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An Israel that feels like home

'James' Journey,' about an African immigrant's experience in the Holy Land, holds a mirror to U.S. society as well.

March 24, 2004|Lewis Beale | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — A few months ago, Ra'anan Alexandrowicz received a phone call from an Israeli director colleague who had seen "James' Journey to Jerusalem," Alexandrowicz's film about a twentysomething Zulu who arrives in Israel on a religious pilgrimage and finds himself caught up in the world of illegal immigrant labor pools.

The director told Alexandrowicz that after seeing the movie, which opens Friday in Los Angeles, he and his wife realized that the Nigerian man who had been cleaning their apartment for years had never been outside Tel Aviv. So the couple decided to take him and some of his friends on a weekend trip to Jerusalem.

"He told me that it was a great experience for all of them," recounts the 34-year-old Alexandrowicz. "I'm happy that this was all the result of seeing my film."

"James' Journey" is about an Israel that never makes the headlines, where middle-class families shop at upscale malls and employ illegal migrants from Ghana, Nigeria and other African nations to do their grunt work. It's about cultures that brush up against each other but only rarely interact. And it's also about what Alexandrowicz refers to as "the Jerusalem of the above, and the Jerusalem of the under, the gap between the fantasy and the reality" of the Holy Land.

The film should "raise a kind of mirror to show how our society is today," he says, "especially everything that has to do with the economy, and how money affects the society. These are universal things; they relate as much to the U.S. as they do to Israel." Not that Alexandrowicz was thinking of an international audience when he set out to make "James' Journey." The film stems from a friendship the director had with a foreign worker who told him how he dreamed about the Holy Land in his native Nigeria.

This inspired Alexandrowicz to write a story "about a guy who comes to Israel with his biblical fantasy dream of the Holy Land, then crashes into reality and makes this journey through society and becomes part of it." In the film, the Candide-like James, played by a charming 26-year-old South African actor named Siyabonga Shibe, is jailed by immigration authorities on arrival in Tel Aviv because they think he is in the country to work illegally.

Bailed out by a shady labor contractor who sets him up in a variety of menial jobs, James eventually ingratiates himself with the boss and his family, then starts subcontracting labor himself. Quicker than you can say "Giorgio Armani," James is wearing knockoff designer duds and carrying a cellphone. But he is arrested again, and the picture ends on a deliciously ironic note as James finally makes it to Jerusalem in a most unexpected way.

James is "partially corrupted" by the system, says Shibe, who has extensive South African TV experience and was chosen for the role by Alexandrowicz after a video audition. James is "also not completely honest with himself," adds Shibe. "But maybe 'corrupt' is too strong a word. He adapts to the situation. He has to learn to adapt to it in order to fight it."

"When you look at James' story, you can also relate to the classical story of fulfilling the American dream," adds Alexandrowicz. "It's an immigrant coming and getting lucky, but this is like the American dream with a twist. You get sad seeing him succeed."

Which is not how you feel about Alexandrowicz, whose modest $400,000 feature has already played at the Cannes and Toronto film festivals, where it has been received enthusiastically. A former physics major who attended film school in Jerusalem, Alexandrowicz has concentrated mainly on documentary work since his graduation in 1996. One of his films, "The Inner Tour," which followed a group of Palestinians during a bus trip through Israel, played at the Berlin and Sundance film festivals and was included in the 2002 New Directors/New Films series run by New York's Museum of Modern Art.

"James' Journey" is his first fiction feature. And for Alexandrowicz, the difference between the two types of filmmaking is considerable.

"Documentaries are much more difficult mentally," he says. "In fiction you create characters, and everyone is taking part in a professional process to make those characters live. Because of that, there's something easier mentally; everyone knows their job, knows it's a film. In documentaries you work within people's lives, and it's a big responsibility."

In a sense, Alexandrowicz has transferred that sense of responsibility to the fiction arena by tackling new, and controversial, subject matter. Economic immigration to his country, he says, has only taken place since the beginning of the 1990s. Immigration from Africa is so new, Alexandrowicz claims, that "everyone is just learning the rules of the game." Still, there's something distinctly Israeli about the relationship between people like James and their employers.

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