Fighting the good fight

Pepe Alalu’s quixotic run for mayor of Jerusalem is documented by his son in the film ‘Pepe’s "Last Battle"

January 16, 2017 21:17
3 minute read.
Papa Pepe

Papa Pepe. (photo credit: Courtesy)

'‘I was born into that world of my father’s activism, and it was amazing,” says Michael Alalu, the director of Pepe’s Last Battle, a movie about his father, Pepe Alalu, the controversial left-wing former Jerusalem city councilman and deputy mayor. “It was like he was Don Quixote and I was his Sancho Panza when I was growing up... I admired him and was embarrassed by him.”

When the Peru-born Alalu, an instantly recognizable figure with his long hair and beard, decided to run for mayor of Jerusalem in 2013 at age 69 against the popular Nir Barkat, his son decided to make a film about this very quixotic campaign.

Pepe’s Last Battle, a fascinating documentary, is now playing at cinematheques around the country – in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Rosh Pina, Sderot, Netivot, Holon and Herzliya.

The movie was produced by Stav Meron with support from Channel 8.

Michael, who studied filmmaking at the Sam Spiegel School for Film in Jerusalem and directed one of the segments of the anthology film Love Letters to Cinema, realized that his father’s campaign was the perfect opportunity to capture the iconic Jerusalem figure on film and to explore their relationship. He had grown up conflicted about his feelings for his father.

“I made the film to see who my father is, why I call him Pepe and not ‘Father,’ why he always put himself before the family, what it means to be a father, what the differences between us are,” he says.

The film is not only a glimpse into the world of local Jerusalem politics but also a complex portrait of an uncompromising father and the son who loves him but sometimes finds him frustrating. The elder Alalu is shown to be charming, funny and determined but often self-absorbed. In one scene, he criticizes his son for not working hard enough for the campaign, even though Michael, in addition to filming this movie, put in a huge amount of effort to try to get his father elected.

“The movie is made with lots of love and a smile, even though it is sometimes critical,” says Michael. “My father is not holy or pure, he is idealistic.”

Pepe Alalu’s single-minded focus on the campaign made him “a great documentary subject,” says the director. “He had no awareness of the camera while we were filming. It didn’t interest him. All that interested him was his vision of how to present an alternative to Barkat and how the camera would help him in his campaign. That was his motivation.”

The movie documents the intricacies of the campaign, where Meretz, the party Alalu initially represented, chose in the end to support Barkat, the likely winner, instead of him. Alalu could have taken enough support from Barkat to ensure that Moshe Leon, the candidate endorsed by the Likud who did not actually live in Jerusalem, would win. Alalu doggedly fought on, but in the end, without the backing of the party with which he was most closely identified, he was defeated.

Making the movie had some unexpected results for the Alalu family.

“The movie opened my father’s eyes a little to my mother. She is so supportive and patient. He said, ‘Your mother is such a star; she is the true star.’” Michael views his father’s personal and passionate approach to politics in the context of the recent US elections. In the movie, Alalu seems to be convinced that if only he could speak to every last Jerusalemite, he would win.

“People follow those who are idealistic, who have spirit and a strong personality, like Trump or Sanders,” Michael says.

He feels that the left “is too focused on pragmatism.”

His father’s brand of idealism, he believes, is what ultimately will draw young people to the left.

Asked what, if anything, his father didn’t like about the film, Michael doesn’t hesitate: “He didn’t like the title. That it was Pepe’s ‘last’ battle. He intends to go on fighting.”

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