There is a scene in Danae Elon’s remarkable and highly personal documentary, PS Jerusalem, in which her eldest son Tristan is walking at night with his best friend, a Palestinian named Luai. The boys, who are in grammar school, are classmates at the bilingual Hand in Hand School in Jerusalem and their ambling takes them into various neighborhoods that change culturally and linguistically block by block. The boys’ fluency is on display as they seamlessly switch from Hebrew to Arabic depending on where they are. “Don’t speak Arabic here,” Tristan whispers to his friend. A few minutes later Luai whispers in Arabic, “Shh! Not a word in Hebrew.”
PS Jerusalem, which opens March 17 in New York, is both a love letter and an imagined conversation with Elon’s late father, Amos. The elder Elon, a noted Israeli intellectual and writer who died seven years ago in Tuscany in self-imposed exile, was one of Israel’s foremost critics against the occupation. One of his last wishes was that Danae, his only child, not return to Israel to live. In a recent conversation, Danae Elon says she understood her father’s dictum as “more of a metaphor about how he felt about Israel and his grandchildren’s presence there. For me, going back wasn’t so much a personal defiance against him, but a generational difference.”
Elon’s film, which has the veneer of a home movie and the sensibility of a video diary, begins in Brooklyn. Elon is restless and looking for a place where she can feel at home, and Jerusalem calls her back. Her partner Philippe, a North African Jew who grew up in the suburbs of Paris, is skeptical about the move. Her two young sons – a third son is born shortly after their arrival in Jerusalem – cope with normal childhood fears about the unknown.
Elon films everything and once she is in Jerusalem it’s as if the camera is one of her limbs. Her soothing narration is a stand-in for her. She’s fearless in showing her complicated relationship with Philippe, and her doubts and hesitations as a young mother. “The more I filmed,” she says, “the more I found my relationship with Philippe and the children a reflection of what was happening on the outside.”
Elon says her biggest artistic challenge was how to use Jerusalem as a backdrop and present it as a concept in the film. “Jerusalem,” she says, “is a difficult place to photograph. I come from a cinematographic background and some images burst onto the screen. Jerusalem burns the screen. It has a meaning you can’t control. That makes it a difficult place to film cinematically because you can’t have a personal statement against such monumental images.”
To address this conundrum, Elon locates her family in ordinary domestic circumstances. She films scenes in her apartment, on car rides, and at her son’s school. She found that this approach of “going inward “ enabled her to acknowledge the city in which she was raised. “You never really see Jerusalem in the film,” she says. “You see it, for example, from a wide shot of the forest. It’s a style I took on to try and get to something truthful, meaningful and non-stereotypical.
Both the existential and daily difficulties that Israelis face, particularly those who are marginalized and feel like outsiders, is brilliantly captured in the scenes with Philippe. Philippe starts the journey supportive, but he can’t contain his skepticism. He makes a valiant attempt to learn Hebrew yet he can’t find work as a photographer. By the end, with his self-described “Arab face,” he identifies more as a North African than a Jew. It’s not even entirely clear that he is Jewish until the very end of the film. Elon explains that a viewer’s confusion over Philippe’s identity may stem from the fact that “throughout the film he doesn’t speak like a classic Jew about Israel. Israel never defined his Judaism as it does for North American Jews. He doesn’t have this affinity for Israel as the Jewish homeland and that all of sudden makes him seem non-Jewish.”
After three years, Elon comes to terms with the fact that it’s time for her family to leave Israel. “The angst of having to leave Israel has not left me or healed in the last three years,” she says. “It’s just what I had to do as a Jew and a mother who has to bring up three young boys into a reality that makes sense to them. It goes against the social activist I wanted to be through them. But that’s what it feels like to be an Israeli and a Jew of a certain kind today. There are no answers. It just exposes a nerve.”