Dir. Ra'anan Alexandrowicz. Israel. 2003. 85mins.
The first fiction feature by documentary film-maker Ra'anan Alexandrowicz, James' Journey To Jerusalem is a dark satire that confronts the black market labour and moral bankruptcy of the once idealistic Israeli society. Originally planned as part of a TV drama series called Voices From The Heartland, its Directors' Fortnight slot at Cannes should pave the way for a theatrical release. If handled carefully it could become a regular not only on the festival circuit and selected television markets but also, given its theme, at specialised cinema programmes.
The issue of illegal labour in Israel may seem a less sexy topic for discussion, given the political conflicts in the Middle East, but that is not to diminish its importance. There are now more than half-a-million foreigners working illegally in Israel, replacing most of the Palestinian labourers who the authorities have decided are too difficult to control in recent years. Alexandrowicz's take on the situation, related like an African folk story, may seem lighthearted on the surface, but still carries a sting in its tale that it is hard to ignore.
James (Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe), the son of a Zulu preacher destined to take over his father's congregation, is dispatched to Jerusalem to see the Holy Sites on behalf of devout Christians back home. At the airport, however, he is apprehended by suspicious border police, who fear he is one of many Third World visitors entering the country on a tourist visa who abscond and then become part of the growing illegal workforce.
Rescued from jail by smooth operator Shimi (Daw), the naive James is moved to a different prison: a flat in a rundown Tel Aviv neighbourhood, shared by an international gang of illegal workers. His claims that he only wants to complete his pilgrimage to Jerusalem fall on deaf ears, and the next morning he joins the illicit labour market, supposedly until he pays back his alleged debt to Shimi, who is by now his new boss.
James' travels take him from his initial innocence into the heart of modern consumerist society and its brazen materialism. He is guided by Shimi's cranky old father Salach (Elias), who teaches him how to moonlight, without suspecting that pupil will soon overtake master. James eventually becomes a mini-boss himself, exploiting others as he himself has been exploited, until he is shocked into recognising what he has become and forced into making a choice of his own.
A metaphor rooted in Israel's everyday life - but relevant to other Western societies that rely on economic refugees - this ironic morality tale lets no one off the hook: the rapacious profiteers bending every rule in sight, the corrupt legal system holding hands with them and the victims wh, given the chance, become the victimiser, all fall within Alexandrowicz's sights.
Young South African actor Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe possesses the right blend of innocence and craftiness for the lead role, while Daw is perfect as the greedy, harassed Shimi and veteran Arie Elias is a natural for his bad-tempered father. Despite its apparent cheerfulness, the plot leaves a bitter but all too familiar taste in the mouth as it moves briskly ahead to the inexorable and only possible ending. Technical elements may not be superlative but are certainly satisfactory.
Prod co: Lama Productions
Int'l sales: TBA
Prod: Amir Harel
Series creators: Renen Schorr, Orit Azoulay & Haim Sharir
Scr. Alexandrowicz, Sami Duenias
Cinematography: Shark De-Mayo
Ed: Ron Goldman
Prod des: Amir Dov Pick
Music: Ehud Banay, Gil Smetana, Noam Halevi
Main cast: Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe, Arie Elias, Salim Daw, Sandra Schonwald, Hugh Masebenza, Florence Bloch