“Next Year Jerusalem” is something of an oddity. The non-fiction film, which opened May 16, is a gentle film, almost placid in its understated serenity, a quiet portrait of a group of eight residents of the Jewish Home for the Elderly in Fairfield, Conn., who undertake a weeklong tour of Israel. As a subject for a feature film, this excursion is almost as improbable as the trip it documents.
David Gaynes, who produced, directed and shot the film, is no stranger to the Jewish Home, having made a short documentary there a dozen years ago. It’s clear from the outset of the new film that the residents are comfortable with him, and the film benefits greatly from their ease, which begets a charming candor and a light, joshing tone that leavens the reality of spending time with a group whose average age is 91. After all, as Selma, 93, drily observes to Gaynes, “Yesterday at lunch . . . behind me a woman died. … That’s how life is.”
The constant awareness of mortality, counterbalanced by the anodyne nature of sheer longevity, is really the slowly beating heart of “Next Year Jerusalem.” In “Waiting for Godot” Samuel Beckett writes “Habit is a great deadener,” and in the series of brief introductions to the film’s traveling protagonists that opens the film, several of them voice the opinion that life in the home is less than exciting. Or as Juna, 89, says with a smile, “It’s kinda dull for me to be here.”
Indeed, for all of the participants the trip to Israel represents a much-needed break from the quotidian, an abrupt and radical dislocation that promises some out-of-the-ordinary fun. The film makes it clear that the institution itself is not to blame — there are activities available in abundance, from “musical bingo” to a class on 20th-century American literature, from card games to some modest gardening. But the end product is just the passage of time, the slow, inexorable winding down of the human clock.
For many of the participants, on the other hand, there are the spiritual rewards that inhere in a trip to the theologically and historically rich soil of the Holy Land. Helen, 91, is a Catholic who has never been out of the United States but who will take immense pleasure in wading gingerly into the baptismal waters of the Jordan. Henry, 92, speaks candidly about being reborn as a Jew at the JHE, and we see him Bill (the senior of the group at 97) praying quite contentedly at the Kotel. (It turns out, amusingly, to be Bill’s first time wearing tefillin.)
What makes “Next Year Jerusalem” an oddity, though, is that it is a documentary that takes place in Israel that really is only tangentially about the modern Middle East. We see stretches of the separation wall on the highway, there is a brief visit to Masada and one to Yad Vashem, but virtually no discussion of the Peace Process, the Arab Spring, Jews, Arabs, Israelis, Palestinians. In short, even more than some recent films like “Dolphin Boy,” in which the central concerns of the region are comparatively peripheral, they are barely an afterthought in this film.
That decision, in this case a wise one, allows Gaynes to focus on what really concerns him, the play of emotions across the faces of his subjects, the human interchanges among the residents and between them and their caregivers, the glorious light in the sky over Jerusalem and the no-less-glorious light in the eyes of these delightful travelers.
“Next Year Jerusalem,” produced and directed by David Gaynes, is playing at the Quad Cinemas (34 W. 13th St.). For information, call (212) 255-8800 or go to www.quadcinema.com.