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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Film Review: Next Year Jerusalem

Next Year Jerusalem is an endearing and sometimes moving documentary about a group of people in a home for the elderly taking a trip to Israel.

The film opens with a wonderful wide shot of some stone ruins in the distance. Elderly folks, some with walkers, some in wheelchairs, enter the bottom left corner of the frame and slowly make their way to the structure. We then go Connecticut, to The Jewish Home For The Elderly, and are introduced to the residents and staff who will be making the trip. The residents range in age from the young Sandy at 82 to Bill at 97. Bill, by the way, is absolutely adorable. When we first meet him, he says: “When I was twenty-five years old, and I walked down the street, mothers would pull their daughters in the house. But now I’m ninety-seven. They don’t have to worry anymore. The party is over.”

But clearly the party is not over. And that is the point. Here is a group of people for whom life, at a glance, seems to be essentially over. They have trouble walking. They’re on various medications. They’re basically homebound. But their spirit is very much active, and it seems it’s their spirit that keeps their bodies active enough to make this trip.

I would have liked to hear a little bit more about why this trip was so important to each of them. Some of them remark on it. Helen, age 91, is very excited about the trip, and says she is going to keep a daily journal “because I don’t want to forget the trip.”  (We don’t really see her keeping up with that journal, however, once they arrive at their destination.) But it would have been nice to hear from each of them their reasons for wanting to go.

Selma, age 93, is another of the film’s most endearing participants. When we first meet her, she is struggling to get out of her wheel chair. She is hunched over, and says she will never be comfortable, and that she’s twisted. But there is no despair in her voice, no bitterness. In fact, she oddly sounds kind of happy. She sips from a drink that she calls a martini, but which is actually something like Ensure. “And at night, it’s a black Russian,” she says. And you instantly fall in love with her.

The film spends some time helping us to get to know these people, and to know the routine of their lives. There is an absolutely wonderful moment where the rabbi is blowing into some horn-like instrument, and it sounds perfectly terrible. Finally one elderly woman in front of him shouts out, “That’s awful!” And he stops. Good for her, and good for us.

There is some footage of the drive to the airport, and then they’re there, in Israel. From there, there are times when the film feels like a strange road movie. There are lots of road shots from their tour bus (set to pretty music). There is also footage of loading the wheel chairs onto the bus. We see one person getting on, and when you multiply that time by the number of people making the trip, you can’t help but think of the amount of time lost in simply getting on and off the bus. But no one seems to mind.

There are shots of dispensing a large number of pills, and other details that would accompany such a trip. The film sometimes feels more like a home movie, focusing on the characters in the locations, rather than the locations themselves, with the sweetness and love of a home movie but also its lack of specific information on certain places. For example, when they go to the Western Wall, some sort of strap is tied around one of the men’s arms, and an odd cube attached to his forehead. I can’t make heads or tails of what it’s supposed to be or symbolize, and though it might be outside of the scope of the film, I would have appreciated a little information about that.

There is some footage of a gondola ride in the desert, which is absolutely gorgeous, and also scary. There is also some footage of young girls in robes entertaining the group by singing “We Go Together” from Grease (as well as some other tunes). The girls pull some of the folks up and dance with them. It’s lovely and odd, but again, I’m not sure where it is. It's more about the mood than about information.

Watching, I’m constantly aware of the beauty of what they’re doing, but also of the inevitable end of their lives. When they return, a list of residents who died the previous month is read. And you see how important this trip is, and you can’t help but also see how it applies to your own life, regardless of your age.

Next Year Jerusalem was directed by David Gaynes. The film opens on May 16, 2014 at New York’s Quad Cinema.

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