Filming Jerusalem of old

The Romain Gary French Institute presents a special evening dedicated to the Lumière brothers, whose camera captured life in a city both ancient and in rapid transition.

French historian Vincent Lemire (photo credit: Courtesy)
French historian Vincent Lemire
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Ever wondered what life was like before we all became so accustomed to having our every experience documented for posterity, on camera, video, tablet, cell phone, you name it? A few months ago the Romain Gary French Institute in Jerusalem held a fascinating exhibition of monochrome photographs taken in Jerusalem in the late 19th century.
The shots of the characters, and their attire, made for interesting viewing, particularly because there were no standardized mug shots in there. Residents of the Middle East, back then, had not yet become accustomed to the invasive presence of a camera, which enabled foreign photographers to encapsulate something akin to natural behavior.
That makes for important documentation, of historical value. But imagine what it would be like to capture actual film footage of daily life in these parts while the Ottomans still (more or less) ruled the roost here? We won’t have to ponder that possibility for much longer. This evening (7:30 p.m.) the Romain Gary Institute will host the “Jerusalem in 1897” event at which Vincent Lemire will show the audience a total of nine minutes of film shot over a century ago by the Lumière brothers, the French siblings who invented the cinematograph, the world’s first movie camera and projector, just two years before they came over to the Middle East. The silent screening will, fittingly, be accompanied by the sounds of live music, played on oud and qanun. The musicians will also be on duty before and after the screening.
Lemire knows what he is talking about.
The Parisian historian has been here before, spending a couple of years based in Jerusalem researching the history of this multifaceted and often divided place, as part of the Open Jerusalem project under the auspices of the European Research Council.
All told he has, thus far, devoted 15 years of his working life to digging into Jerusalem’s past through municipal documents from as far back as the Ottoman era.
Lemire feels such records offer him a better chance of gaining as balanced, and as apolitical, a picture as possible of the city’s history.
“I think if historians just work on diplomatic documents or religious documents, they are working on how Jerusalem is a city looking in from the outside, and through strategies,” he notes. “The difficulty is how to find documents that explain or describe, or provide testimony of Jerusalem from the inside. Some people think there is only Jerusalem, and I know there are several Jerusalems. The question is how to work on these Jerusalems from inside the city, now and from the time of the Ottoman empire.”
As we all know, politics pervades practically every facet of life here, whether we like it or not. Hence, using historical evidence which may be tainted by some political bias or other is liable to give the researcher a warped version of how things really were at the time. Lemire says that is less likely to happen if one bases one’s spadework on documentation that is largely dry and purely factual.
“Municipal documents are dry, and are about everyday life,” says the Frenchman, adding, however, that not even these are untouched by some kind of doctoring.
“You can, of course, see all the main religious and political issues in municipal documents, but you see them through everyday life of the city dwellers. I want to study Jerusalem through the eyes of the insiders, and especially through the action of this mixed Ottoman-period municipality.
It is important to remember that Jerusalem had a shared municipality – with representatives of all the different ethnic and social groups living in the city – from the 1860s to the 1940s.”
Some of the latter will be on view in the precious Lumière brothers’ footage this evening. It seems quite incredible that, so soon after unleashing their epoch-changing invention, the Frenchmen made it over to this part of the world, to document capture moving images of life here.
“They traveled to various countries around the Mediterranean Sea,” notes Lemire, “but, of course, they very much wanted to come to Jerusalem because, toward the end of the 19th century, there were lots of tourists and other people coming to Jerusalem. When I discovered that the Lumière brothers came to Jerusalem only around 18 months after inventing the cinematograph I found it amazing.”
What makes the footage even more fascinating is the technological innocence of the people whose images were being captured for audiences of the future, such as the one that will cram into the Romain Gary Institute later today.
“When you watch the film you can see clearly that the people of Jerusalem think that the camera is just taking [still] pictures.
They did not know it was a new revolutionary system, and it is very funny to see them thinking it is a photograph machine and nothing more. This is in April 1897 and I am sure that the people did not understand that they were being filmed, with their movement. The people smoke and move around. They are really alive.”
Lemire says he never tires of the monochrome Lumière segments.
“I have watched them again and again, and I always find it fascinating. You see people walking, and stopping to talk to someone. It’s like looking through a window at something happening 120 years ago, and without the people outside noticing you. You can recognize some streets, and Jaffa Gate of course. It’s fascinating.”
Lemire will give a talk before the screening, which will be followed by a discussion about the footage. Admission is free.
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