Danae Elon honors her father by violating one of his final requests.
She grew up as the only child of Amos and Beth Elon. Her father was the distinguished Israeli journalist and author of many books including “The Israelis: Founders and Sons,” published in 1970, the year Danae was born. A prominent intellectual and outspoken critic of the occupation, he grew disillusioned, and in 2002 left Israel for Italy, never to return. And he pleaded with his daughter to never go back either. He died in Tuscany in 2009.
“The country that was now a failure for him,” she explains in the opening of her compelling documentary “P.S. Jerusalem,” which opens here March 17, “was my lingering sense of home.” She missed Jerusalem and she missed her father. Brooklyn felt lonely and alienating, and she also missed the closeness and strength of relationships she knew in the Middle East. In 2010, then the mother of two young boys, she decided to move her family of four back to Jerusalem to try to imbue them with her sense of home and belonging. She had left 20 years earlier to attend film school at NYU, and as a documentary producer, cinematographer and director, has made several award-winning films. Her partner, Philip Touitou, an Algerian-born Jew who had lived in Israel briefly, encouraged her passion to return. Soon after they arrived in Israel, a third son was born, and they named him Amos.
Told in part through the experiences of her young sons, and layered with the complexities of Israeli life, “P.S. Jerusalem” speaks intimately to the past and future of her family and of Israel. While the vistas of the desert landscape she longed for are awesome, much of the filming takes place in her home, over three years.
“At first I was projecting outward, trying to capture what was going on in the city,” she tells The Jewish Week in an interview. “But I realized that I had to turn inward in order to get under the skin of the place, that inward events would reflect more deeply and personally the outward events happening around us.”
“I became a filmmaker because I always felt better when I filmed; it gave me a feeling of protection, recording an injustice — as if the very act of filming it absolved me from being part of it.”
Her older son Tristan, who is 5 when the film begins, is a natural on camera, responding to his mother’s questions. When he’s uneasy about being filmed, he lets her know, but usually he is just himself, observing, playing, expressing his own longings, so present in the moment. Viewers see him unpack a gas mask that looks to him like a toy, visit a friend who lives in the territories, fearlessly ride his skateboard and ask repeated questions about soldiers and war.
As a narrator and interviewer, Elon is wise, empathetic and penetrating. The bond between father and daughter is felt throughout the film, for even as Amos Elon didn’t want his daughter to return, his presence looms large in her days there. Not that people continued to see her as his daughter — many of his peers had left Jerusalem, and there was a new generation of journalists at Haaretz, where he had been published frequently — but her parents’ feel for the city was profoundly ingrained in her own.
“I was brought up to care deeply about making this place a just society seeking equal rights and peace for all,” she says.
In the film she explains, “I became a filmmaker because I always felt better when I filmed; it gave me a feeling of protection, recording an injustice — as if the very act of filming it absolved me from being part of it.”
She says that at first, they were warmly welcomed to Jerusalem, but within a month the difficulties of daily life set in.
“When you go back,” she says, “it’s as though you are bringing a breeze from the outside — people are grateful and want to take you in. You represent hope and opportunity and happiness, and once you join them, that becomes increasingly challenging.”
They lived first in the neighborhood of Armona and then in Kiryat Hayovel. Even their housing was complicated.
When they arrived they learned that the former owner of the Armona house — who had saved all his life to build the place — had been killed by a bomb while sitting in a Jerusalem café. Soon after Elon moved her family in, the new owner came to remove all the furniture, piled it in their garden and an Arab man who worked for him brought it back to his home in Hebron.
“This too was a story of intertwined reality, ironic and sad. Our lives are so interconnected,” she says.
The older boys, Tristan and Andrei, attend Hand in Hand, the only school in Jerusalem where Arab and Jewish kids learn together. Elon says that the families are quite mixed, including not only those on the left, but some families living in the settlements who want their kids to learn Arabic, some collaborators who have nowhere else where they can send their kids and “people from all walks of life who find more acceptance in the school.
“The school isn’t a political statement but a spatial statement, with everyone making the most of our combined reality.”
At the school, lessons are taught in Hebrew and Arabic and include both the Jewish and Arab historical narratives, with mutual respect — “accepting, acknowledging and moving ahead.”
Some of the scenes were particularly difficult for her to shoot as a mother, like the one when Tristan and his best friend, an Arab boy named Luai, are having a sleepover and talking in bed when Luai admits that boys beat up Tristan because he’s Jewish. Elon suppresses her instinct to comfort her son, and asks them more questions.
“I felt I was capturing something so honest. The boys were 7, with a degree of maturity that was stunning. It’s so important to hear their revelations about how they feel. That’s what made me continue filming and not put the camera down.”
For her partner Philip, his lack of Hebrew language made the experience difficult, and he was not able to find work as a photographer. She says that he wasn’t comfortable in a divided society, where people are looked at as one thing or another. On camera, he speaks with candor, and in one segment admits to a moment of rage that embarrasses and upsets him, when he slapped an Arab child who hit his youngest son. He questions whether it’s the place that brings one to the extremes, whether his rage was within or brought out by the situation, by being so close to other people’s rage.
He doesn’t share Elon’s connection to the land and people or sense of longing. “For me,” he says, “being Jewish was an accessory, not a raison d’être.”
Snow brackets the film, in Brooklyn and, where it’s less expected, in Jerusalem. In both cases, the boys wake with delight. There’s something clarifying about the snow — you could say holy — and its beauty and how it slows life down.
Ultimately, they leave Jerusalem for Montreal — Elon is heartbroken — and their reasons become clear in the film.
“Even though the film ends on a somber note,” she says, “I think that in many ways, the two boys, Tristan and Luai, are trying to reject the circumstances. Tristan doesn’t want to be a Jew associated with demolishing houses. Luai goes with Tristan to the school ceremony in memory of fallen soldiers [a program for the Jewish children, while the Arab kids have another activity] — Luai does that for Tristan.” (At that moment, a popular Israeli song plays in the background, “Keep the world safe, child. We realize we have failed you.”)
“Even though they are separating at the end, they both have an understanding of their own identity and the other’s. When we recognize the interconnectedness, that’s where I find the most hope.”
Now in Montreal, Tristan, 12, has let his parents know that he wants to have a bar mitzvah. “It really matters to him; it’s something that defines him.”
Where is home now?
“I try not to ask myself that,” Elon says.
“P.S. Jerusalem” opens Friday, March 17 at Lincoln Plaza Theaters, 1886 Broadway.A Q&A with Danae Elon will follow the 6:10 and 8:15 screenings on Friday and Saturday, March 17th and 18th, and the 12:15 show on Sunday, March 19th. Lincolnplazacinema.com