LEARNING GUIDE TO:
JAMES' JOURNEY TO JERUSALEM
(Massa'ot James Be'eretz Hakodesh)
SUBJECTS — World/Israel; Religions;Age: 12+; No MPAA Rating but suitable for any age; Drama/Comedy; 2003; 87 minutes; Color; Available from Amazon.com.
Description: James is a bright, but naive, African Christian young man. Selected to become the minister for his village, he is sent on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The village chorus gives James his instructions: "come back and tell us about the place where our dream lies." Once in Israel, diverted by the lures of materialism, James finds himself on a different and more important journey. The story is a charming parable about the limits of the profit motive and the need to find one's own holy place, despite the temptations of contemporary life.
"James' Journey to Jerusalem" is funny and affecting. The characters are well drawn, rounded, and complex. The acting and production values are excellent. The lilting, bittersweet African/Levantine flavors of Ehud Banay's prize-winning musical score add dimension and charm to the movie.
Benefits of the Movie: "James' Journey to Jerusalem" teaches an excellent lesson about the seduction of material culture and the importance of keeping sight of your goals. James' real journey is to unregulated, out of control capitalist materialism and back to a more balanced life of spiritualism, meaningful relationships, and trust. The over-arching theme of the movie is timeless and universal: everyone is on a journey to find what will make them truly happy, but many of us are lured away from our goal by one or more of the seductions of contemporary life (for example, money, material goods, alcohol, drugs, gambling, bad associations). To find fulfillment, we need to leave these behind and resume our journey.
The movie is an Israeli exercise in self-criticism that has important lessons for any affluent capitalist society. It is especially relevant to those which benefit from immigrant labor (the U.S., Canada, and Western Europe). It also: (1) provides an opportunity to describe the differences between the great economic theories of the 19th and 20th centuries: capitalism, communism, and socialism; (2) serves as an antidote to white racism and class discrimination because the character the viewer identifies with is black and the viewer sees the world through his eyes; (3) introduces and explores the archetype of the pilgrimage; (4) is an excellent example of a parable; and (5) contains good examples of the literary devices of symbolism, irony, plot development, and character.
Possible Problems: None.
Parenting Points: Tell your child that this movie applies to any country, including the U.S., that benefits from immigrant labor. Ask and help your child to answer the Quick Discussion Questions and talk about the issues described in the Benefits section.
Selected Awards, Cast and Director:
Featured Actors: Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe as James; Arieh Elias as Salah Shabati; Salim Dau as Shimi Shabati; Sandra Schonwald as Rachel; Hugh Masebenza as Skomboze; Florence Bloch as Re'uma; and Ya'akov Ronen Morad as Police Officer.
Director: Ra'anan Alexandrowicz.
JAMES' JOURNEY, CAPITALISM, AND THE AMERICAN DREAM: Is it wrong for a labor broker like Shimi to go to the holding tanks where illegal immigrants are being kept before they are sent back home, pick the most likely workers, pay their bail, and give them work? As long as it is legal, as long as the wages paid the workers are fair, and if the interest charged on the bail money is reasonable, it's fine. The boss should also help those who want to get ahead acquire an education or a skill. See Discussion Question #11.
This film is an indictment of materialism in Western civilization when it erodes other values. It is also an indictment of capitalism when it doesn't protect vulnerable workers. There is, however, another side to the tale. In the American Dream (and the Israeli Dream as well), the immigrant comes to the country and pays his passage. (Remember the years that immigrants to the American colonies endured in indentured servitude?) After a period of time the immigrant is free of these obligations and can strike out on his own to make a life for himself in the new land. See Discussion Question #3.
QUICK DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: (1) James never really completed his pilgrimage to the city of Jerusalem but there was a journey that he did complete. Describe the real journey that James took in this movie.
Suggested Response: When James first came to Israel he was well centered, happy with himself, and preparing for his vocation as a pastor for his village. The pilgrimage to Jerusalem was part of this preparation. He was diverted from his goal by the materialism of modern Western society and had to pass through the stage of being a worker and then of being a businessman, until he realized that this was not his path and he returned to the road he was on when the film began, a young man preparing for his vocation as a pastor.
(2) The writer/director of the film, Ra'anan Alexandrowicz, told TeachWithMovies that: "Once when I was talking to students in England after a screening of the movie, one stood up and asked 'So, who cleans your house then?' This is a good question because even if no one cleans my house, I am still completely part of this system since someone cleans the street, someone works in horrible conditions on the other side of the world so my food, clothing and sneakers are affordable and so on. So what is our position in this system? Aren't we all exploiting someone? Are we not all Shimis or collaborators? What can we do?"
TeachWithMovies Suggests the following response: Because of the way the international trading system is set up it's not always possible to avoid using products made by companies that take unreasonable advantage of other people. However, we are not entirely powerless. If we or a company we work for has an employee, a cleaning person, a laborer, etc., we can pay that person a living wage, with vacation time, etc. If that means paying more than our neighbor to have the house cleaned, so be it. It may mean boycotting a company known to pay the lowest possible salaries or going to a store that pays a living wage but charges a little more. The same is true for brands of products, imported or made domestically. If a brand is known to be made by workers paid only a pittance, we don't have to buy it. There are sites on the Internet which list "fair trade products" or union made products. These can be helpful in making good choices.
In addition, we can vote for politicians who reject the purely materialist ethos or reasonable regulations protecting workers. We can also contribute to charities and organizations which help those injured by the system. See also THE LIMITS OF MATERIALISM AND UNREGULATED CAPITALISM heading in the Helpful Background Section.
The experiences of the period after 1850, especially the rise of large enterprises that sought to create monopolies and the Great Depression of the 1930s, demonstrated that capitalism needed to be regulated and, in a limited way, guided by the government to prevent chaos and economic collapse. In the late 20th century, the experience of the "communist" countries (for example, the Soviet Union and China) showed that government owned command economies could not keep pace with the modified capitalism of the Western democracies. The last half of the 20th century also demonstrated that economies with large socialist components (many enterprises owned by the government and operated for the good of all) were not as efficient at liberating the energies of the people to produce goods and services as were the modified capitalist countries. The lesson has been that in general, people work harder and smarter when they work for their own benefit, but that economies as a whole work better with certain limited government interventions.
Modified capitalist economies limit and regulate the profit motive by: (1) imposing standards and regulations (for example, a minimum wage, regulations protecting the health of workers, protections for workers' pensions, antitrust regulations, honest trading rules for stock markets, truth in labeling, zoning laws etc.); (2) providing public services through the government (for example, public schools, medical care [in the U.S. this only extends to the aged and the indigent], city street services, garbage collection), and (3) enacting safety nets such as social security and income transfer mechanisms (welfare and progressive taxes). Through various economic mechanisms, such as central banks (called the Federal Reserve in the U.S.), insurance for bank deposits, and tax systems, these economies moderate the effects of the business cycle and influence business activity. Each country chooses its own mechanisms by which the basic capitalist structure is organized, regulated and guided.
Each country also has its unique set of non-governmental institutions which ameliorate the harsh effects of capitalism such as unions, community organizations, charitable organizations, including the charitable activities of churches, synagogues and mosques. These organizations can be used to help protect vulnerable workers (such as illegal immigrants) from the Shimis of the real world when the government fails to do so. The preceding paragraphs are very general and certainly there are exceptions. However, this is a fair globalized view. A major theme of the film is that unregulated capitalism and rampant materialism corrupt everything they touch. Shimi lies, cheats and reduces his workers to semi-slavery. He forces his father to leave the home that the old man was comfortable in, just to make money. Salah, the father, cheats his friends by feigning injury and then using James' blessedness, the ability to throw double sixes, to cheat his friends. James is diverted from his pilgrimage to Jerusalem, his religious beliefs, and good relations with his fellow workers. The film shows what happens when a culture thinks only of profit and has no sense of community.
IS THIS REALLY WHAT LIFE IS LIKE IN ISRAEL? -- IN WESTERN SOCIETY AS A WHOLE? The film appears to be a realistic portrayal of the underside of developed Western economies that depend on immigrant labor. The system in each country may differ, but one way or another, many immigrants are exploited. Of course there are many other situations in which immigrants are helped to make a life in their new home. James, however, is not an immigrant. He is on a pilgrimage and never intended to stay.
As for Israel, we know the following. It was a country which was founded with a communitarian spirit and a socialist ethos. That has certainly eroded of late. We assume that the movie doesn't show a representative sample of the Israeli people. In fact, the film was well received in it its country of origin, Israel (nominated for Best Film by the equivalent of the Israeli Academy Awards). This demonstrates that there are many in Israel who see problems with the materialistic way of life.
The writer/director Alexandrowicz told TWM:
[The film is] about this concept of "frayer" [Yiddish slang for a person who allows others to take advantage of him or her; a chump, a patsy]. The character Salah in the film is teaching James not to be a "frayer." He's teaching him to be strong, to not let go of anything, just as he did his son. But afterwards his two sons, his own creations, turn against him, and he finds himself in a weak position in relation to them -- his real son and his adopted son [James]. At one point James tells him, "Look, you can get $1 million for your plot of land. Why don't you take it? Don't be a frayer, take it." The father responds, "It's the other way around now. If I take the money I'm frayer. What do I gain from it?" This is perhaps something the Israeli consciousness should understand, that we are trapped now, into not being "frayer" in the situation. Perhaps our way out is through being exactly the opposite of what we believe, the opposite of being strong.
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BUILDING VOCABULARY: pilgrimage; frayer
PARABLE: This film is a parable, "a short fictitious narrative that illustrates a moral attitude, a doctrine, a standard of conduct, or a religious principle." A parable is distinguished from a fable in that fables usually take the form of stories about animals that are illustrative only and could not have happened in reality. A parable on the other hand deals with people and has an inherent plausibility which allows more complex issues to be explored. Article on parable. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved January 24, 2005, from Encyclopaedia Britannica Premium Service. Parables are often used in religious teachings. An example from the New Testament is the story of the sowers (Matthew 13:1-23; Mark 4:1-20 & Luke 8:4-15) in which Jesus explained that the sowers were those seeking to spread the word of God, the seed stood for the holy message, and different types of people were the locations in which seed landed, in some the seed would grow, in others it would wither, and in some it would be stolen by evil.
SYMBOLISM: There are several symbols in the film, some recognized by the characters and others not.
James' clothing changes. He arrives in Israel in beautiful robes of golden material from his native land. His first attendance at church is in another African robe, this one white. However, as he gets derailed, he adopts Western style clothing, first for work, but then even for church. As James gets wealthier, his clothing improves, until he goes to the party near the end of the film in a fashionable white suit. When he is deported, James is wearing the traditional clothing that he had on when he arrived. However, by that time he has re-discovered his quest.IRONY: The following are some of the instances in which irony is used in this film:
When he is in the holding tank, James prays for God's help in reaching Jerusalem. Just then, in walks Shimi, and the doors of the jail spring open. At first this appears to be an irony because Shimi is not, apparently, an answer to James' prayers. Rather, he is the embodiment of temptation leading James away from his pilgrimage. As the story ends, in a type of double-irony, it becomes clear that Shimi is indeed the answer to James' prayer, but not because he will facilitate James' journey to the city of Jerusalem. Shimi facilitates James' exposure to rampant capitalist materialism which James must experience and reject on his real quest, the effort to find his true self.THE MYTH OF THE HERO AND JAMES' JOURNEY: One of the standard story lines in myth and literature is the journey of the hero. The primary components of the myth are separation, travel to another world, learning to survive in that world, the intervention of facilitators, and return. This is James' story. He can take back to his village his understanding of the weaknesses of materialism and unrestrained capitalism, along with his renewed faith in the moral teachings of his religion. He takes as well the understanding that the physical Jerusalem is a very different place than the holy city described in the Bible, but that the important Jerusalem is a spiritual place in which each person can feel close to their sense of the meaning of the universe. James' journey has many of the aspects of a hero's journey. Money and material goods are the siren song of temptation. There is a person who leads him astray, actually several: Skombozi, Shimi, the minister, and Salah. James is able to pass through this world, which to him is alien, and return to his village with the prize, in this case, new wisdom.
PLOT STRUCTURE: The overall structure of the plot in this story is: (1) James goes on the pilgrimage; (2) he is diverted by the customs agent and Shimi; (3) aided primarily by Shimi, Skombozi and Salah, he adopts the materialist life style and abandons the pilgrimage; and (4) James regains the right path when Salah tells James that he has lost his way and will never make it to Jerusalem, Skombozi crashes the party creating a scene, James has his epiphany, and Shimi has James arrested. Once arrested, James makes it to Jerusalem but as a prisoner rather than a pilgrim.
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RELIGIOUS PILGRIMAGES: The religious pilgrimage is one of the archetypical journeys of mankind. It is found in all major religions: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shintoism, etc. Pilgrimages are undertaken for several reasons: to gain supernatural help; to express thanks to a deity or saint; as an act of penance; to fulfill a vow; or simply for the sake of devotion. Sometimes the pilgrimage is simply an added reason to travel to a place. The purpose of the journey of a pilgrim is to become closer to the holy and to purify the self. Pilgrims believe that when they get close to or observe sacred locations they can communicate more fully with their god. Pilgrimages are made to Jerusalem, to Mecca, to certain temples, locations of relics, graves of saints, sites of miracles etc. Christian pilgrims have been journeying to Jerusalem since 200 C.E. James' journey began as an effort to become closer to the holiness of the City of Jerusalem. Articles on "pilgrimage", "Buddhism;" "Judaism" and "Christianity" in Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved January 24, 2005, from Encyclopaedia Britannica Premium Service. For more, see Wikipedia Article on Pilgrimage.
There are also certain common mishaps and errors to which many pilgrims are prone. The writer/director, Ra'anan Alexandrowicz, has related to TeachWithMovies.com the following story. It was told to him by a Tibetan Buddhist Monk after a screening of the film: "It's a famous phenomenon that Buddhists who make the pilgrimage to Lassa [the capital of Tibet and the location of an important Buddhist shrine], get completely preoccupied with the business that was supposed to fund the trip. They have a saying 'Even if you reached the city, you might have not entered the temple.'"
There are also secular pilgrimages. For many U.S. citizens, trips to Philadelphia to see where the Declaration of Independence was signed and the Constitution was drafted, or to Washington, D.C., or to the site of the Battle of Gettysburg, are meaningful journeys which give rise to strong emotions and cause them to reflect on their heritage.
Writer/director Ra'anan Alexandrowicz put it this way:
I think there is a bit of James in each and every one of us. We learn too well, as people and as societies, how to talk about our noble dreams as an easy way of forgetting them. I think each of us has his or her Jerusalem toward which we aspired to reach. Whether we reach it, or even remember where we were headed, is another issue. Director's Statement.MATERIALISM AND ORGANIZED RELIGION: The writer/director, Mr. Alexandrowicz, told TeachWithMovies.com that the Pastor character is not intended to be particularly Christian, but could be from any religion: Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, etc. He stated that, "It is my observation that even spiritual institutions are open (very open) to corruption by the influence of materialism to use their believers in the wrong way. This is based on things I've seen and heard in quite a few places around the world. So I think it is a healthy lesson for students to clearly observe the abuses of materialism in any system, even if it has a spiritual affiliation."
The song with which the movie begins and ends is set out below:
Let's sing of that tale that begins
In a far away village
The best young man was sent on a pilgrimage
A long journey to Zion
Where the heart of the world is
To the Promised Land
Beyond the seas
Zion's light in his heart to guide his way
It will keep him safe and won't lead him astray
Soon he will see that holy city
See it with his own eyes
He'll come back and tell us
About the place where our dream lies
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Jerusalem
You are our only destiny
You are our destiny
You are our destiny
1. See Questions Suitable for Any Film.
2. How does the position of the workers in the dormitory differ, if at all, from slavery? How is it like slavery?
3. Change the circumstances somewhat. At church, James meets a girl and falls in love. She was born in Israel to parents of African descent. Her whole life has been spent in Israel and she doesn't want to leave. James decides to stay with her in Israel. He saves up enough money to repay his village for the plane ticket and writes them a letter saying that he won't be coming back. He expands his cleaning business, pays off Shimi, gets married and stays in Israel. If this had happened in the U.S., what would it have been called?
4. James says "When I tell my village about this place, they'll be angry with me." What is he referring to?
5. This story can be seen as the tale of the quest of a hero. How is it like and unlike other hero myths that you know about? (Examples are Odysseus, Jason, Hercules, and Luke Skywalker.)
6. James completes his journey, though not his pilgrimage. Please explain this.
7. Describe some of the ill effects of the materialism and under-regulated capitalism shown in the society portrayed in this movie. Then decide whether this also applies to the society in which you live. Explain your reasoning.
8. Before James throws away the money at the party, he has begun to resemble one of the other characters in the film. Who is it? Explain why.
9. Who is the person who is most alone in this film?
10. Where did Shimi learn that at all costs he should avoid being a "frayer"?
11. The film is not completely clear about how Shimi conducts his business, except that he pays low wages, keeps the passports of his workers, makes them repay their bail money (probably charging an exorbitant rate of interest), and that workers are trapped in his system, sometimes for years. It does appear that the wages that he pays are a lot of money when compared with what the workers could earn at home. Assuming that Shimi could negotiate the legalities of getting permission from the government for the illegal immigrants to work in Israel, how could Shimi have conducted his business ethically?
12. What is the strongest interpersonal relationship shown in this film and who puts it down, saying that one person is another person's "frayer"?
13. What did it mean when Shimi said that James had become part of the family?
14. James goes to the party, expecting to be able to talk to people and have a good time. What happens and why?
15. Describe the character of Shimi in the film and explain the complexity of this character.
16. Describe the character of Salah in the film and explain the complexity of this character.
Select questions that are appropriate for your students.
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1. Who does James form a real friendship with?
2. Why is real friendship so difficult in a society which is so cutthroat and materialistic as the society shown in this film? Give an example.
3. Was Shimi right in putting pressure on his father to sell the land for the million dollars which would buy economic security for Shimi?
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Moral-Ethical Emphasis Discussion Questions (Character Counts)
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
(Be honest; Don't deceive, cheat or steal; Be reliable -- do what you say you'll do; Have the courage to do the right thing; Build a good reputation; Be loyal -- stand by your family, friends and country)
1. Did James always honor this Pillar of Character in his dealings with Shimi?
(Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule; Be tolerant of differences; Use good manners, not bad language; Be considerate of the feelings of others; Don't threaten, hit or hurt anyone; Deal peacefully with anger, insults and disagreements)
2. This movie deals with racism. Give two examples.
(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act -- consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)
3. What were the reasons that Shimi liked James so much?
(Play by the rules; Take turns and share; Be open-minded; listen to others; Don't take advantage of others; Don't blame others carelessly)
5. Did Shimi act fairly toward his workers?
6. When James started his own business, did he act fairly toward his workers?
Teachwithmovies.com is a Character Counts "Six Pillars Partner" and uses The Six Pillars of Character to organize ethical principles.
Character Counts and the Six Pillars of Character are marks of the CHARACTER COUNTS! Coalition, a project of the Josephson Institute of Ethics.
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MOVIES ON RELATED TOPICS: None.
Assignments, Projects and Activities:
PHOTOGRAPHS, DIAGRAMS AND OTHER VISUALS: See Publicity photos from the official website.
Bibliography: In addition to websites which may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:
Last updated December 10, 2009.
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