On the “P.O.V.” Web site, French filmmaker Georgi Lazarevski describes “This Way Up” as “a more intimate, almost nonpolitical film on the Arab-Israeli conflict.”
It’s certainly true that his elliptical, strikingly photographed 2007 portrayal of the Palestinian residents of the East Jerusalem retirement home Notre Dame des Douleurs (Our Lady of Sorrows) is observational in nature, rather than didactic or educational.
There’s no narrator, no talking heads, and the participants aren’t even identified by name (except when they’re addressed by someone else in the film).
But “almost nonpolitical,” in the context of the Middle East, is the equivalent of “a little bit pregnant.” There’s no such thing, and to suggest otherwise is a tad disingenuous.
“This Way Up,” which clocks in at an unhurried hour, premieres at 10 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 25 on KQED–Channel 9.
The filmmaker’s initial and fundamentally political decision was to choose an institution situated right next to the massive concrete security barrier Israel has erected. The wall is often visible through the retirement home’s windows, hovering over the residents, although for most of them the world doesn’t intrude on — or extend beyond — their circumscribed daily routine.
But there are seniors whose adult children come to see them on a semi-regular basis, and to them the wall represents a palpable disruption. The authorization required to cross, combined with the time, energy and logistics of navigating checkpoints, inevitability results in a decrease in visits.
It is hardly a policy or goal of the Israeli government to make life tougher for the residents of Notre Dame des Douleurs or their families, of course. From the filmmaker’s point of view, this adverse consequence of the wall’s existence is another ignominy Palestinians must endure as part of the occupation.
A couple of the residents are vociferous in their anger and frustration. “The situation is at a dead end,” one laments. “I can’t breathe.”
To American Jews watching their televisions, “This Way Up” will play as a not-so-thinly veiled condemnation of Israel. At the same time, one must admit that the elderly folks of Notre Dame des Douleurs are the most benign, non-threatening critics of Israel one could imagine.
Lazarevski, who is also an accomplished still photographer, integrates numerous static shots of the security barrier that range from beautiful to ironic to sobering. His editorial comment is pretty unambiguous, but the most memorable images are the art shots — a stunning study of the wall ribboning across the landscape like a Christo installation, or the shadow cast by the cross atop Notre Dame.
“This Way Up,” like every documentary that comes out of Israel, the West Bank or Gaza, is a Rorschach test that tends to reveal more about the viewer than the subject. Viewed as another facet in the ever-expanding mosaic of Israeli-Palestinian portraits, however, the film offers a plethora of unexpected insights.
“This Way Up” airs Tuesday, Aug. 25 on KQED–Channel 9 and 5 p.m. Aug. 29 on KQED World on digital cable systems.