In Muayad Alayan’s moving A House in Jerusalem, showing at the Palestinian Film Festival, the present is haunted by a violent past. By Christos Tsiolkas.
A House in Jerusalem
The Gothic ghost story, in which past wrongs manifest as hauntings, is a genre that has undoubted resonance and power when it comes to exploring the injustices and unreconciled legacies of colonialism. In Muayad Alayan’s A House in Jerusalem, the ghostly presence emerges from the Nakba, the catastrophic events of 1948 that saw the violent displacement of the Palestinians from their homeland with the foundation of the modern Israeli state.
A real strength of Alayan’s film, which is co-written with his brother Rami Musa Alayan, is that though it doesn’t shirk the uncanny, it welds its unsettling Gothic elements to a fable-like narrative that also works as a satisfying adventure movie. The choices the director makes in his framing and editing prioritise the point of view of an English child, Rebecca. However, as the story unfolds, we increasingly perceive the world through the eyes of the ghost, the young child Rasha (Sheherazade Makhoul Farrell), who was separated from her parents in 1948 when the Israeli soldiers – who she refers to as “the men with guns” – forcibly removed the family from their house in Jerusalem.
Rebecca’s mother has died tragically in a car accident a year before. Her father, Michael (Johnny Harris), decides to take the grieving child to a house in Jerusalem that was left to him by his grandfather. In a restrained, unfussy performance, Harris conveys the pain of grief, as well as the distress a parent experiences at seeing their child sink into depression.
Harris’s thoughtfulness as an actor is most evident in the space he gives the young actor, Miley Locke, who plays Rebecca. Locke’s rawness is evident, but Harris’s performance offers us the ballast to be convinced of the love between father and daughter. Locke’s untutored acting jars initially, but as the film unfolds, her wary seriousness is increasingly apt for the role. Rebecca is a child who has become aware of tragedy from too early an age. It makes sense that she has the courage to seek peace and resolution for her friend, the ghost Rasha.
Rebecca is drawn to a trapdoor in the garden of her new home. When she opens it, she discovers a doll floating in water that fills the hole. She pulls the doll out and washes it, entranced by its embroidered clothes. Michael thinks the doll is dirty and flings it in the garbage. Almost immediately, Rasha makes her appearance, though only Rebecca can see her. When she tries to tell her father the house is haunted, he thinks her visions are due to her grief and takes her to a therapist.
There is nothing sinister in the actions of the adults around Rebecca, who are trying their best. What is increasingly clear to her, and to us, is that they are not only disavowing the supernatural. Their denial includes the history of the house and, by extension, the whole of Israeli society.
Alayan sets up the Gothic conventions unhurriedly. He doesn’t short-change the pleasures that audiences expect from the genre, although he mostly films the ramshackle villa in bright summer daylight. It is not long before Rasha reveals herself openly to Rebecca and they begin a tentative friendship. There is real beauty in the interactions between the two girls, such as Rasha’s bewildered, comic responses to Rebecca’s mobile phone. Our belief in the solidity of their friendship is important, as it will make sense of the risks Rebecca will take to discover the reasons for her friend’s ghostly suffering.
Alayan’s identification of the horrors of this story in the everyday workings of the Israeli state rather than the paranormal has rigorous purpose. Through her friendship with Rasha, Rebecca begins to notice discordant figures in her daily walk to her new school. When she observes an old Palestinian man smoking, or a young Palestinian child getting on his bike, the looks they return are hesitant and fearful.
There are contradictions at play in A House in Jerusalem, in the tensions between the formal demands of the classic horror film and the girls’-own-adventure elements of the story. This is clearest in the film’s stand-out sequence, where Rebecca decides to run away and attempts to find Rasha’s relatives in a refugee camp in Bethlehem. Alayan’s background in documentary is clear when he shoots Rebecca’s entry into the camp at night. The sequence is almost hallucinatory: the lighting accentuates the oppressive infrastructure of the camp. At the same time, the camera finds beauty in the refugee community: a recurring glimpse of a graffiti mural of Mary and Joseph trying to find shelter in the city; how the inhabitants defiantly decorate their homes with symbols of their struggle.
Alayan is too realist, too pragmatic, to truly evoke the strange and dreamlike. He doesn’t have the intuitive sense of the fantastic that a filmmaker such as Guillermo del Toro brought to Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) or with which Carlos Saura imbued Cría Cuervos (1976). These two films, which deal with the legacies of Spanish fascism while centring their narratives on children dealing with loss, are clear influences. But there is no real moment of genuine terror in A House in Jerusalem: we never experience Rasha or Rebecca’s fears viscerally, and so our response to their respective suffering is muted.
This is exacerbated by the film’s simplistic use of spoken language. The Palestinian Rasha understands Rebecca’s English perfectly. Of course, within the logic of a ghost story we can accept this convention, but when Rebecca enters the camp and meets the woman whom she believes is Rasha’s mother (Souad Faress), this older woman also speaks and understands English perfectly.
This disavowal of the specificity of language might make the film more palatable for English-speaking audiences, but I can’t help seeing it as an opportunity lost. It squanders the chance to illuminate how the hierarchy of language in Israel and Palestine continues to reinforce the colonial legacy. It also betrays the truth that sometimes horror is too overwhelming an experience to be communicated in words, that it requires the language of the uncanny and the absurd to be understood. It is that insight that gives del Toro’s and Saura’s films their continuing authority.
In the film’s final moments, there is a sense that Alayan knows that the truth of suffering and grief – whether it is a child’s loss of a parent or the continuing reverberations of the Nakba in the lives of contemporary Palestinians – cannot be resolved by polemic or the neat conventions required by genre. A suggestion that ghosts might not be satisfied by reconciliation is the most emotionally charged and potent moment in the film.
A House in Jerusalem is genuinely moving. Although I wish Alayan were less earthbound as a director, that he trusted his audiences to accept the elliptical and sinister, this is a film of real intelligence and craft. Its mood is gentle, and the pluckiness and verve of Locke’s and Makhoul Farrell’s performances lend Rebecca and Rasha a mischief and resilience that kept reminding me of the classic animated feature Coraline. Like that movie, this is a film that understands the best kind of children’s story doesn’t talk down to either the adult or the child.
A House in Jerusalem is playing at the Palestinian Film Festival, which runs in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Canberra and Perth from October 13-29.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 7, 2023 as "Spirit of place".
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