Jerusalem Day: A multilayered look at Israel's capital - in film

Jerusalem in Motion is a loving, insightful, immersive and celebratory nod to the capital, with a program that addresses this most compelling of cities, from insider and out-of-towner viewpoints

 ZION CINEMA was a popular downtown entertainment venue for 60 years. (photo credit: FRITZ COHEN/GPO)
ZION CINEMA was a popular downtown entertainment venue for 60 years.
(photo credit: FRITZ COHEN/GPO)

Jerusalem, as most of us are aware, is a fascinating place. Ne’er a dull moment goes by in this fair city, although, it must be said, a bit of a lull in the action from time to time wouldn’t be a bad thing.

On a quotidian level that can be both exciting and challenging. But for artists looking for inspirational base material, that is a right royal boon.

All those sentiments are front and center in the lineup of the Jerusalem in Motion Festival currently anchored by the Jerusalem Cinematheque, and running through to May 31. The festival is described as “a week of movies, talks and tours to mark the 55th Jerusalem Day.” That just about sums it up.

Jerusalem in Motion is a loving, insightful, immersive and celebratory nod to the capital, with a program that addresses this most compelling of cities, from insider and out-of-towner viewpoints. The latter include people and professionals from far away, including the Hollywood folk, such as Skydance Productions and German-Swiss director and producer Marc Forster, who used the city as one of the locations for the World War Z action horror film. It was a complex project to complete, but it ended up as the highest grossing zombie movie of all time. Naturally, it couldn’t have hurt to have had Brad Pitt in the starring role.

THERE ARE entertaining, informative and downright delectable movies strewn across the festival lineup, which should appeal to all tastes.

 THE MUSEUM documentary offers a fascinating look at what makes the Israel Museum tick. (credit: Zvi Lanzman) THE MUSEUM documentary offers a fascinating look at what makes the Israel Museum tick. (credit: Zvi Lanzman)

Jerusalem in Motion

You could attach all the aforementioned epithets to Le’esof Resisim (Gathering Fragments), a documentary made by sisters Ruth Geva and Leorah Kroyanker (née Farkas). The screening is set for May 31 (8:30 p.m.), and anyone looking to get a better handle on the subject matter can join a guided tour of parts of the city, at 6 p.m., which takes you across the siblings’ childhood landscape. 

Geva and Kroyanker – the latter is married to famed Jerusalem-born architectural historian David Kroyanker, who has authored umpteen books about the city – start out on their odyssey back to Mandate Jerusalem, the War of Independence, and meet up with a bunch of yesteryear pals and neighbors who were only too happy to join in the nostalgia trip.

It seems the sisters’ mom had a movie camera and a penchant for using it as frequently as possible. She also had at least one eye on history and captured footage of, for example, the inauguration ceremony of the Hebrew University Faculty of Medicine, in 1949, attended by prime minister David Ben-Gurion and regional military commander Moshe Dayan with his unmissable eye patch.

It is an alluring document which brings that defining era back to life, in full-blown color. As a former neighbor of the Farkas family in Kiryat Shmuel notes: “Seeing yourself in a color film, actually moving, was amazing!”

Of course, it wasn’t all fun and games back then, and the name of the film also alludes not only to some of the more trying events of the late 1940s, but also to the matter of trying to piece together the slivers of childhood memory, in Jerusalem, into a cohesive, coherent and seamless picture.

THERE IS also some quirkier celluloid – well, video – footage to be caught over at the cinematheque, such as The Hats of Jerusalem (May 27, 3 p.m.), directed by Nati Adler. Apparently, there is more to hats than meets the eye.

How many of us from outside the confines of Mea She’arim know the difference in head covering style between followers of the Belz Hassidic clan, and their Vizhnitz counterparts?

That precious tidbit of indispensable information is gleaned from a visit to the veteran Ferster millinery in the cloistered heart of Mea She’arim. Zelig, a personable guide to some of the city’s haredi backstreets, puts it pretty succinctly. “You want to know who I am? Check out my hat.”

The film also gets into the historical backdrop to the Jewish custom of hat wearing, which, we are told, originates from a 13th-century antisemitic papal dictate. Pope Innocent III also used another means of making Jews stand out from the gentile crowd by making it mandatory for all Jews across Europe to wear a badge signifying their religious allegiance. Seems the Nazis had an illustrious role model to follow. We also learn about the origin of the shtreimel, albeit in a number of conflicting versions.

You may have noticed that Jerusalem is not just home to Jews, and the documentary also explores the traditional head coverings of Muslims and several Christian sects.

Presumably, not too many of us have pondered, or even noticed, the knitting structure of the woolen skullcap worn by Syriac Orthodox monks. Adler did, and we are enlightened about the historic-religious underpinning to that, as well as the stories behind the headgear of Greek Orthodox, Ethiopian and Armenian monks.

Jerusalem really is a magnificent, dense mosaic of ethnic groups, and that comes across in the hats, too.

Hats, caps, scarves and various other means of keeping one’s noggin under wraps are not an exclusively male domain. Adler also digs into the distaff side of the scene, both the head coverings worn by Christian women and even some of the sumptuously crafted miters used by bishops, made by nuns at a monastery in Ein Kerem. Some of the miters are – pardon the pun - simply divine.

Anyone who catches The Hats of Jerusalem will, no doubt, get some new insight into the city’s religious inhabitants, right across the denominational landscape, and perhaps keep their eyes off their cellphone screen and on the eclectic headgear spread on show as they traverse the city’s streets.

AND WHAT could be more appropriate, at an event that marks the reunification of the city, than A Journey to Jerusalem? This is an almighty blast from the past, as we, ostensibly, follow late Jewish American composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein and, less so, compatriot coreligionist violinist Isaac Stern, as they prepare for a gala concert on Mount Scopus.

The poignant temporal setting here is that the cinema vérité documentary, directed by famed siblings Albert and David Maysles, was shot largely in Jerusalem just three weeks after the end of the Six Day War. The camerawork often appears to be on the amateurish side, and is not by any means polished. But therein lies its charm. At times it is almost like a candid-camera exercise, as we catch faces, unexpected camera angles, and scene transitions that might have had some ironing applied.

A Journey to Jerusalem comes across as being an unplanned venture, and plainly a matter of just being there and keeping the camera ticking over. The result is an utterly charming and even historically important documentation of Bernstein’s earnest rose-tinted take on the dramatic events in these parts, the no-frills street-level situation as Jews and Arabs mingled in the so recently captured eastern part of the city, and the lead-up to the concert and its actual occurrence.

Coming right up to the here and now, The Museum displays the Israel Museum as few know it. We get to see the elbow grease and professional deliberations that go into putting exhibitions together, and get some fly-on-the-wall perspectives on the museum staff, what they get up to at work, in both professional and basic human capacities. Deep political issues, naturally, also surface – and we get personal with then long-serving museum director James Snyder.

Besides spending an hour or two comfortably ensconced in padded auditoria seats, festivalgoers can also get into the fabric of the backroom staff activities, with free daily tours of the Israeli Film Archives. The older folk – and possibly the younger crowd – may be interested to learn about the process of preserving and digitizing film reels, and other aspects of keeping movie material safe and sound for the viewing pleasure of future generations.

 DURING THE Mandate Era, Orion Cinema was frequented by the British top brass. (credit: Yehudah Eisenstark/State Archives) DURING THE Mandate Era, Orion Cinema was frequented by the British top brass. (credit: Yehudah Eisenstark/State Archives)

Rex Cinema, Does Exist

THERE ARE plenty of alfresco activities laid on over the next few days, including the evocatively titled “Rex Cinema, Does Exist” tour. The walking circuit of downtown Jerusalem will take place under the experienced and well-informed hands of Yoram Honig, director of the Jerusalem Film & Television Fund.

“There were no less than 11 cinemas in this area,” he enthuses when we meet outside McDonald’s on Shammai Street. “Can you imagine? That is a lot in such a small area.”

“Can you imagine? That is a lot in such a small area.”

Yoram Honig

It is indeed. Sadly, not one remains. The said fast-food outlet occupies much of what used to be the Orion Cinema, where I recall catching some fine celluloid back in the 1970s and 1980s. The Eden and Edison were also movie theaters that benefited from my hard-earned liras and, later, shekels. But they have all gone now.

The multiscreen studio-style movie house format began to take off in the States and Europe in the early seventies, and the magnificently appointed cavernous Victorian- and Edwardian-style converted theaters with their chandeliers, gilded stucco and velvet curtains of my youth in the UK became a thing of the past. That transition took a while longer here, with the opening of the Malha shopping mall, with its multiplex facility, sparking the downtown cinema clear-out.

The tour participants will hear about that, and much more, from Honig who, of course, will throw in some amusing anecdotal asides. Find out, for example, why the penultimate reel of film was often left out of late-night screenings.

Honig imbibed the heady vibes of the city center cinema route from an early age, attending a weekly cinema activity at the Israel Museum in the 1970s. He was also a regular at the original cinematheque premises, in Agron House, as well as the Orgil movie theater on Hillel Street, where, Honig laughingly recalls, as a teenager he watched his first adult-rated movie.

We allowed ourselves to reminisce about the conditions in which Jerusalemites watched movies back in the day. It is hard for today’s generation of cinemagoers to envisage the Spartan decor and fittings, not to mention the decorum.

“The seats were wooden,” Honig recalls, “and the Orion had the best slope for rolling bottles,” he laughs. In the middle of a movie it was not an infrequent occurrence for an empty bottle to make its way from the back rows, gathering speed before it crashed into the front of the stage. The “charm” of the yesteryear movie theater experience was augmented by the piles of discarded sunflower seed shells through which one had to wade en route to the exit. Those were the days.

The tour moniker references the legendary Rex Cinema on Princess Mary Street in Mandatory Jerusalem – now Shlomzion Hamalka Street – which enjoyed a brief but checkered lifeline.

It was intermittently British-owned before being taken over by a wealthy local Arab, and subsequently jointly owned by a Jew and an Arab. Members of the top British Army brass would go along there to watch films and, as such, became a target for the Irgun to cause some mayhem. But it was also a symbol of coexistence, as it was frequented, happily, by Jews and Arabs. UN approval of the establishment of the State of Israel, and the ensuing violence in the city, proved to be the Rex’s death knell when an impromptu Irgun attack on the movie theater followed Arab attacks on nearby Jewish stores.

Other events

Other Jerusalem in Motion slots to look out for include a screening of the Jerusalem on a Plate documentary, which follows world-renowned chef Yotam Ottolenghi on a culinary traipse through the alleyways of the Old City, Mahaneh Yehuda market and the Jerusalem new-wave eateries. And, just in case we forget where we are living, there will be a preview screening of Yossi Atia’s Born in Jerusalem and Still Alive, a dark romantic comedy about a Jerusalemite who offers guided tours of famous terrorist attack sites along Jaffa Road. ❖

For tickets and more information: https://jer-cin.org.il/he/lobby/jerusalem_cinema