JERUSALEM: The Western Wall is a place of immense importance for millions of Jewish people. What role does it play in the everyday life of Israelis?
Moran Ifergan’s hour-long documentary Hakir (The Wall) focuses on a wall that is unlike any other; the ancient, massive, 20 metre high Western Wall of the Jewish Temple, the last remnant of the sacred Jerusalem structure that was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 AD. As a centuries-old pilgrimage site it has drawn millions upon millions of Jewish visitors – including prominent ones like Bob Dylan, who came there to conduct his son’s bar mitzvah ceremony. As an international tourist attraction it draws more than five million visitors each year, not to forget the political leaders who shrewdly use it as an indispensable photo opportunity.
None of the above information, however, is mentioned in Ifergan’s film: Archaeology and celebrities are not what The Wall is about. Instead, her creative documentary attempts to explore the ways in which different people can experience the same physical place in completely different ways.
The art of juxtaposition. Ifergan uses an unconventional technique to explore deeply interpersonal questions: She creates a soundtrack based almost entirely on personal phone calls between herself and her mother and friends, dealing with the breakup of her marriage and other family matters. These sound recordings are then juxtaposed with visuals of the day-to-day activities that take place at the Western Wall over the course of a year, such as men and women praying passionately in the separate, gendered sections; tourists taking selfies; worshippers participating in Jewish holiday celebrations; and people placing handwritten notes into crevices of the wall with requests for the Almighty — a custom which is popular even among non-believers.
“The sound recordings of Ifergan’s personal life are juxtaposed with visuals of the day-to-day activities that take place at the Western Wall over the course of a year.”
We never see Ifergan talking on the phone or filming on location, but the editing of the film leads one to believe that the phone calls are in fact taking place while she is present at the Western Wall. Consequently, the tension in the film derives from the dramatic contrast between the intimate and mundane details of the personal life of a secular 33-year-old filmmaker and the communal activities that are taking place in the public space surrounding a national religious monument.
In some scenes, the juxtapositions seem to be complementary, even if there is no direct connection between the picture and sound. One example of this is when we listen to a moving conversation between Ifergan and her dying grandmother while seeing images of devout women, deep in prayer, with outstretched hands gripping the limestone blocks that make up the Western Wall.
In other scenes the sound-picture juxtapositions seem contradictory, as Ifergan plays off one strong emotion with another. The dialogue of Ifergan telling her surprised and sobbing mother that she is separating from her husband is juxtaposed with the swearing-in ceremony of young soldiers. Here, the individual is moving in the opposite direction of the larger community: Ifergan’s personal life is falling apart while the soldiers are bonding together.
“This is a film that challenges viewers to make their own sense of what they are seeing and feeling.”
Similarly, Ifergan juxtaposes a voicemail message she receives from an Arab suitor in which he insists on speaking to her in Arabic, (“even though I know that you may not understand everything I say”) with a scene of young Jewish girls waving Israeli flags during the celebration of the Jerusalem Day holiday. The audio and the picture both convey strong emotions, and by contrasting the two opposing expressions of nationalism, the Israeli filmmaker enables viewers to reach their own conclusions about an underlying cause of the Israeli-Arab conflict.
Not that Ifergan ever spells out the meaning of any of the juxtapositions. The strength of her film is that it challenges viewers to make their own sense of what they are seeing and feeling without the guiding hand of either a narrator or sync-sound action scenes.
Personal interpretation. With this technique, Ifergan draws on the work of certain other filmmakers – most notably fellow Israeli filmmaker Ron Tal who gets a thank you credit. Tal’s widely-acclaimed 2007 film Children of the Sun attempts to shatter popular notions about the communal living experience of the Israeli kibbutz. This film juxtaposes archival footage and home movies of seemingly happy kibbutz childhoods with the anonymous voices of kibbutz veterans describing painful memories of loneliness and peer pressure.
Like the kibbutz, the Western Wall is also a symbol of Israeli nationalism that has been idyllically mythologized. Part of this is due to the centuries in which Jews were denied access to the Western Wall, which culminated during the 19 years of Jordanian rule that preceded the Six-Day War of 1967.
“The filmmaker uses unconventional techniques to explore deeply interpersonal questions.”
However, as Ifergan seems to suggest, not everyone who walks by this landmark necessarily feels a sense of pride. Some will simply see it as a reminder of the unresolved regional political conflict; while others, who are too busy sorting out their own personal lives, may not even think about it at all.
The film ends with a spice-smelling ceremony performed at the end of the Jewish Sabbath, in which participants refresh their senses in preparation for the coming week. Ifergan appropriately pairs this scene with a spoken description of how she is moving into a new apartment – and is embarking on a new path with renewed energy.
There is something quite refreshing about Ifergan’s depiction of the Western Wall, a place that has already been endlessly chronicled in the past. Her film is both a good overview of the robust Jewish connection to the Western Wall as well as a chance for viewers to reflect on the myriad interpretations that a single place can offer to different visitors – especially if that place evokes intense emotions.