Peace is a lot like love: we all want it, we rarely find it, and the idea is much easier to embrace than the reality. The idea of peace has provided some of the best material for songs and slogans, but when the time comes to translate words into action, the work of peace involves finding a way to get along with people, the very people with whom you disagree on very crucial issues. Politics and politicians have not given much cause for hope here in the midst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but if one takes a long look at history, change can also come from the ground up, in small, sometimes imperceptible increments, when people reach out to one another, beyond politics, as people.
East Jerusalem West Jerusalem is a film that documents one such journey, the making of David Broza’s latest album in unique conditions: 8 days and nights of ‘one take’ recording at the Sabreen studio in East Jerusalem, with Israeli, Palestinian and American musicians, produced by Steve Earle. From the very beginning, with his song Yihye Tov (it will be good – written in collaboration with poet Yonatan Geffen in 1977), that became an anthem of the peace process, through all the turbulent years that have followed, singer-songwriter and peace activist David Broza has made his music into the work of peace.
The film makes an excellent introduction to the difficulties as well as the possibilities inherent in Israeli-Palestinian relationships, juxtaposing behind the scenes action in the recording room, interviews with the musicians and even a field trip to the Shuafat refugee camp. For peaceniks and music lovers alike – it’s an intimation of paradise.
East Jerusalem West Jerusalem is very much about the music! It’s the kind of music film you can watch over and over again, with originals by David Broza such as the beautiful and poignant One to Three that sings of love, Jerusalem, and war: “I was brought up with a war/That doesn’t mean I must accept it,” the title song, and many more; Steve Earle’s song Jerusalem, that lets us know you can feel the heartbeat of Jerusalem even in Nashville or Texas: “And looked into my heart to find/That I believe that one fine day all the children of Abraham/Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem;” the talented singer-songwriter Mira Awad singing Key to the Memory: “May the pain in your heart/Turn into will to survive”; the Nick Lowe song (best known in Elvis Costello’s version) What’s so Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding, in a heart-warming performance by the Jerusalem Youth Chorus; and the hip-hop multicultural groove of Peace (Ain’t Nothing But a Word) in English, Arabic and Hebrew.
It’s a film about people, friendship and courage – because this kind of collaboration between Israelis and Palestinians cannot be taken for granted. Everyone participating in the making of the album and film took the risk of being considered a traitor to his or her group, with all the consequences that might ensue. Mira Awad speaks with intelligence and eloquence on this subject, saying that for Israelis she is not “Israeli enough” while she encounters problems with the Arab community “because I don’t hate Israelis..I try to reach out with ways of peace, ways of communication, and not by boycott.” As Palestinian artist Issa Freij said, in working on this film “I’m not the Palestinian, I’m Issa.”
Whatever one’s background or perspective, there are things to discover in this film. For those whose only acquaintance with the Middle East is through the media, it may be surprising to see that Israelis and Palestinians can work together, make music, share meals and laughter together, and form enduring friendships. Native speakers of Hebrew or Arabic may be surprised to learn that for people who do not know either language, the two languages sound pretty much alike. Many Jewish Israelis have no idea what everyday life is like for Palestinians, as Israeli musician Gadi Seri recounted: “I was born in Jerusalem, 3 – 4 minutes drive from this place but I never crossed the street to East Jerusalem.” Palestinian hip hop artist and music producer Muhammad Mughrabi, born in Shuafat, provides a personal perspective: “growing up in a tough neighborhood makes you last longer, and gives you something strong that stays with you all your life. I can handle anything after living in a refugee camp.”
Steve Earle is a strong presence in this film, as a musician and as a person. The very essence of his connection as an outsider emphasizes the value of empathy, openness, hope and understanding. He brings a sense of perspective as well as humor to the endeavor, from the moment you see him arrive at Ben Gurion airport saying: “You don’t say bouzouki when you go through security. Call it a banjo.” It’s great fun to see him in action producing and performing on the album, and hanging out with the other musicians. Yes, I’m a huge Steve Earle fan, and in that sense the film was quite a thrill because it’s about as close I am likely to come to seeing him perform live (sigh).
Two of my favorite scenes in this film feature teenagers and children. In one scene, Micah Hendler, the founder and artistic director of the Jerusalem Youth Chorus (composed of high school students from East and West Jerusalem) is working with the kids on the song What’s So Funny About Peace Love and Understanding?, written by Nick Lowe and made famous by Elvis Costello, somewhat infamous in this country for his advocacy of boycotting Israel. Aside from enjoying the way music transcends all boycotts and boundaries, I found Hendler’s instructions to the group potentially useful for just about any life experience, as he told them to take it “from the first verse, do the best you can, and help each other.”
The other scene takes place at the very end of the film, a sort of epilogue, that takes place a year after the recording of the album. David Broza and Muhammad Mughrabi are back in Shuafat, making music with a roomful of boys joyously playing percussion. A title flashes across the screen to let us know that the two musicians have established a monthly music workshop in the refugee camp. One of the things I like best about East Jerusalem West Jerusalem is that when I reached the end of the film, it didn’t feel like an end, it felt like a beginning.
A conversation or a song might not change the world, but then again…
East Jerusalem West Jerusalem will be screened worldwide throughout 2015. Upcoming festivals: San Diego Jewish Film Festival February 5 – 15, 2015; Washington Jewish Film Festival February 19 – March 1, 2015.
East Jerusalem West Jerusalem (Israel, 2014, 80 min, English, Arabic, Hebrew)
Directed by Erez Miller, Henrique Cymerman; Producer: Gidi Avivi; Cinematography: Issa Freij, Ohad Milstein, Erez Miller; Editing: Erez Miller; Music: David Broza, Steve Earle; Source: Vice Versa Films, Tel Aviv.