A young Zulu, devoutly Christian and the pride of his South African village, makes a pilgrimage to the Holy Land—with tragicomic results. James’ Journey to Jerusalem, the first dramatic feature by 34-year-old Israeli director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, is a deceptively modest fable of innocence abroad that resonates with the situation within Israel and without.
Mutual misunderstandings begin the moment that wide-eyed James (Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe), resplendent in his traditional robe, deplanes in Tel Aviv. “Are you a Hebrew woman?” he excitedly asks the bored Israeli soldier at passport control. He imagines her an exotic biblical heroine from the Land of Milk and Honey; she assumes he’s looking for illegal work. (“We barely get by in this godforsaken place,” another soldier says.) Despite James’s protests that he’s on a pilgrimage, or perhaps because of them, he winds up in a sort of international holding pen.
Could this actually happen or is it a metaphor? Despite Alexandrowicz’s documentary background, James’ Journey to Jerusalem is not a naturalistic movie about the plight of imported or undocumented labor in contemporary Israel. Thanks to his evident virtue and fluent English, James is selected by Shimi the contractor (Arab actor Salim Daw) and taken through the cruddy backstreets of Tel Aviv to the hostel where this harried guardian angel warehouses his exploited employees. Initially regarding Shimi as his savior, James is only somewhat disabused when he’s put to work as a menial laborer. He accepts this as a necessary preparation, although the seeds of disillusion have been sowed: “If I tell [the people of my village] how it is in this place, they won’t believe me. They’ll be mad at me.”
Alexandrowicz’s deeply involving yet unpretentious documentaries, Martin and The Inner Tour, raised human interest stories to the level of revelation. Shot just before the intifada of September 2000 would have made it impossible, The Inner Tour follows a mixed group of Palestinians across the Green Line and through the looking glass on their first trip to Israel; Martin is a haunting portrait of an ex-Dachau inmate who, in effect, has never left the concentration camp. Similarly, James’ Journey is shot on DV in a loose, informal style that showcases Shibe’s focused, remarkably natural performance.
James is a naïf. In Yiddish literature his prototype would be the protagonist of Mendele Moykher Sforim’s late-19th-centurysatire Benjamin III, who leaves his Russian shtetl on a search for the legendary “red Jews.” But unlike Mendele’s Benjamin, James is also industrious and intelligent. (Nor is James the primary target of Alexandrowicz’s humor.) Shimi is so impressed that he assigns James the task of looking after his irascible father, Sallah (Arie Elias). The old man, whose name recalls the most popular Israeli movie character of the innocent, pre-Six Day War ’60s, lives in a shack on a derelict patch of land; with his uncanny luck, James makes the garden bloom.
In a sense, James’ Journey dramatizes the Jerusalem syndrome—a form of delusion first identified in the 1930s wherein tourists to Jerusalem begin to believe they are living in biblical times. (An unkind view of Zionism might find the entire enterprise a version of the syndrome.) But as unexpectedly lighthearted as James’ Journey can be, it carries a measure of allegory. The appealing hero is a model Christian more than once compared to Jesus—and held as a near-slave by mercenary Jews who would hardly seem out of place in The Passion of the Christ. At the same time, James’s yearning for Jerusalem is profoundly Jewish; indeed, in his optimistic idealism and capacity for hard work, he is also equated with the original Zionist settlers.
Thus, Alexandrowicz uses James’s education to criticize a society that has long since lost its communitarian spirit and socialist ethos. Profit is the only concern and everyone is viewed as a potential frayer (the Hebrew term for “sucker,” often applied to new immigrants). Over the course of his journey, James learns how to make and spend money, but mainly he learns how not to be a frayer. The transformation may be too complete, but the movie is, after all, a fable; the economic history that it telescopes is by no means restricted to Israel.