Israeli filmmaker takes a swat at fading Zionist dream

In virtually every interview he’s given since “James’ Journey to Jerusalem” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year, Israeli director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz has taken pains to portray his satire as universally relevant.

“James” centers on a black South African who comes to Israel on a religious pilgrimage and is seduced, bit by bit, by the lures of materialism. A biting and hilarious moral fable, it certainly speaks to anyone whose pursuit of a comfortable lifestyle has, to put it politely, eclipsed nobler aspirations.

Speaking to j., though, Alexandrowicz agrees to talk about his narrative debut’s specific critique of contemporary Israel.

“Cinema is the medium that is the strongest about letting you see or feel the world through someone else’s eyes,” says the thoughtful 35-year-old director, in town last week to present “James” at the San Francisco International Film Festival. “When you take this to a higher level, it enables you to sometimes experience or see yourself through someone else’s eyes.”

That was Alexandrowicz’s accomplishment with “The Inner Tour,” his documentary about a busload of Palestinians visiting Israel that played the S.F. fest two years ago to much praise.

“James is for me a metaphor for the Zionist dream,” the Jerusalem-born director muses. “He comes with this beautiful, spiritual, ideal dream and while trying to make it come true in the real world, not only he changes but the dream changes.”

James’ key relationship in the film is with his boss’ elderly father, Sallah, an irascible man with a hustler streak who gives James pointers in navigating Israel’s entrepreneurial free-for-all.

One might see Sallah as a pioneer, one of Israel’s founders whose fervid connection to the land is embodied by the refusal to sell his Tel Aviv house to real estate developers planning a highrise.

In fact, the soft-spoken Alexandrowicz reveals, Sallah is named after the hero of the 1964 Israeli satire, “Sallah Shabati.” In that movie Chaim Topol played a Moroccan immigrant who learns how to beat the discriminatory social-welfare system. While a box-office hit, “Sallah Shabati” still remains a sore point with Jews from Arab countries for its negative stereotype of Mizrahi immigrants.

“So in my film,” Alexandrowicz explains, “Sallah after 50 years is teaching the new immigrant how to deal with the system. What Sallah had to get used to was a bureaucratic system. Now it’s this wildly capitalist system. And this is the movement we have made as a society, from a social-oriented society to a throwing-money-around society.”

In another echo, Alexandrowicz cast the Sephardic actor Arie Elias, an Iraqi immigrant who’d struggled for years before penetrating the Ashkenazi theatre establishment. Honored two years ago with a life-achievement award, Elias won an Israeli Oscar for his portrayal of Sallah.

“His career was a fight from the outskirts of culture to the mainstream,” says Alexandrowicz.

The latest in a wave of Israeli films to play festivals abroad and receive American distribution, “James’ Journey to Jerusalem” was attacked at home by some for exporting a critical view of Israel when perceptions of the Jewish state are already at a low point.

“When you begin to ask filmmakers to think in a PR-related way,” Alexandrowicz declares, “you arrive very quickly at a very dangerous situation where you get filmmakers that behave like Soviet filmmakers used to be.”

He talks softly and chooses his words carefully, but Alexandrowicz speaks forcefully. “One of the good things we have in the society, still, is that the mechanism of freedom of speech works very well. I daresay that it might work better than here, because we have a lot of public money in the forms of expression. And a very good Jewish trait is self-irony and self-criticism.

“So I completely reject the idea that as a filmmaker you have to think how your film will be perceived outside. Show me the anti-Semites that go and buy tickets to Israeli films in order to support their thesis.”

“James’ Journey to Jerusalem” opens Friday, May 14, in San Francisco and Berkeley.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.