Zeitgeist Films // 2003 // 87 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Neal Solon (Retired) // March 3rd, 2005
"Things here aren't like in your village stories. Here, we prey on each
-- Salah (Arie Elias), regarding Jerusalem
Imagine a place you have heard about all of your life. You have heard about it from your parents, from your friends, from people in your town. By the time you are old enough to visit the place, your expectations of it are unattainably high. What you imagine is an idyllic paradise; what you are about to experience is the real world. Now, imagine that this place you are headed is at the center of your belief system.
These are the expectations that exist in James' Journey to Jerusalem before any of the film's characters appear on screen. These expectations play into everything that happens on screen, but the story that unfolds is simple and beautiful. The acting endears the protagonists to us, and makes us despise the villains. Yet there is more to this film than what appears on the surface. James' Journey to Jerusalem is a modern parable, deftly presented by a director and actors with little or no feature film experience.
James' Journey to Jerusalem is the story of James (Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe), a young man from Africa who is to become a pastor in his small, African village. He has been sent on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to experience the Holy Land first hand, so that he may return to his village and better serve his flock. What he finds when he gets to Israel is not, however, the idyllic Jerusalem of his thoughts and his Book, but rather a worldly Jerusalem full of neon lights, greed, and cynicism. In fact, so cynical is this Jerusalem that customs officials do not believe the nature of his visit, and they throw him in jail.
Undaunted, James prays for help. His "savior" comes in the form of Shimi (Salim Daw), an Israeli man who bails him out of jail. James, in his naïveté does not realize that he has just been sold into servitude. When he does come to understand this, he still looks at everything through the lens of his faith and his religion. He sees his indentured servitude as a test from God; a test that he must overcome on his way to Jerusalem.
Among the other tests that James must face are his growing material wealth, his popularity, and his influence with his boss, Shimi. Each of these worldly discoveries threatens to remove James further from his idealism and from his hope of reaching Jerusalem. Each choice James makes moves him either one step closer or one step further from his goal. The choices are his to make, but the forces at play in his life are far beyond his control.
James' Journey to Jerusalem is a story of conflict; of the tensions between father and son, God and man, idealism and reality. It is a story of constant flux, yet director Ra'anan Alexandrowicz (The Inner Tour) resists the urge to make any of this too transparent. What the viewer sees at first is nothing more than a genuine story of a young man slowly corrupted by the modern world -- by the modern Jerusalem.
Young James' spiritual life is quickly and overtly established through his actions and his words. As the film continues, and as his life and thought processes become more secular, the references to a spiritual life become less overt. At times, Alexandrowicz will juxtapose images of the religious and secular world. The camera pauses for a second to focus on money changing hands with the cross that hangs around James' neck just barely in focus in the background, or it lingers for a moment to display the contrast between James' sparkling white suit and the clothes of those who surround him in church on Shabbat, providing subtle visual indications of James' changing identity.
It is interesting, however, that James' luck does not wholly change, and that James does not recognize the change within himself until he forsakes the father figure in the film -- Salah (Arie Elias), his boss' father. Early in the film, James is taken to Salah's house to clean. Salah has had trouble getting along with the hired help in the past, but James quickly wins him over. In James, Salah has a confidant and a companion. Through Salah and James' conversations, we learn that Shimi is trying to force his father out of his house and into an old folks' home so that his property can be sold to developers for a sizeable sum. This, understandably, offends Salah, and it offends James too. In his land, no one would abandon his father for money.
Like the film, the characters' relationships with Salah can be viewed both literally and allegorically. Salah's son and daughter-in-law often call him Abba. This makes sense literally, for "abba" is Hebrew for father, and Salah is certainly Shimi's father. For an international audience with little knowledge of the language, however, "Abba" is more likely used to recall passages in the Christian New Testament, where this is a word used to refer to God.
At the beginning of the film, James despises Shimi for the way he treats his father. In Shimi's abandonment of his father, James sees selfish, ungodly behavior. As the film progresses, however, James becomes more like his boss. He begins to focus solely on economic concerns, and in doing so he creates a wedge between himself and God, represented in the film by the disintegration of his relationship with Salah.
More can be said about Salah's being an artistic stand-in for God. Among other things, James and Shimi both take advice given by Salah. Instead of staying true to the spirit of that advice, they take his words and interpret them in a way that allows them to justify their selfish misdeeds. Depending on the viewer's disposition, deeper meaning can be ascribed to much of what transpires on screen, though some of it may not be apparent upon first viewing the film. The film's charms, however, are immediately obvious.
Taken at face value, much of the pleasure that one gets from watching James' Journey to Jerusalem is due to Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe's portrayal of the titular character. This was Shibe's first feature film credit, and he managed to create in James a character who is both completely engrossing and uncannily real. Watching the film, one never questions James' excitement and wide-eyed wonder as he arrives in Jerusalem, nor his earnestness, his naïveté or his eventual spiraling into greed. Shibe's performance, while complimented by solid contributions from the other main characters, makes this film.
Arie Elias's performance as the aging Salah also deserves mention. Salah comes off as outwardly unaffected, but inwardly lonely. He also seems infinitely wise, though we do occasionally see his faults in the ways that he exerts and displays his control over James. Regardless, his rigid, stubborn demeanor is wholly believable and integral to the development of the plot.
Few people were able to see these performances in the original, limited theatrical run of James' Journey to Jerusalem; most will be experiencing the film for the first time on DVD. To aid in that respect, Zeitgeist Films has put together a respectable presentation of this film on disc.
The movie is presented in its original widescreen aspect ratio with its original stereo soundtrack. The video and audio both look and sound fine. There is a quality to the picture that comes with its having been recorded on digital video. There are times when the colors lack the depth and richness that might have been present in film. The camera work is also, occasionally, shaky. Neither of these facts, however, is particularly distracting.
As for the supplements, there are few. The most substantial extra is a statement by director Ra'anan Alexandrowicz, presented as an essay in the liner notes. The statement gives insight into the origins of the film. It seems that the seed for this film was planted by an African emigré whose situation was not unlike James' in the film. It is also in this statement that Alexandrowicz validates the idea that this movie is meant to be commentary on society, calling it "a contemporary economic fairytale with elements of realism."
Next up is a music video for a song, which both introduces the narrative and reappears multiple times in the film. The song is a traditional Ghanaian folk song with lyrics written by Ra'anan Alexandrowicz. It is catchy and engaging. There are no subtitles in the music video, but the words are not important in conveying the energy of the performers. Regardless, watching this after viewing the film, one will easily remember the general content of the lyrics.
Closing out the special features is the original U.S. trailer for James' Journey to Jerusalem. There is nothing exceptional here. At best, it's quick reference for recalling some of the awards that the film won in international film festivals.
Some people may find Alexandrowicz' film simplistic. Good and evil are clearly, though not outwardly, delineated. The subtext, though not used to beat the viewer over the head, is not hidden far beneath the surface of the film. James, were it not for Shibe's nuanced performance, could easily be seen as an offensive, modern day "happy slave."
These complaints, however, can be addressed by considering the way that Alexandrowcz views the film: as a fairy tale; a parable. The clear contrasts, then, are easily explained as a fairytale element. James' perpetual grin, despite his virtual enslavement, is a simple establishment of his most essential character traits: the depth of his faith and his disposition before realizing and succumbing to the corruption of the "real Jerusalem." He is not intended to seem happy in his servitude, but rather accepting of it, because he considers it a test from God.
Its possible faults aside, James' Journey to Jerusalem is a wonderful film. It contains a number of great performances and is an easy foray into an under-explored national cinema. Its price tag may be a bit hefty for a blind buy, but its one of those films you are also not likely to find in your local rental outlet. If a blind buy is the only way you can get your hands on it, go for it. This is a film worth seeing.
The defendant is acquitted on all charges. The court looks forward to seeing the director and the cast displaying their talents in the future. Zeitgeist Films is commended for making this wonderful film available to a new, wider audience. They are, however, advised to explore opportunities to include more extensive supplements on future releases.
Review content copyright © 2005 Neal Solon; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Hebrew, with portions in English and Zulu)
Running Time: 87 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Statement by Director Ra'anan Alexandrowicz
* Music Video