James' Journey to Jerusalem

Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews Robin Clifford 
James' Journey to Jerusalem
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews Laura Clifford 
A young man from a small village in the land of the Zulus is on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land of Jerusalem. His success in this quest will earn him the leadership of his church but James (Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe) isn’t prepared for the new Israel, a land that is more concerned with security than homage to the Lord. This makes extremely difficult “James’s Journey to Jerusalem.”

“James’s Journey to Jerusalem” has to be a first: a Hebrew/English/Zulu language film. But, besides appealing to the linguists, this film depicts the incredible journey of both heart and soul and of contemporary Israeli society. James arrives in Israel happy and ready to make the last leg of his long journey from the south of Africa. He represents his village, Entshongweni, as the first pilgrim from there to make the long trek to the holy city. What he doesn’t expect and is not prepared for is the hostile attitude of the first Israeli official he meets, a lady customs official (Yael Levental), and is jailed for being an illegal laborer, ready for deportation.

A true stranger in a strange land, James is despondent and bewildered by his unexpected plight until a man shows up on the other side of the bars. The man, Mr. Shimi (Salim Dau), eyes the throng of deportees and selects James from them all. Happy to be free, he follows the Israeli and is ready to resume his journey, but there’s a catch. Either he work for Shimi as a laborer or he goes back to jail and face deportation, in disgrace, home. James agrees to work for the man and keeps his pilgrimage as his holy mission.

James soon proves to be a very hard worker and capable, too, and earns the trust of his boss. Mr. Shimi eventually selects his best worker to do some labor in his father’s home. Old Mr. Sallah (Arieh Elias) is a sullen senior who makes constant demands, in Hebrew, of his English speaking servant. But James is a unique and remarkable young man and soon he breaks down the emotional barriers the old man has built around himself. The young preacher-to-be becomes indispensable and Sallah demands of his son that James come every day to do his odd jobs and gardening.

Things get complicate when James learns that Shimi is trying to get his father to sell his home for a huge profit. Sallah has stubbornly resisted his plans, knowing that if he signs the papers it will be the last he sees of his son. Meanwhile, a friend of Shimi’s wife takes James aside and offers him work moonlighting. The money is much more than he makes from his employer and James takes the job. The resourceful young Zulu starts to take on more freelance work and, eventually, convinces his fellow Africans to moonlight for him. But, power corrupts and James must get back on track to finish his journey – or, is it too late?

“James’s Journey to Jerusalem” is directed by Ra’anan Alexandrowicz and is the first feature for the documentary filmmaker. The story, co written with Sami Duenias, is a tight, well paced tale that benefits from the onscreen presence of Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe as James. The newcomer has a dazzling smile and an honest demeanor that makes him instantly likable. James’s Christian inner strength keeps him focused on his mission as he faces and overcomes every obstacle put in his path. The threat of returning to prison initially influences James to stay put but other demands soon take priority.

A friendship develops between James and Mr. Sallah as the old man falls for the charm and friendship of the young African. James becomes the old Israeli’s confidant and Sallah bares his heart to the “Reverend,” as he calls James. Then there is the budding, and very lucrative, after-hours business he has developed in secret competition with Mr. Shimi. James, in keeping with his Christian faith, attends the local church whose pastor (David Nabegamabo) sees the budding entrepreneur as a means to fill the parish coffers and pay the bills.

All of this causes James to harden and be more cynical, until the rebirth of faith you know he will have. Shibe gives depth to his character and makes a remarkable debut. The actor’s good looks, winning smile and convincing portrayal of the title character makes the film worth the price of admission. But, there are other things going for it, especially Arieh Elias as old Mr. Sallah. At first, the old man seems brooding and hard to get along with but a true friendship develops between Sallah and James. Salim Dau is effective as the ruthless businessman, Shimi, who bribes a jail official to gain access to the illegal labor pool, then keeps the men he takes in virtual servitude. But Shimi is not a totally heartless boss and recognizes the talent and ability in James.

James’s story carries with it some scathing criticism of Israeli society – the corruption of the petty official who turns a blind eye to Mr. Shimi’s shady dealings; the hostile, distrustful response of the immigration bureaucrat to James’s request to make his pilgrimage; and, the conniving ways of the Israeli citizenry in exploiting the migrant workers. James soon learns that Israel is not the land of milk and honey as foretold in the bible.

The low budget techs are straightforward. Helmer Alexandrowicz does a solid job with cast and crew and brings some unusual insight into the state of mind of modern Israel. I give it a B+.

The imaginary village of Entshongweni chooses its very best to make a pilgrimage, but the young man (Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe) takes a detour in his quest for the Holy Land during "James' Journey to Jerusalem."

Documentarian Ra'anan Alexandrowicz ("The Inner Tour") makes his feature debut with a witty fable that explores modern Israeli society through the eyes of a wide-eyed outsider.  In James, Alexandrowicz and his cowriter Sami Duenias demonstrate how one can justify deviations from one's calling with the very best intentions.

The fable begins with a beautifully executed montage of watercolors which portray James' idealized trip set to a glorious African spiritual.  The filmmaker foreshadows his intention to pull the rug out from beneath James with a nifty opening trick shot.  As James gazes upon the glowing landscape of Jerusalem with us looking over his shoulder, cinematographer Shark (Sharon) De-Mayo circles around and back to reveal that the horizon is actually a travel poster, the tourist's fantasy. That illusion is immediately shattered by a Tel Aviv immigration official who 'knows' James has only come to her country to make money.  James believes he's found his savior in Shimi Shabati (Salim Daw), who tells the police he can tell by the boy's eyes that he's a 'good guy,' but Shimi takes James' passport and informs the lad he cannot continue on to Jerusalem until he's worked off the cost of his bail.

James is dumped in a ramshackle boarding house run by Feda (Gregory Tal) and put to work cleaning houses.  The boy's genuine enthusiasm and goodness are noted and he becomes a favorite of Shimi's, working for both Shimi's wife Rachel (Sandra Schonwald) and his elderly father Sallah (Arieh Elias, "The Body").  Rachel's friend Re'uma (Florence Bloch) teaches him not to be a 'frayer,' paying him under the table to clean for her without Shimi's overhead costs.  When James initially protests that he needs his day off to go to Jerusalem, Re'uma delivers the juiciest of justifications - 'Jerusalem has been there 3,000 years!'  Sallah informs James that the workers are not the ones who succeed financially, setting up a 'kombina' (shady deal) that allows James to use him as a cover for side jobs in return for his lucky dice rolling.  Soon James has become another version of Shimi, having replaced Feda in the apartment block and subcontracting Shimi's work force beneath his nose.  Even the local African pastor (David Nabegamabo), who reminds James that he has strayed from his pilgrimage, uses the young man's success for the Church and its flock's financial needs.  James has become quick to declare 'I am not a frayer,' but in trying not to be a financial 'loser,' he has lost his path towards spirituality.

Although the film runs at an economical 87 minutes, its screenplay is stuffed with observations, from how the idea of a place is frequently completely different from its reality to how foreign labor and innocence are exploited.  Even the problems of caring for elder parents and nostalgia versus modernization are explored here.  Alexandrowicz maintains his fable-like flavor throughout with Amir Dov Pick's bright production design and a musical score (Ehud Banay with Gil Smetana & Noam Halevi) that mixes Israeli music with African rhythms.  Costume Design by Maya Barsky delivers James in colorful ethnic robes that gradually evolve into equally colorful mall-bought soccer shirts.

Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe is extremely charismatic as James.  He makes the character so delightful that when James begins to stray we actually feel a personal betrayal.  Also terrific is Arieh Elias as the manipulative old man who uses James, but with enough affection to keep Sallah in our good graces - he's a true 'character.'  Hugh Masebenza offers solid counterpoint to James as his buddy from the trenches Skomboze, a ne'er do well who gets by doing as little as possible.

In "James'" brilliant conclusion, he has hit his peak, ironically his depths, all suited up to attend an outdoor party Shimi is throwing for dubious reasons James is unaware of.  In a stunning shot that mirrors that opening trick, we view an ocean horizon from behind James, a reminder of both his home and his destination.  James does eventually get to Jerusalem, but not the way he, or we, had envisioned.


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