Muayad Alayan ventures into genre with his third feature, a UK/Palestinian co-production set in a rambling old house in West Jerusalem


Source: IFFR/PalCine Productions

‘A House In Jerusalem’

Dir: Muayad Alayan. Palestine/United Kingdom/Germany/Netherlands/Qatar. 2023. 104mins

A familiar-seeming supernatural story enlivened by a strong political streak, A House in Jerusalem is the uneven but ultimately satisfying and even touching third feature from Palestinian director Muayad Alayan. This tale of a grief-stricken daughter and father relocating from England to the Israeli capital bows at Rotterdam five years after Alayan’s The Reports On Sarah And Saleem won the Dutch festival’s audience prize. Conventionally handled and professionally mounted, this follow-up likewise occupies the more mainstream-oriented end of the Rotterdam spectrum.

A familiar-seeming supernatural story enlivened by a strong political streak

Arriving at a moment when Israeli/Palestinian divisions are once again at the forefront of global attention, the multi-national co-production should expect further festival bookings and is also viable as a small-screen offering via streaming and broadcast platforms. While the mood and pace are squarely tailored for mature audiences, Alayan avoids overt horror, sexuality and violence in favour of a more gentle kind of eeriness.

As with his two previous features, starting with 2015’s Love, Theft And Other Entanglements, Alayan collaborates with his US-based scriptwriter brother Rami. Rami Alayan wrote The Reports On Sarah And Saleem solo; the other two films are credited to the pair. Here they venture into genre territory for the first time, their relative inexperience in the area betrayed by a couple of contrivances and implausibilities in the picture’s second half.

Their wisest move is to present matters squarely from the perspective of 10-year-old protagonist Rebecca (Miley Locke), who is still traumatised by the death of her mother (Rebecca Calder) in a car crash a year earlier. Her dad Michael (Johnny Harris), who is also still struggling with the loss, grasps a chance for a new start when he inherits a mansion-like old property in West Jerusalem following the death of his father.

Michael, whose job in landscape planning is only vaguely outlined, is not the most attentive or present of single parents; Rebecca is left to her own devices for lengthy stretches. Exploring the house’s overgrown gardens, she comes across an old well from which she fishes a doll from a bygone era. This innocuous incident portends the appearance of another young girl, perpetually dripping wet with deathly pallor and mournful dark eyes, visible only to Rebecca.

After several spooky manifestations, the pair eventually become friends and the newcomer identifies herself as Rasha (Sheherazade Makhoul Farrell), a Palestinian forced from the villa along with her entire family after Israel’s victory in the 1948 war. Precocious Rebecca does some amateur sleuthing and eventually makes her way at night via the film’s most absorbingly oneiric sequence to a displaced-persons’ settlement in nearby Bethlehem. Here she tracks down elderly Mrs Mansour (Souad Faress), a dollmaker whom she takes to be Rasha’s long-bereaved mother.

The actual explanation, when it finally arrives, niftily upends expectations neatly tying together the plot’s various strands and making explicit Alayan’s underlying plea for understanding, empathy and the recognition of injustices both historical and current. With the reliably fine Harris unfortunately restricted to a few limited notes of pained anguish, it’s twinkle-eyed veteran Faress (sometimes billed as Souad Feres) who makes the biggest impact among the adult cast, incarnating decades of stoic Palestinian endurance within her seemingly-fragile frame.

But A House in Jerusalem stands or falls on the skill of its juvenile performers, youngster Locke present in nearly every scene gamely carrying a hefty burden of responsibility with saturnine, low-key intensity. Strongly resembling Lina Leandersson’s Eli in Thomas Alfredsson’s Let the Right One In (2008), Makhoul Farrell compels attention and sympathy as a well-dwelling waif, and strikes up a convincing amity with her flesh-and-blood counterpart. Alex Simu’s extensively-deployed score is less effective, underlining each emotional beat to sometimes intrusive and counterproductive effect.

Production companies: PalCine Productions, Wellington Films

International sales: Heretic

Producers: Muayad Alayan, Rami Alayan, Abeer Salman, Rachel Robey, Alastair Clark, Dorothe Beinemeier, Hanneke Niens, Giorgos Karnavas, Isabelle Georgeaux

Screenplay: Rami Alayan, Muayad Alayan

Cinematography: Sebastian Bock

Production design: Bashar Hassuneh

Editing: Rachel Erskine

Music: Alex Simu

Main cast: Miley Locke, Johnny Harris, Sheherazade Makhoul Farrell, Souad Feres, Rebecca Calder