Jerusalem in Israeli Cinema Is One Big Bluff

Dozens of films feature the Holy City’s exotic landscapes – but what about its violent, complex reality?

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A still image from the movie 'Dancing Arabs,' that as supposed to open the Jerusalem Film Festival.
A still image from the movie 'Dancing Arabs,' that as supposed to open the Jerusalem Film Festival.Credit: Eitan Riklis

The Jerusalem that appears in Israeli movies consists of beautiful stone houses, magnificent landscapes surrounding the golden dome of al Aqsa Mosque, the exotic alleys of the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and the bustling streets of the western part of the city. But where’s the movie that will show Jerusalem as it has been in recent months? Jerusalem of riots, rage, danger and death; Jerusalem whose neighborhoods threaten its center; a divided city. That Jerusalem is never seen in Israeli cinema.

Jerusalem has accompanied Israeli cinema since its beginning. From Amram Amar’s “Hafuga” (Cease-fire) in 1950 and Joseph Lejtes’ “Kirya Ne’emana” in 1952 to “A Good Death” co-written and co-directed by Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon, now showing in Israel. In recent years we’ve seen a considerable number of movies whose events take place in Jerusalem and its surroundings in the present, but what kind of Jerusalem is portrayed in them? The city as it is or a city cut off from its truth?

The Jerusalem Film and Television Fund, which encourages film production in Jerusalem, has become in recent years one of the most significant funding sources for Israeli movies. Many of the movies the fund has supported may not have described Jerusalem as a peaceful haven, but not one of them describes the gap between the vision of a united Jerusalem to its prevalent reality.

In July Eran Riklis’ film “Dancing Arabs” (written by Sayed Kashua, based on his book) was supposed to open the Jerusalem Film Festival. The film tells the story of an Arab youth sent to study in a Jerusalem boarding school. The screening at the festival was canceled and the film’s distribution to cinemas was suspended because of the military offensive in Gaza taking place at the time.

One of the reasons for these steps was the feeling that showing a film about an Arab teen at the time would not be in good taste. Also, it was felt that the film’s name may sound provocative to an increasingly incited and enraged public.

Women speak on their phones as they ride a light rail tram in Jerusalem November 11, 2014.Credit: Reuters

“Dancing Arabs” is not a film that confronts Jerusalem’s truth in the most penetrating way, but it is important to show it, perhaps in these days most of all.

I lived in Jerusalem in 1964-1968, when I was a student in the Hebrew University, still on Givat Ram. I enjoyed living in the city and those were fascinating years, because I witnessed the way it changed in the period before the Six-Day War and after it. On the day the war broke out I caught the last bus to Tel Aviv. Immediately after the war I returned to Jerusalem and strolled in the Old City and around it, wrapped in ecstasy – like many Israelis in those days. Since then I haven’t visited East Jerusalem again, not from fear but out of recognition. I miss the Jerusalem of before the Six-Day War, a Jerusalem that is no more.

Perhaps that’s the reason that my two favorite movies about Jerusalem – one a documentary and the other a feature film – were both produced in the 1960s. The documentary is the exemplary “In Jerusalem” directed by David Perlov, who cast a secular look – which was also captivated by the city’s magic – at the divided Jerusalem. The feature film is “Three Days and a Child” directed by Uri Zohar, based on a story by A.B. Yehoshua. Every time I see it, David Gurfinkel’s accurate black and white photography brings back the memory of the city I spent part of my youth in.

Jerusalem today demands a film that can deal with it. Will there be a director who can do it courageously? A director who will not locate the city’s’ story in its ornate past but in its torn present, which is also part of its past? Such a movie is vital to us at this time, when Israeli reality, with Jerusalem at its center, seems to be dissolving into a demagogic, populistic and even messianic chaos, which is the most dangerous of all.

I don’t believe in cinema’s ability to change reality. But I do believe in its ability to demand of us to look directly at this reality. Yes, Israeli cinema is thriving as never before. But what would be the point of this cinema if reality collapses around it?

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