Berlin Hidden Gems: 'P.S. Jerusalem' Doc Offers an Unflinching Family Portrait
Brooklyn-based doc filmmaker Danae Elon chronicles her family’s difficult adjustment after moving to Israel in the poignant film.
On his deathbed in 2009, celebrated Israeli writer Amos Elon begged his daughter, documentary director Danae Elon, never to return to Israel. But Elon ignored her father’s dying wish and, with a camera and family in tow, left Brooklyn in 2010 for Jerusalem, where she grew up, to touchingly honor the memory of her dad.
The result is P.S. Jerusalem, a documentary with a home-movie aesthetic set for a European premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival as part of the Forum sidebar. The pic captures Elon and her family as they are quickly exposed to, and eventually exhausted by, the seeming endless war, occupation and human-rights abuses during their three years in the city.
"I wanted to be brutally honest. I didn’t want to hide behind poetic, liberal ways of thinking," Elon tells The Hollywood Reporter about her filmmaking style.
Like so many other docs about Israel, P.S. Jerusalem is about perceptions, such as how Israelis and Palestinians choose to see and define themselves. But the filmmaker says she had no interest in choosing sides.
"I didn’t want to talk about peoples — neither Palestinians or Israelis. I wanted to focus on individuals," she explains. The result is hardly reality TV, even though Elon seemingly keeps her camera rolling at all times.
P.S. Jerusalem is at its most moving when, through the prism of parenthood, Elon captures the reactions of her family to the complexity of the conflict surrounding them. We learn quickly that the Hebrew and Arabic that the oldest of her three sons learns in school are survival tools. In one tense scene, Tristan, 4, whispers to his Palestinian friend as they enter a Jewish neighborhood: "Don’t speak Arabic here." Minutes later, his friend whispers to Elon’s son in Arabic as they pass back into a Palestinian zone: "Not a word in Hebrew!"
In time, Elon captures the boy asking endless questions about soldiers and air-raid sirens and why he lives a different life than those of his Palestinian pals.
Elon ultimately has to confront her deeply conflicted role as mother, wife and filmmaker when her partner, Philippe, a French-Algerian Jew living for the first time in Israel, declares he’s had enough with war, occupation and "craziness."
"You do want to explode," Elon says of Philippe waiting to get out of Israel. "You just can’t take it anymore."
After three years, Elon and her family leave, but not before a final scene where her son is tearful as he’s forced to part with his Palestinian friends.
Elon arrives in Berlin with no regrets over putting her family through an ordeal to capture their experiences in P.S. Jerusalem. "I exposed some of our most painful moments in conversation," she says, "and I tried to be true to them and not to polish them and not hide behind imagery."