Israeli ex-pat asks whether it is possible to come home

In her new film, Danae Elon documents her attempts to carve a place out for children where they can be proud of who they are, but realizes that just by choosing to be in Israel, she couldn’t avoid the most difficult questions of war and occupation.

Publicity still for Danae Elon's documentary film, P.S. Jerusalem
Publicity still for Danae Elon’s documentary film, P.S. Jerusalem.

In one of the most affecting scenes of her documentary “P.S. Jerusalem,” filmmaker Danae Elon follows her two little boys and their Palestinian schoolmate, all three dressed nearly identically in hooded sweatshirts and jeans, as they navigate the streets of the city at night, traversing Jewish majority and Arab majority neighborhoods while clutching their skateboards. The boys, who attend the bilingual Hand in Hand School, switch from one language to the next depending on the area they’re in. “Don’t speak Arabic here,” whispers her son in Hebrew to his Palestinian friend. Two minutes later, the Palestinian boy whispers to them in Arabic, “Sh! Not a word in Hebrew!”

It would be easy and natural for adults to dismiss the excited warnings of six and seven-year-old boys as exaggeration for the sake of drama. But in contemporary Jerusalem, being beaten up just for speaking the wrong language in the wrong neighborhood is tragically not unheard of. This is the reality that these boys, children of liberal, secular parents attending the city’s most pluralistic, liberal school, are already aware of in elementary school. (In 2014, the Jerusalem Hand in Hand school was torched by Jewish terrorists in a “price tag” incident.)

When Danae Elon moved back in 2010 to Jerusalem, where she was born and raised, she wanted to give her two young sons and her unborn child — as well as her French-Algerian Jewish partner Philippe — a sense of belonging in the place that she identified as home. New York, she explains in the opening scenes of P.S. Jerusalem, had never felt like home. She describes the city she remembers as a place populated by bohemians and by intellectuals like her father, the renowned Haaretz journalist and writer Amos Elon.

But her father, who died in 2009, had left Israel in 2004. Citing despair and disillusionment with the direction the country had taken since 1967, he spent his final years living with his wife on a farm in Tuscany. It was during that period that he and Danae grew closest, as witnessed by excerpts of their conversations inserted into the film. And it was her father who warned her not to go back.

Nevertheless, she and Philippe, a professional photographer, pack up their family and exchange their Williamsburg apartment for one in an unidentified part of Jerusalem. Over the following three years she follows her children with her camera, answering their probing questions about settlements and soldiers and watching their reactions to various events. She films them as they attend a protest in East Jerusalem, where activists confront settlers who have taken over Palestinian homes, sanctioned by the courts and under the protection of the police. She watches as her eldest son wonders whether he should attend the Independence Day celebrations with the Jewish pupils in his class — or the Nakba Day memorial ceremony with their Palestinian friend. The events are held simultaneously, but separately. She films her middle son struggling with his chubby baby fingers to fit his new gas mask over his face. And her camera records the scene at her children’s school as the air raid siren wails during the 2012 Gaza war and dozens of children sprint, shrieking, to the bomb shelter.

She films Philippe as the two of them engage in searching, emotional conversations about her concerns over the questions their children are asking about what they see, and about his increasing dislike for the city. Philippe, the French Jew of Algerian parents, had thought that with his “Arab face,” he would discover a sense of belonging in Jerusalem. Instead he feels increasingly alienated by the radical right-wing politics, violence and what he calls “craziness.” He does not have Danae’s childhood memories to help him see past contemporary events. During one of their conversations about their decision to move to Jerusalem Danae asks him, with a catch in her voice, “Do you think you’ve made a mistake?” He shrugs, looking frustrated and tired.

After three years, they decide to leave. One of the final scenes of the film shows Danae and Philippe’s eldest son weeping and refusing to let go of his best friend, a Palestinian boy from school. The mothers of both boys try to cajole them gently into letting go of one another so that they can drive to the airport for their journey back to America.

To this viewer, who has seen Danae Elon’s previous documentaries, P.S. Jerusalem feels like the third in a series that explores her identity and background. In “Another Road Home,” she sets out to find the Palestinian man from a West Bank village who had been her caregiver and something of a third parent when she was growing up in Jerusalem. And in “Partly Private,” she explores the history and culture of circumcision for boys, as she and Philippe argue and struggle over the question of whether or not to circumcise their own sons.

P.S. Jerusalem is a deeply affecting, very personal film about the nature of identity. Elon explores universal questions about the meaning and location of home and the personal cost of searching for a sense of belonging, offering thought provoking observations in her soft voiced artifice-free narration. She does not pretend to have any answers.

P.S. Jerusalem will be screened at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) on September 14, 16 and 19. Click here for times and location.

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