Tracing Jerusalem's Footsteps Around the World

From Kathmandu to Lima to Budapest: A tribute to the father of Israeli documentary cinema.

In places as remote as Kathmandu, Lima, Lagos and Tbilisi, thousands of viewers will participate this Thursday in what is certainly the most ambitious Israeli cinematic event ever held: the simultaneous screening in more than 40 locations around the globe of a new documentary film about Jerusalem, as it makes its international premiere.

“Nothing of this magnitude has ever been done before,” says Renen Schorr, the founding director of the Jerusalem-based Sam Spiegel Film & Television School and the man who pulled it all together.

The film, “Footsteps in Jerusalem,” is a tribute to David Perlov, the father of Israeli documentary cinema, whose groundbreaking film of 50 years ago of a very similar name, “In Jerusalem,” inspired the project.

The new cinematic work interweaves nine short films by students and graduates of the Spiegel school with Perlov’s original 33-minute documentary to illustrate how dramatically Israel’s capital has changed in the past half century.

But not just Jerusalem. “Jerusalem, in this regard, is all of Israel, and I thought this would be a great opportunity to look at how this whole country has changed in the past 50 years,” says Schorr, who also served as curator of the films. “As luck would have it, Perlov made his film before the Six-Day War, which changed all our lives and the entire Middle East. Even the world. I thought there would have to be a great story here.”

The release of the new 90-minute film happens to coincide with another important anniversary: Ten years ago, on Dec. 13, 2003, Perlov passed away at age 73.

“In Jerusalem,” which won the Bronze Medal at the Venice Film Festival in 1963, was not only a landmark film in its time, says Schorr, but also, that rare example of an old Israeli documentary that continues to resonate with students today. “It stood out at the time,” he notes, ”because all Israeli documentaries done back then tended to be much more propaganda-like and informational, in the Eastern European tradition. With this film, Perlov allowed himself to be an artist, and every year when we show the film, it totally wows our students, who are usually very cynical about these old films.”

In an obituary published in The Guardian when Perlov died, “In Jerusalem” was described as a work that “eschewed official pieties and evoked a haunting, offbeat picture of that city’s battered magnificence.” It ventured that had the Brazilian-born filmmaker not spent most of his career in Israel, he might have been “as widely acknowledged as Jean-Luc Godard as a cinematic pioneer.”

Between 7,000 and 9,000 viewers around the world, Schorr estimates, will watch “Footsteps in Jerusalem” this Thursday, including 2,000 in Israel. In addition to screenings at all the major art-house theaters in Israel, the film will also be shown that day at museums, theaters and cultural centers in Sao Paolo, Budapest, Munich, Copenhagen, Moscow, Montreal, Riga, Barcelona, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Brussels, Prague, Sarajevo, Warsaw, Berlin and Bratislava, among other worldwide locations. A separate screening, the North American premiere of the film, will be held next Monday, December 16, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Schorr, an award-winning filmmaker in his own right who studied under Perlov at Tel Aviv University, reveals that his original idea for marking the 50th anniversary of the release of “In Jerusalem,” which eventually fell through, was even more ambitious. That idea was to use the original Perlov film as part of a trilogy that would feature two other half hour segments about Jerusalem, one produced by a Christian and the other by a Muslim filmmaker. Schorr had already broached the idea with his friend, the renowned German filmmaker Wim Wenders, who was keen to participate but ultimately prevented from doing so because of other obligations.

That was when Schorr decided to “be humble,” as he puts it, and involve students and graduates of the Spiegel school in the project. Originally the plan was to premiere the finished work at the 2013 Jerusalem International Film Festival this past summer. But as Schorr recalls, while sitting on the beach drinking a beer during his annual vacation in Greece the summer before, he had an epiphany. “I said to myself, ‘Why should we open at a festival?’ A festival will just swallow up a unique project like this. So I picked up the phone and called Perlov’s daughter, Yael, and told her that I had this crazy idea to screen it simultaneously at 10 locations in Israel in December. I didn’t even tell her that I was actually thinking of closer to 50. ‘Hold on,’ she said to me. ‘Do you know that my father died in December, and it will be 10 years then?’ I didn’t remember that, but I had goose bumps when she told me.”

Perlov’s best-known cinematic work, “Diary,” both a personal and political film, was shot over a turbulent 10-year period in Israeli history – 1973 through 1983. As a filmmaker, however, he was not that well known outside the country. This created some challenges for Schorr when he began trying to interest foreign institutions in the project.

“Perlov may be the founder of Israeli documentary cinema, but Israeli documentary cinema has only gained its international standing in the past 10-15 years.” he observes. “So building this international coalition was tougher than I had thought, since 85 percent of the places I approached had never heard of Perlov. And even after I got them interested, they also wanted to see the new film, or at least parts of it, but I had nothing to show them at that point. All I could say was, ‘Trust me.’”

After it premieres this week, the film will continue to be shown at cinemas around Israel and will also be broadcast on Channel 8, the cable TV documentary channel. Schorr hopes to take it from there to international, documentary and Jewish film festivals around the world.

Several years into the project, Schorr says it was only in the past few weeks that he took note of one of its most unusual features. “Almost everybody who has been involved in this film, including Perlov, including myself, including the production people, and including the editors – we’re almost all Tel Avivians. Yet the film is so Jerusalem-y. Not just the location, but also the musical score, the titles, everything about it is Jerusalem-y. A very multilayered Jerusalem, for sure, but brought to the screen by a bunch of Tel Avivians.”

Tziona Shimshi