December 13, 2018

‘P.S. Jerusalem’ a tale of love and hate for Israel

Amos Elon, the renowned Israeli journalist and author, was an outspoken critic of Israel’s policies regarding the Palestinians, and he left the country and moved into a farmhouse in Italy in 2005. Before he died four years later, he made his filmmaker daughter, Danae, who was born in Jerusalem but was living in Brooklyn, promise never to return to her homeland.

It was a promise she couldn’t keep.

Elon’s decision to move back to Israel, her experiences there and her conflicting emotions about it are the subject of her 2015 documentary, “P.S. Jerusalem.” Shot between November 2009 and August 2013, and narrated by Elon, it is a deeply personal love-hate letter to the land of her birth.

“I knew why my father thought I shouldn’t go back, and I knew he was right, yet something very visceral in me wanted to go back. Knowing something intellectually but having feelings that are stronger, that’s where the clash occurs,” Elon said from Montreal, where she moved in 2013 and now lives with her partner, Philip Touitou, a Jewish photographer from Algeria, and their three sons.

“The situation in Israel pains me to such a degree. I feel so invested and care about what’s happening there,” Elon said. “It’s really sad. On one hand, I love the people I’m connected to there and everything this place can be, but I’m disgusted with what’s going on there on the political level. It’s gotten much worse. But there are things that always draw me back.”

At first, she second-guessed her choice to make the film from such a personal perspective. But Elon decided that the best way to depict Jerusalem was to show it through her and her family’s eyes. Her camera captures her sons’ experiences at the Jewish-Palestinian school they attended and Touitou’s difficulty finding a job.

“A lot of North American Jews come to Jerusalem and say it’s such an amazing place, but it’s a different scenario when you don’t have money or privilege and you’re thrown into life there,” Elon said.

She also filmed protests and conflicts between Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem and elsewhere. “I wanted to make a statement about what it’s like to be an Israeli and live with a sense of conscience in a place that’s completely losing its morality, and has been for many years,” she said.

“American Jews have a very idealistic view of Israel that suits their perspectives and needs, but that is not the real Israel,” she added. “I feel that as long as Israel serves like a sort of savings account for North American Jews, it will be hard for the country to ever become a normal place to live in because you can’t sustain a country as a ‘savings account’ for Jews around the world. It has to come into its own as a multicultural, multiethnic country that would first and foremost serve the rights of all its citizens, the citizens living in Israel, regardless of whether they are Jewish or Arab.”

Elon had filmed conversations with her father over the years and weaves him into the narrative, as she did in her previous documentaries, one about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “Another Road Home,” and the other about circumcision, “Partly Private.” She admits that growing up in Amos Elon’s shadow was difficult, but making him part of her work “was a good way to pave my own separate way.”

Filmmaker Danae Elon

In the end, she left Israel, just as her father had. “I was heartbroken. I was surprised how difficult it would be to leave,” she said. It also was hard for her children. A tearful scene depicting her oldest of three sons, Tristan, then 7, separating from his Palestinian best friend is particularly heart-wrenching to watch.

“I still have mixed feelings about not being in Jerusalem and not being part of a struggle, but when I think about my boys and a future there, I’m more into being a responsible parent right now,” Elon said.

Touitou, her partner of 13 years, has a much better working situation in Montreal, she said, adding that her sons, now 11, 10 and 7, are doing well and “want to be hockey players.”

Although she has settled in Canada, Elon goes back to Israel often. She also has been traveling elsewhere to promote “P.S. Jerusalem” and her latest completed project, “The Patriarch’s Room,” a documentary about the Greek Orthodox Church’s role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and she plans to be in Los Angeles for the June 9 premieres of both films. Currently, she’s working on a new film about two Jewish sisters, one of whom becomes a nun.

Elon is aware the political stance of “P.S. Jerusalem” may anger some American Jews, but she hopes they see it with an open mind.

“I think regardless of how they feel politically about Israel,” she said, “they will be moved because it’s sincere.”

“P.S. Jerusalem” opens June 9 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills.