Showing Jerusalem as it is

Documentary maker Liz Nord hopes to get the word out internationally that there are events and activities happening in Jerusalem that the major TV networks don’t normally publicize.

Nord 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Nord 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Liz Nord evidently likes a challenge. The 33-yearold San Francisco-born New York City-resident documentary filmmaker has come over here to make a film, tentatively entitled The Battle for Jerusalem. Despite the name, there are no overtly scheduled militaristic elements to the project. Rather, it is described as an exploration into “the cultural renaissance in Israel’s capital city through the eyes of its young artists, activists and dynamic mayor, Nir Barkat.”
Nord has, at least for now, already run into difficulties with getting an audience with the latter. “I was that told Mr. Barkat is not very happy about the idea of taking part in a documentary,” says Nord, whose current project enjoys the financial backing of the philanthropic ROI organization. “But I have got an interview set up with Deputy Mayor Naomi Tsur, who’s in charge of environmental matters. That’s a start.”
While she’s here – until the end of month – Nord will set about laying the groundwork for The Battle for Jerusalem and will endeavor to interview as many Jerusalemites as possible within the bounds of the project. It sounds like a tall order and perhaps something a bit of a bridge-too-far scenario for a New Yorker to come over and get an in-depth handle on what makes this complex and factious city tick.
Nord is under no illusions about the immensity of the task ahead of her but, she says, that is very much part and parcel of the profession. “When making documentary films, you have to roll with the punches.
My little catch phrase for this is ‘It’s a blessing and a curse.’ When you make documentaries, you never know what’s going to happen. Wonderful things can happen that you can never predict, and it’s a curse because it can make things very challenging, too.”
Nord says she is also aware that the final product is primarily aimed at non-Israelis and, as such, it is her job to get the word out that there are events and activities happening in Jerusalem that the major TV networks don’t normally show the world. She also says that people around the world are genuinely interested in goings-on in this part of the globe and that she has been surprised by viewers’ reactions to her work to date.
The first documentary she made here was about young Israelis with an in-your-face viewpoint called Jericho’s Echo: Punk Rock in the Holy Land, which was released in 2006. “I took that film outside the States, to Germany and Austria, and I was pleasantly surprised by people’s responses to the film and by the probing questions about Israelis they asked me,” she recalls. “I reckon that documentary has been seen, so far, by over 100,000 people. That’s very encouraging.”
Nord has been working in the business for several years now and has paid her dues, gaining considerable industry and street cred with a role in the MTV Street Team ’08 Emmy Award-winning project that incorporated 51 state-based citizen journalists who covered the presidential elections from a youth perspective.
Nord coordinated the project that contributed to the most influential youth vote in American history. “Yes, documentary filmmaking can make a big difference,” she states simply.
The New Yorker says she still looks up to the doyens of the genre, such as Albert Maysles, for inspiration.
“[Eighty-three-year-old] Maysles is really old now, but he and his [late] brother David started the technique whereby you just let the camera see the events going on in front of the lens. He’s still working, and I heard him speak recently. I don’t know whether it made me feel better or worse because he said that every time you make a documentary, it’s basically the same. You may be a little wiser with each film you make, but you always start from scratch again.”
Nord is understandably appreciative of the support she has received from ROI for The Battle for Jerusalem and says the project would not have come about without the organization’s help. “It was at the ROI summit in Israel last year that I heard Mayor Barkat talk about his vision for Jerusalem, and I thought, ‘Wow! There’s something to this.’ It was at ROI last year that I met Ofer Berkovitch, one of the young members of the Jerusalem city council who heads the Hitorerut party. Here’s this 25-yearold guy who takes such a significant step.
Then there’s this new initiative called the Jerusalem Season of Culture [which is supported by ROI founder Lynn Schusterman], through which they are trying to rally all the cultural institutions in Jerusalem so that by next summer there will be a whole well-publicized coordinated season of culture in Jerusalem. That’s fascinating to me.
“As an artist, I believe in the arts as a powerful tool for vitalizing a place and uniting it and for helping people to discuss their own circumstances. That initiative, which may become part of my film, is a Schusterman initiative.
So there are all these connections with the ROI community and Schusterman.”
Of course, getting people from such disparate cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds to talk about what makes them tick and about their vision of cultural life in Jerusalem is a lot easier said than done. Nord realizes that she cannot possibly make a film about cultural life in this fair and divided city without gaining some degree of leverage in the haredi community. She knows she will have to tread lightly here, although she appears to already have half a foot in the haredi door. “I’m going to be speaking with a young haredi guy who has some connection with a Zionist association. I appreciate there are all sorts of groups within the haredi sector, and I’m hoping this guy will provide leads to other members of the community. I think it’s going to be an exciting project.”
In a roundabout way, Nord feels that her origins will come into play in The Battle for Jerusalem. “I come from the Bay area, which has a sort of community feel to it. I think that’s a nice element to bring into a project which is essentially about divisiveness or divisions.”
She says learned a lot from her first documentary outing here, and that will stand her in good stead for the current project. “You know, Israelis have a reputation for being a bit cynical. So there I was [on Jericho’s Echo: Punk Rock in the Holy Land], an American girl, a relatively new filmmaker walking into this Israeli punk scene, and people were really looking at me like ‘Who the hell are you?’ I have gotten a little bit of that on this project, but people really want to get their story out, and they understand what I’m doing. This time I’m being received much more with open arms. I’m dealing mostly with adult professionals who have a better understanding of the world outside than some of the punks did. I think they also understand that certain stories about Jerusalem aren’t being told.”
The latter is a salient point of which most us who live here are acutely aware. “From my experience, the story I am trying to tell while I am here is not the story that is being told in the West or in the US.”
Nord says that we are just as culpable as the perceived anti-Israel media. “This story is not being told by Israeli filmmakers, either.
They tend to focus on the conflict or Israel’s relationship outside, not its internal complexities.
There tend to be pretty similar themes.”