In the late 1800s, Emma Lazarus' inscription for the Statue of Liberty welcomed the tired, poor, homeless, huddled masses then arriving primarily from Europe. Today "the wretched refuse of your teeming shore" hails from all over the globe, and America is no longer necessarily the prime destination. Prosperous countries everywhere are coping with an influx of refugees. Recent films, such as Michael Winterbottom's In This World and Stephen Frears' Dirty Pretty Things, have focused on the plight of those uprooted by economic or political misery.
James' Journey to Jerusalem -- screening for free at 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday in Middlebury College's Dana Auditorium -- examines the plight of "illegals" in contemporary Israel. But the charismatic title character, played by Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe, has actually left South Africa to make a pilgrimage to the Promised Land as a religious tourist. He's a black farmer slated to assume the role of pastor in his Zulu village. The trek to Christianity's holiest city is supposed to help prepare him for that job.
The optimistic and naive visitor hits the first of many hurdles when a Tel Aviv immigration officer challenges his intentions. "I know you came here to make money," she suggests. Before being hauled away, the dashiki-clad James asks her in wonderment: "Are you a Hebrew woman?"
She is, but first-time director Ra'anan Alexandrowicz offers a sharp critique of how the so-called Chosen People have traded socialist and spiritual ideals for material comfort. His target: the dark underbelly of capitalism, as symbolized by undocumented workers clandestinely fueling the engine that drives industrialized nations.
Imprisoned with fellow detainees from places such as Manila and Bucharest, James thinks his prayers have been answered when an Israeli businessman named Shimi (Salim Daw) pays his bail. This savior, however, runs an off-the-books employment service. The protagonist can only get out of debt by toiling at various menial jobs. He's housed in squalid barracks with similarly indentured servants.
Unable to go home because the boss holds his passport, James tries to make the best of this multicultural trap. After washing dishes and scrubbing toilets, he is upgraded to the role of houseboy for Shimi's elderly father, Sallah (Arie Elias). While also exploiting the slave-master relationship, the old curmudgeon warns James against remaining a "frayer," the Yiddish word for sucker.
James takes the advice to heart and begins to think up devious ways to increase his earnings. He succumbs to the temptation of immediate gratification. His dreams, once noble, are now ordinary. An ultramodern shopping mall, where designer jeans look better than devotion to God, eclipses the land of milk and honey. As a smooth operator, he is now more inspired by cash than Christ. Jerusalem? Maybe later. In a sense, the young man's psychological journey has just begun.
This compelling, 87-minute film is framed by African mythology about an idyllic Zion, depicted in the opening scene with music and folk art. The fable is quickly shattered by the bitter reality of 21st-century Israeli society. Oddly, though, no Arabs are seen or even mentioned. Perhaps Alexandrowicz, who co-wrote the script, felt he could only tackle the thorny topic of invisible foreigners by completely avoiding the in-your-face conflict that regularly confronts Jews in the Middle East. Consequently, there's a proverbial elephant in the room.
In the last few years, Israel launched a "strategic goal" of phasing out its cheap-labor workforce of more than 150,000 Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza. Many of them return as "illegal transients," sneaking across the barrier erected in 2002 to find jobs within the country's shadow economy. If caught, these "frayers" are jailed, fined and deported.
James' Journey could have dramatized this parallel dilemma without derailing the narrative. Another layer of complexity would tell a more complete story of what it means to live like a wretched refugee on any teeming shore.
The Lake Placid Film Festival normally takes place in early June, but the sixth annual edition is scheduled for June 23 to 26. Co-founded by novelist Russell Banks, the event typically hosts noted writers whose books have been adapted for the big screen, such as John Irving, Michael Ondaatje and Elmore Leonard. No 2005 luminaries have been announced yet --in fact, the website at http://www.lakeplacidfilmfestival.com is still under construction. First we have to get through mud season.