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(photo credit: Courtesy photo)
The subject of Jerusalem is a difficult one for any artist to tackle. But it was the challenge of a lifetime for French Jewish director Elie Chouraqui to turn the acclaimed 1972 book O Jerusalem into a feature film.
Written by journalists Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, O Jerusalem is an account of the battles in and around Jerusalem in Israel's 1948 War of Independence. It reads as a mosaic of leaders and ordinary people among Arabs, Jews, Britons, Americans and United Nations officials - and the film embellishes it with several imaginary characters.
Chouraqui, whose past work includes 2001's Harrison's Flowers, opens with documentary footage of the final bombing of Berlin, followed by the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp by U.S. soldiers.
From there, the director invents a friendship in postwar New York between Bobby Goldman, an American Jewish soldier who helped liberate Dachau, and Said Chahine, a Palestinian student in New York from the wealthy Sheik Jarrah district of Jerusalem, whose uncle was a Palestinian leader - in real life, a member of the prominent Husseini clan.
"The challenge was to develop characters whom the public becomes attached to on both sides, and still give as accurate an account as possible of the fighting in Jerusalem in 1947 and '48," Chouraqui said.
Goldman and Chahine go tO Jerusalem, where they find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict.
Chouraqui himself plays a role based on Dov Joseph, the Hagana military governor of Jerusalem.
Joseph's daughter gets only three lines in the book - when her death is announced during fighting in the South - but she has a main supporting role in the film and is played by Shirel, a young Franco-American singer well known in France.
Hadassah Limpel, also mentioned briefly in the book, is given a major role in the film. Played by the British-South African actress Maria Papas, Limpel was a Polish Jew who walked across the Soviet Union to reach Mandatory Palestine, then died at the battle for the Latrun Monastery.
In the film version, Limpel is portrayed as a tough, angry Hagana fighter with great compassion, who tells Goldman how she served as a prostitute for Nazi officers during the war so she could get more to eat.
"This is not meant to be a pro-Israeli film," Chouraqui said. "It is about a legitimate struggle for both sides. I want this film to be a call for peace. I want the public to like Bobby and Said, to feel the emotion of their friendship in the midst of the fighting."
The film was hailed as a triumph by many of the several thousand people, mostly members of the French Jewish community, who attended a screening organized by CRIF, the umbrella group of French Jewish institutions.
"On the emotional level, the film is tremendous," said Nicole Guedj, French undersecretary of state for victims' rights and a long-time activist in French-Jewish and French-Israeli matters. "As a Jew very attached to Israel, I felt the connection with the struggle for Jerusalem, but I also felt the emotion of the friendship that succeeded in transcending the politics, to the point that I overlooked some of the details of the film that are debatable, let's say."
For example, David Ben-Gurion, played by Ian Holm, holds a meeting with Hagana leaders, headed by French pop singer and actor Patrick Bruel, in a desert setting marked on-screen as "a kibbutz on the Dead Sea."
How did a whole crew of Hagana fighters get from Tel Aviv to the Dead Sea, most of which was under Jordanian Arab Legion control? And what kibbutz?
A written explanation on screen at the end of the film indicates that 700,000 Palestinians left their homes because of propaganda from Arab regimes encouraging them to leave. But it does not mention that many Palestinians also fled because they were scared of the war and many of their leaders had fled, or that some were expelled by Jewish fighters.
On the other hand, the film does not shy away from Deir Yassin, an April 1948 battle in which right-wing Jewish militias are accused of carrying out a massacre. Though casualty figures from the battle are a subject of intense debate, the incident - highlighted by Arab leaders who thought it would enrage the Arab populace and rouse it to fight - instead contributed to the frightened exodus.
"I can forgive all the details like that because Chouraqui had the courage and compassion to put the Deir Yassin massacre in the film in the first place, and also the episode in the battle for Latrun," where Holocaust survivors fresh off the boat were thrown into battle and massacred by the Arabs, said Eti Kornbluth, wife of David Kornbluth, Israel's UNESCO representative and a former interim ambassador to France. "From a moral standpoint, those were two low points for the Israelis."
Audience members identified with the Hagana fighters, but also felt for Said and his family.
"I felt like I was fighting with the Haganah throughout the film," commented Mikael Kraemer, an art dealer. "But at the same time, I didn't want anyone to die on either side."