If I wanted to make a film about migrant labor in my country, I would have made a documentary,” says Israeli filmmaker Ra’anan Alexandrowicz. “But James’ Journey to Jerusalem is really an economic fairy tale about how money influences human behavior and what happens to our dreams when we want to make them true.”
The 34-year-old Alexandrowicz is best known for Martin and The Inner Tour—documentaries that bear little outward resemblance to James’ Journey, his affable fiction debut about an African pilgrim who visits Israel and inadvertently becomes an illegal worker. But all three films examine issues of disillusionment, or as Alexandrowicz admits, “the gap between the ideal and the reality.” While Martin focuses on a Dachau tour guide who may be lying about his experiences in the Holocaust and The Inner Tour chronicles a busload of Palestinian tourists seeing how the other half lives, the new film is about a man whose dreams about the “Holy Land” don’t match the grubby and greedy actuality.
Alexandrowicz sees the same illusory ideals in the “Zionist dream” of a Jewish state. “There’s this very spiritual and pure dream about a place,” he explains, “but as you deal with the friction of reality, not only does the dream change, but you change.” For Alexandrowicz, the Zionist model collapses not only because of Israel’s unfair treatment of the Palestinians, “but also how the state that was supposed to fulfill the Zionist dream is actually fulfilling the American Dream.”
As James gets sidetracked, he goes from devout Christian to thriving Tel Aviv entrepreneur: Religion gets waylaid in favor of a new TV. But Alexandrowicz points out that he’s not making a critique of capitalism. “I’m part of that system,” he says. “Money is a very strong thing and there’s something very human about how tempting it is.” In Israel, Alexandrowicz says, such problems of “economic motivation” are intensified by an obsession with not being a frayer, a Hebrew word that pops up in the film and translates to “pushover” or “sucker.” “A lot of our politics is based on not being frayers,” he says, “because we have been such ultimate frayers in the past—the Holocaust as the basic Jewish trauma of being pushed over in the worst way.”
More fun than the political subtexts suggest, James’ Journey succeeds because it doesn’t preach. “The best way to convey an idea is through entertainment that hurts you on one hand, but makes you laugh on the other,” says Alexandrowicz, citing as an example Ephraim Kishon’s 1964 satire Sallah Shabati, about a Jewish family who emigrate from Morocco to Israel in the early 1950s. (As homage, Alexandrowicz names one of his central characters Sallah.) “In that film,” he says, “Sallah and his son are sitting in a refugee camp in the rain, and the son asks his father, ‘Why are they treating us like this?’ And Sallah says, ‘Don’t worry, son, now we are the newest ones here, so they’re all screwing us. But one day, there will be newer people here and then we’ll screw them.’ ” Adds Alexandrowicz, “And I think this is true of every immigrant society, certainly true of the United States, Europe, and also of Israel.”