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Fragments: Jerusalem

      However important such a comprehensive documentary, admit your apprehension about a commitment to Ron Havilio's two-part, six-hours, Fragments: Jerusalem. Watching it sounds imposingly dutiful, more movie hours than you'd think to expend contemplating Israel's ancient city. Among Jewish-made works, who can't help but call to mind the endless obsessive, exhaustive, didactic hours of Claude Lanzmann's Shoah? It was good for you, perhaps great for you, but definitely an ordeal.

     Well, I'm here to tell you not to worry. I previewed Havilio's film beginning to end, all six hours with just a couple of wee breaks and stretches, and I munched my tuna-fish-sandwich lunch while watching, and all the time I felt at ease. Often exhilarated. Fragments: Jerusalem is such an enthralling watch; and what keeps it going is never self-absorption (Havilio is, in fact, an extremely modest, easygoing presence in his own film) nor a need to preach (in voice-over, he's moderate and tempered about the very issues which precipitate endlessly fractious Israeli oratory).

     What anchors this lovely documentary is Havilio's low-key humanism; what propels it is his intense, infectious curiosity. Fragments: Jersualem is a vessel for Havilio's passionate study of history, and architecture, and geography, and ethnography, and comparative religion. Wisely, he chooses a microcosmic approach to revealing 150 years of the city, focussing his interests on an area around the Old City's Jaffa Gate, including the Arab market, Jaffa Road, and the Casbah-like slum streets known as Mamila. What has happened here, from the time in 1896 when Lumiere cinematographers came and filmed, through the Arab uprising, the Intifadah, through the Israeli's regrettable razing of Mamila?

     Simultaneously, Fragments: Jersualem is an extended "home movie." Yes, there's screen time even to tell the story of Havilio's pet bird! Probably four hours of the six enmesh Havilio's family in the chronicle of Jerusalem. Without any formal self-consciousness, Havilio segues back and forth through time. Sometimes, he's with his present family (a functional one!) of three daughters and his sound-editor wife, sometimes he's jumping back to look in on his father's Sephardic family, his mother's Ashkenazi one, and both with 19th century roots in the Holy Land. Incredibly, his mother's relatives emigrated from Vilna, Lithuania, in 1810, well in advance of the Jewish Messiah.

     The real Messiah (not Jesus!) was supposed to arrive in 1848. Didn't happen. That's one of the many, many, many things I learned casually along the way in my six hours with Havilio's movie. What else? Somehow, I never realized that Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire. Havilio shows Austrian troops in Jerusalem joining the already - there Turkish ones to fight World War I. Many residing in the Jewish quarter hid out because they were being conscripted to fight alongside the Axis troops.

     What else? How about a photo of a Swastika flying freely on a German-owned luxury hotel just outside Jerusalem's Walled City. That was in the 1930s when Palestine was under British rule, and England and Germany were not yet at war.

     What else? I know now that in 1927 Jerusalem was shattered by an earthquake. Also, Havilio shows amazing photographs of Jerusalem buried by ice and snow. Several times a century.

     What else? I discovered that the Wailing Wall used to be non-gendered, non-sexist. There are film snippets and photographs of Jewish women and men praying there together. It's only in today's Israel, where the religious right has political clout, that the guys have the Wall to themselves. The women are kept to Wailing Watching.

    (Yes, you can see either part separately. Havilio has said that's OK.)

GERALD PEARY
(March, 2000)

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