s old?), manifested in some disturbingly frank talk about how much it takes to buy a healthy baby at the local hospital.

While Cherry looks torn between what she and her mother want, Andy is portrayed as more adrift. Not having had a serious relationship for years, he’s at once more susceptible to his father’s wants, but may be less able to fulfill them. Beautifully shot, with gorgeous glimpses of nighttime Shanghai, Inside the Chinese Closet captures the split between private and public lives as it leaves people like Andy and Cherry in a parlous limbo.