Canadian-Armenian actor Arsinée Khanjian in the Cathedral of St James, in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City, July 14, 2017. Olivier Fitoussi
Old City, New Stories

Temple Mount Tensions Won't Stop These International Film Makers

Iranian Mohsen Makhmalbaf and American Todd Solondz are two of the foreign filmmakers participating in 'The Quarters,' a new project about the Old City of Jerusalem's four quarters. No one is underestimating the challenge



It is Friday afternoon and we are in the Cathedral of Saint James, in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. Masses of decorations hang suspended from the ceiling above the visitors’ heads. Candles burn in various corners. A line of clergy enter the central space, singing hymns, each holding a candle. They are wearing colorful robes; the entire sight is breathtaking. While a number of tourists photograph the scene, two visitors, dressed in white, stand out: They are holding their cellphones in front of them with both hands, taking videos of the space from different directions, different angles as they move around.

One of them is celebrated Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf; the other is Canadian-Armenian actor Arsinée Khanjian. Standing to one side, Brazilian filmmaker Anna Muylaert is taking in the scene. The three of them, together with American director Todd Solondz, are spending a few days in Israel as part of a new film project they have signed up for. “The Quarters” will comprise four stories connected with the Old City’s historic four quarters (Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian).

The current visit (conducted in collaboration with the Jerusalem Film Festival and United King Films) is primarily intended to provide the filmmakers with the opportunity to visit the Old City and find suitable shooting locations.

Last Friday’s Temple Mount shooting attack – in which two Druze policemen were killed by three Israeli-Arab men, who were themselves subsequently killed – took place just a few hours before the four directors’ planned visit to the area, thus exposing them to all aspects of life in the Old City. The beauty of its four quarters contrasts with the tensions generated by police cars patrolling the entrance to the Old City. However, in the Armenian Quarter’s narrow alleyways, all anxiety vanishes.

Olivier Fitoussi

There have been many (unsuccessful) attempts to make anthology films about Jerusalem, such as the mooted “Jerusalem, I Love You,” says Maya Fischer, whose Green Productions initiated the project along with U.S. producer Scott Berry (Impulse Pictures). However, she says, these four directors want to do something different: to showcase the Old City’s complexity. The idea is to present, through these directors, an outsider’s view of Jerusalem; the end result will likely be complicated, not necessarily expressing blind love for the city.

Makhmalbaf has become a regular visitor to Israel in recent years. He shot the documentary “The Gardener” at the Bahá’í Gardens in Haifa, and has been a guest at the Jerusalem and Haifa film festivals on several occasions. He plans to shoot his part of the film in the Old City’s Muslim Quarter.

As we wait to enter another church in the Armenian Quarter, Makhmalbaf tells Haaretz that although he hails from a Muslim family, he is more concerned these days with being “a human being.” Of the four filmmakers, he is the only one who has yet to lock down what his story will be about. He has six plot ideas, he says, but doesn’t know which he will use.

When the idea was first proposed to him, he says he agreed immediately. He loved the idea of four different perspectives on Jerusalem’s Old City. He recalls a poem by an Iranian poet, which tells us that truth is a mirror created by God. At some point, the mirror slipped from God’s hands and fell to the ground, shattering into a million pieces. Each individual took a fragment and it remained in that individual’s possession. Thus, explains Makhmalbaf with a smile, the truth is in the hands of many different people.

Montecruz Foto

For him, the project provides an opportunity to hold, if only for one brief moment, some of that shattered mirror’s fragments; to look at the Old City from different perspectives and to perhaps understand it better. When you don’t know someone, hostility can result, he says. However, when you begin to know the other person, a friendship starts to appear – or at least has the possibility of beginning. He believes hostility in the world stems to a large extent from a lack of knowledge about other people.

Most famous Armenian (after Kim Kardashian)

Khanjian is Armenian. Born in Beirut, she has been living in Canada for many years and is married to the filmmaker Atom Egoyan. She is a famous actor who has starred in his films (including “Ararat” and “Felicia’s Journey”) and works by other directors. As she walks through the Armenian Quarter, it quickly becomes clear she is a celebrity: People repeatedly ask whether they can be photographed with her, or whether they can share a few words with her. She is the world’s most famous Armenian after Kim Kardashian, explains one of the Israeli participants on the tour. Khanjian has visited Israel several times and is familiar with the Armenian Quarter and its history; she is excited about making the film, which will be her first as a director.

The Armenians, she points out, brought photography to the Middle East. Before arriving in the Holy Land, the first Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem studied photography in Europe. When he arrived in Ottoman Palestine in 1854, he created the Middle East’s first photography studio, in the Armenian Quarter. He introduced photography to Jerusalem and had many students. Ironically, Khanjian notes sadly, although the Armenians introduced photography to the Middle East, there are hardly any photographs or documentation of the most traumatic event in their history: the Armenian genocide in 1915.

She has opted to include the subject of photography in her segment, which will focus on the Armenian Quarter and tell the story of a young Canadian woman who has almost totally severed her connection with her Armenian identity. A successful newspaper photographer, she comes to the Armenian Quarter because her Armenian grandfather has been hospitalized and she must help him close his photography studio for good. When she arrives, she learns that Jewish real estate agents are trying to buy properties in the area.

Olivier Fitoussi

“Everyone understands what you mean when you talk about Muslims, Christians and Jews,” explains Khanjian, descending an ancient staircase. “But when you talk about Armenians, many people do not know what you are talking about because few people know anything about the Armenians, their history or their connection with other religions.”

Khanjian adds that when you visit the Old City, you see the Muslim, Christian and Jewish Quarters full of tourists, whereas the Armenian Quarter is usually totally deserted since people rarely visit it.

There has been an Armenian presence in the Old City since the 16th century and Armenian culture has contributed to the development of civilization in the region – including photography and ceramics. However, Khanjian notes, except for Armenians who come to the Armenian Quarter, few people know about this contribution. She says her film will constitute a demand for recognition of this Armenian presence, and serve as a statement that Armenians are an integral part of the Old City.

As we walk through the Armenian Quarter’s alleyways, our guide suddenly leads us through a gate and we find ourselves on a soccer field bordering the Old City’s walls. He is a historian who once served as the Armenian Patriarch’s secretary and explains the current situation in the Armenian Quarter.

Israel views the Armenians as Palestinians, he says, and “if we leave Israel for more than seven years, we are no longer allowed to return here. But this is not important, it’s not a matter of principle. What is important is the future. If any attempt is made to drive the Armenians out of the Old City, to deny their legitimacy, there will be trouble,” he adds.

Kyle Taylor

He says the Armenian community was shocked to learn that plans are underway to turn the Armenian Quarter into an additional site for Jewish settlements. “In the meantime we are not talking about it, but if they try to push us away from this place, there will be a problem.”

While the three other directors focus on touring the area, American director Solondz sets off alone to find suitable shooting locations in the Jewish Quarter, where his film will unfold. He wants to know, for example, whether he can film at the Western Wall.

Shooting for all four films is scheduled for 2018, with “The Quarters” tentatively set for a 2019 release.

The next day, in the lounge of the hotel where he is staying, Solondz tells me that when he was approached to be part of the project, he didn’t hesitate for a second; he considered it a fascinating idea. Solondz has visited Israel before and, when Berry told him about the project, the filmmaker quickly thought of an idea for a story and said he wanted to take part.

A political question

Solondz refuses to discuss the details of the film – he never talks about his films until they are finished, he says – but does say it will be about an American Jewish adolescent who comes to Israel to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah. He arrives in Jerusalem accompanied by his mother and neurotic father, who force him to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall Plaza. As members of the family prepare for the ceremony and the tours they will take in the Old City, they encounter a series of amusing and totally unexpected events.

Solondz says he set off the previous day to find suitable shooting locations, which was the main purpose of his visit. He says he wasn’t afraid to wander through the Jewish Quarter, even though the shooting attack had occurred only a few hours before. “Personally I wasn’t worried, it’s part of the reality in this place,” says Solondz. “But actually I can be killed just as easily in New York, so I don’t really think about it.”

RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS

He engages in a lively conversation with Eran Riklis, the Israeli director-producer who will serve as artistic director on “The Quarters.” The project, Riklis clarifies, involves four films about the Old City’s four quarters, and one question preoccupying him is whether to leave the four films as separate stories or connect them with some common thread. He recognizes that this is both an artistic and political question.

Although Jerusalem is a divided city, he notes, it has a long history of unity. The question, therefore, is whether it would be preferable to unite its components or whether Jerusalem’s magic might actually lie in the separation of its elements. Right now, he admits to having more questions than answers – although he says what links all four of the quarters and all four of the films is the wall surrounding the quarters.

Even though the film aims to reach a wide audience, Riklis does not want it to evade the burning issues – especially the fact that parts of Jerusalem have been occupied for the past 50 years. He is fully aware that this is a highly incendiary and sensitive issue.

“On the one hand, it is a ticking time bomb and I feel like a police sapper coming out to defuse an explosive device and who hopes it will not blow up in his face. On the other hand, the project is like an ancient jug in the Israel Museum that can crumble in your hands if not handled properly. So it’s a project that demands very gentle care,” he concludes.

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