Danae Elon documents the cost of defying her father’s wish and returning to Jerusalem
Towards the beginning of P.S. Jerusalem, Danae Elon films her young son waking up to watch the snow out of their window in New York. It is the eve of their move back to her birthplace: Israel.
Her son turns to the audience.
“What’s that?” he asks.
“A camera,” replies Elon.
So begins the story of a return to Jerusalem, where personal choices are political and where viewers can never be sure of their own perspective.
What follows is an unflinching look into the next three years in the life of Elon, her French husband and three young sons. Elon is an Israeli Jew who grew up in Jerusalem. Her father, Amos Elon, was one of Israel’s most celebrated intellectuals. He advocated for the creation of a Palestinian state and the withdrawal from the occupied territories. In his book, Jerusalem: City of Mirrors (1990), he lamented how Arab and Jewish mythologies had so twisted their view of the city that they “hated [their] fellow man to the glory of God”.
Amos Elon eventually became so disillusioned that he left Israel for good. On his deathbed, he made his daughter promise him she wouldn’t go back to the country of her birth. But after years living in New York with her husband, Danae Elon decides to defy her father’s wish and return to Jerusalem. She wants her children “not to be ashamed of who they are and where they have come from”. She wants them to understand who she is.
Elon’s original plan is to make a documentary based on Jerusalem: City of Mirrors, but she finds that wherever she points her camera in the city, there is an image so saturated with political meaning and controversy that it is hard to get a new message across. And so she turns the camera inward to her own house and family. P.S. Jerusalem is a documentary about their adjustment to a new life.
Amid settlements, demolitions and vitriolic demonstrations, Elon tries to help her family navigate the contradictions of being Jewish and living in Israel. We discover the city through the eyes of her children. One of her sons is beaten up at school by Arab classmates, but also becomes best friends with an Arab. Her other son can’t work out what a military checkpoint could be and why it is needed. He stares at a wall built through his classmates’ neighbourhood and realises it has been built in the name of his own protection.
In one difficult scene, her child asks her if she has been in the army. Her voice falters from behind the camera and she finds it hard to answer. They ask if they will have to join the army and she has to explain that military service is mandatory for Israelis. They seem distressed, trapped, vulnerable and confused. One son asks if they can all leave Israel, and later proclaims himself no longer Jewish. The strain on the family can be uncomfortable to watch, where her husband seems proud to help his children confront a reality, but also wants to escape and “live with normal people”. Elon’s marriage buckles. Her children seem visibly lost. Raw tensions inside the family apartment blur with the conflict outside its walls.
The Human Rights Watch Film Festival often features stories on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Jerusalem is the centre of a myriad of human rights violations: people being thrown out of their homes, the demolition of whole neighbourhoods and the construction of illegal settlements. People live in constant fear of being removed from the city or attacked on the street. As Elon found while trying to film the city, these stories have become so repetitive that they can lose their power.
What P.S Jerusalem manages to do is produce something sincere from a place where narratives have been told, retold and manipulated so many times. The film points out that the conflict is not just about the number of people dead or imprisoned. It is the day in, day out, psychological trauma inflicted on people living in a place where there is so much division.
We will be reviewing more selections from the Human Rights Watch Film Festival (London, 2016) soon.
Photo Credit: Danae Elon
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