Review: ‘Fragments * Jerusalem’

(English, Hebrew and French dialogue)

(English, Hebrew and French dialogue)

Mammoth history of the world’s most fought-over city is both comprehensive and deeply personal. A phenomenal work of structural ambition and profound emotion, “Fragments * Jerusalem” is likely to stand as a model of acute documaking for those willing to throw themselves into the most difficult issues of the day, and of yesterday. Aside from some specialized urban play, expect a long circulation on worldwide pubcasting routes.

Six-hour, seven-part dissection of Jerusalem’s past (and implied future) weaves helmer Ron Havilio’s life into the mix, with satisfying results. Some viewers might expect a family saga to get in the way of the facts, but that depends on the family. This helmer–lenser–still photographer happens to have roots that connect with many significant movements in the Jewish Diaspora over the past 500 years or more, so his familial tree is well entangled in the thorny tale of Israel’s birth.

Descended from a Sephardic family tossed out of Spain in Columbus’ time, Havilio’s paternal forebears were intimately involved with the mystical cabala and with the roots of Zionism. His mother’s family, the Rosenthals, came to the Holy City in 1812, and were part of a messianic sect that is, presumably, still waiting.

The helmer’s father, Shlomo, was part of the violent fight to free Palestine from Great Britain, and later became a respected diplomat, taking his young family to Paris, Istanbul and Tanzania to live. Consequently, young Ron (who’s now 48) grew up with an expansive view of Jerusalem’s small place in the world, as reflected by considerable use of scrupulously researched French, Turkish and African music in soundtrack.

Helmer is attuned to sounds of his city, with Arabic lute music and street cries vying for space with Ladino lullabies, cantorial hymns, Macedonian ballads and even a Yiddish mambo. In contrast, he uses baroque harpsichord music to set off the tranquillity of domestic scenes in a small stone house outside the walls of the city.

The Jerusalem his three young daughters were born into is very different from the one his father knew, of course, but the particulars are mere pebbles in the path of a city this old and this rich in variety and surprise.

Archival engravings, photos (many taken by Armenian craftsmen), and rare footage paint a picture of a town in which Jews and Arabs fluidly borrowed food, clothing, music and language from each other.

This compares harshly with long, heart-wrenching tales of ethnic battles of the ’20s and ’40s, in which foreign governments and lowly citizens started taking sides, with sometimes fatal results. Particularly striking are old photos of the Wailing Wall, with men and women praying together in a smaller, plant-strewn space, as opposed to the segregated, cemented-over piazza of today.

Havilio begins and ends with looks at transitional neighborhoods (along with frequent stops on the once-cosmopolitan Jaffa Road) that have turned into a no-man’s-lands resembling parts of Belfast or Sarajevo.

The film – a big wave-maker on Israeli TV – is more elegy than celebration, but helmer’s profound humanism encourages auds to give new respect to the Muslims, Jews and Christians who have, over the centuries, chosen to tough it out in this most provisional of famous cities.

Pic’s quality is understandably rough, with Havilio doing his own hand-held lensing, and his French-born wife, Jacqueline, carrying boom mikes onscreen. But his sense of rhythm and organization is so astute (with cooling black spaces separating clusters of activity, and ancient still images dissolving into modern views) and his relationship with interview subjects is so effortlessly emotive, tech considerations are swept aside.

In short (or long), you don’t have to be Jewish to find this “Jerusalem” worth the investment of time and thought. Helmer, who narrates in English, has an alternate French version, plus ones with German and Japanese subtitles.

Fragments * Jerusalem

(DOCU -- ISRAELI -- 16mm)


A Ron and Jacqueline Havilio production, with support from Isreal Film Service, Israel Broadcasting Authority and the Fund for the Promotion of Israeli Quality Films. (International Sales: Jane Balfour Films, London.) Produced by Ron Havilio, Jacqueline Havilio. Directed, written by Ron Havilio.


Camera (16mm), Havilio; editors, Tor Ben Mayor, Yael Perkov; sound, Jacqueline Havilio, Jane Stewart. Reviewed on videocassette, Vancouver, Sept. 18, 1997. (In Vancouver Film Festival; Toronto Film Festival - Real to Reel.) Running time: 358 MIN.

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