A House in Jerusalem – trauma & the ghosts of the living

words Paul Risker

The story revolves around 10-year-old Rebecca (Miley Locke), who is forced to relocate from the UK to her family’s old home in Jerusalem’s, the Valley of the Ghosts. Grieving the recent loss of her mother, the unfamiliar house does little to sooth her pain. Mysterious incidents begin occurring and Rebecca discovers an unlikely friendship with Rasha (Sheherazade Makhoul Farrell), a young Palestinian girl only she can see. Emotionally distanced from her father (Johnny Harris), who is grieving the loss of his wife in his own way, Rebecca and Rasha bond over their shared grief, and together they begin a journey towards healing. It’s an intimate journey that will introduce Rebecca to the Palestinian collective trauma.

A House in Jerusalem docu

Alayan’s third feature follows 2015’s Love, Theft and Other Entanglements, about a Palestinian car thief who is surprised to discover a kidnapped Israeli soldier in the trunk of a car, and 2018’s The Reports on Sarah and Saleem, which revolves around the complicated extra-marital affair between a Palestinian man and Israeli woman. Collaborating once again with his brother and writing partner Rami, A House in Jerusalem shows their continued interest in dramatic storytelling to explore the reality that surrounds them.

The mix of drama with the supernatural is a metaphysical inquiry into Alayan’s own belief, that reinterprets the concept of ghosts. A deeply personal film, A House in Jerusalem’s roots lie in the experiences of Muayad and Rami’s parents and grandparents, who share in the collective trauma with other Palestinians, dating back to the 1948 Nekba.

In conversation with Flux, Alayan discussed A House in Jerusalem’s personal roots, the empowering influence of Jim Jarmusch and Jean-Luc Godard, and the undeniable motivation to tell this story and invite audiences to acknowledge an often-denied or overlooked trauma.

Why film as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment for you personally?

There have been a few moments, but the older I get, there are two that stand out to me. One, which is very obvious, was being a teenager around the Second Palestinian Intifada (2000-2005). It was a time when digital technology had changed, and digital cameras were more accessible to everyone that was interested in the media and the audiovisual space.

My generation sensed this might be our time to narrate our stories and show the world what’s going on. You start with this naïve teenage view, where you think if you get these stories and documentaries out into the world, you’re going to expose what’s going on in Palestine. Very quickly, you realise the world doesn’t work this way. You still appreciate what you’re doing, you still know that you’re touching a few hearts and changing a few minds, but you become a little bit wiser.

The other point in time that always comes to mind is, when I was four or five-years-old, my family bought our first video camera. The first thing that came to mind was for us to go to my grandmother’s house, which is now, technically occupied. It was taken during the 1948 Nekba. The family was never allowed to go back to it and the ruins of this house remain with my grandmother’s farming land inside an Israeli kibbutz. It’s now technically owned by the kibbutz under the “Israeli Absentee Property Law” that took hundreds of thousands of dirams and Palestinian property.

My grandma didn’t want to go because it was too emotional, and it took some time to convince her. We went with my uncle who was a wedding videographer, and my older sister took care of me and my older brother. My grandma was showing us where her house used to be. There were the leftover doors, windows, and walls, and there was part of the floor of the house where my mom was born. She showed us what was left of her trees and well, which is significant in the case of A House in Jerusalem.

For years to come, that tape was the most important thing to our family. It was the first thing anyone who visited us was shown. It became symbolic for everyone and for me as a child I thought, ‘wow, this has a lot of power over people.’ When I dig deep into my childhood and upbringing, this videotape left a mark.

A House in Jerusalem director

When you reflect on these formative experiences, are you aware of how they have influenced your creative voice and the type of films you want to make?

When I was starting out and trying to get into film school, the main thing that was haunting me was trying to document oral history. If you capture on tape the stories of those places that we lost in the war, that were taken away from us, and we were never allowed to go back, then you have a piece of it back. It was a sense that if I capture it in moving images, it’s there forever. You defy the reality that it was occupied and taken away from you.

[…] My short films were about the Nekba and the oral history of events, at which time I was documenting and telling stories about the apartheid wall that was being built.

You never really divert from these initial seeds that brought you to this medium. They are always there because it’s who you are, and they’ve left their mark, and this is my reality.

After film school, and after I got into studying fiction writing, I definitely became more interested in other forms of cinema: all kinds of socio-political cinemas, guerrilla filmmaking and independent cinema from Europe and the US.

Were there any films and directors that drew your interest?

When I was in film school, the cinema of Jim Jarmusch and, of course, Godard. And many other young and upcoming filmmakers spoke to me, but for different reasons. There was an independence in these films, and there’s something in the influence of these two filmmakers during the early years of my career, that they made me believe I could do it. It was not simply the ability to pull off a feature film and share it with the world, but also the means and possibilities. Filmmaking is hard and in Palestine it’s twenty times harder for so many reasons: financially and politically. The freedom in their cinema and the way their films were made was liberating and empowering.

Picking up on your point that you never divert from what brings you to the form, does A House in Jerusalem hold true to this sentiment, or can you see an evolution in its story? 

A House in Jerusalem was always different. It was always a story that had so much to do with my childhood and my family’s story. It was personal and emotional, but it was the first time I thought I’d get into the space of the unreal or the fantastic, and the fairy tale world.

When I first had the idea for A House in Jerusalem, I was busy writing my other projects about Palestinian anti-heroes in Jerusalem or Bethlehem. They find themselves in situations that are bigger than them because of the surrounding systems, of living under occupation and all the complexities of society, including taboos and politics.

On one of these nights when I was coming home from the café I used to work at on my laptop, sometimes until 3am, I went through the neighbourhood in West Jerusalem, where my father was born, and my grandfather used to own a butcher’s store. It’s now part of the Israeli side of town, but it’s a place I know so well from my father’s stories. He delivered meat on his bicycle to all the houses, monasteries and churches in West Jerusalem.

Next door to this one house where I knew many stories about its original inhabitants, there was this cab outside, and what looked like a foreign Jewish family moving in. There was this little girl dragging her bag into the house and this is what started the “what if” process. In the middle of being busy with very realistic stories, a couple of which I made into feature films, came this idea about what if this girl encountered the ghost of the original inhabitants, whose lives she knows nothing about? Or, what if she’s being told what others want her to know and not what I know about this place?

So, this is what triggered the what if process that ended up with me writing and making A House in Jerusalem. The seeds of my upbringing and my father and mother’s experiences, and their family’s traumas when they were forced out of their homes, and the whole experience of the displacement of Palestinians, leave its mark. The film is done in a fictional way, and it’s told from the perspective of children, but the spirit of my parents and grandmother are in this film.

A House in Jerusalem docu film

Alongside the fantastical and the fairy tale elements, the story leans into supernatural horror. How would you describe A House in Jerusalem?

I usually describe it as a family drama and fairy tale. I do acknowledge that we are using some horror elements, but it’s not a horror movie and going back to the initial inspiration, I really believe these ghosts exist. So, in a way, I’m making a ghost story that’s fantastical and metaphysical, but I believe it’s realistic.

I grew up believing the soul is split and that my father and my mother, my grandmother and my grandfather went on living with a sense of this absence in their souls. To me, it was a broken piece of their soul that was stuck in time. I had to believe this was true to be able to make this film. The ghost of Rasha is not a ghost that does fantastical things. She doesn’t walk through walls; she doesn’t fly; she doesn’t do magic tricks; she is a real ghost. That was the driving principle I followed and shared with the team, and it was what we were returned to in our choices.

It appears the intent was to use the children’s point of view to offer a specific critique of the adult world.

The choice was definitely to follow the experience of Rebecca as she encounters this new house that she’s not comfortable in. She’s dealing with the loss of her mother, but her father’s willing to move on. We’re seeing everything through her eyes in that sense, but on the larger scale of things, we’re also seeing two girls confront their grief and heal together. Through the children’s innocence, I could ask the tough questions and put a mirror on the more biased and corrupt adult world.

Rebecca is a young girl who has moved from the UK, and she hasn’t been told much. She has been told what others want her to know and Rasha is a ghost that doesn’t know what happened in the last seventy years. She knows a war started, but she doesn’t know the outcome. In the lack of their knowledge but in the courage of their innocence, there was this space where the film could grow, and the story could be told the way it was.

This affected the cinematography because we wanted to see things through their eyes, and we wanted to be with the children. Except for Rebecca’s relationship with her father, everything else around her is as foreign to her as it is to Rasha. Of course, it’s Rasha’s house, but everything has changed. Both are in this bubble and, because of the emotional distance between Rebecca and her father, he’s also in his own bubble. We were aiming for this isolation and to highlight Rebecca’s.

When Rebecca first meets Rasha, we witness the metaphysical incidents around the house. She’s lonelier and more terrified than ever, but when they start talking, and they see each other as girls, there is this period of a budding friendship where things shift. It becomes a story about friendship, but of course, that’s interrupted when another form of horror kicks in, which I call the “state horror” (the police and the system). So, we start with a metaphysical horror, and then we go through this journey of friendship that’s interrupted. 

A central theme is the difficult relationship between the present and the past, and how the latter is a source of pain and anxiety. There’s a political dimension to the film, but it’s also personal in the way audiences will respond to your reimagining of the supernatural.

In the last shot of the film, Rebecca’s ghost understands her existence and is aware of what’s going on, just as moments before Rasha’s ghost came to a similar understanding. When she turns and looks the audience in the eye, we introduce the third dimension. The reason for that shot was to invite the audience to acknowledge and to be aware of your own ghosts that you’ve left behind – people and places that you’ve loved and traumatic experiences. So, you’re on point and that shot is proof of that.

This concept of the ghosts of the living, instead of the ghosts of the dead that we’re used to in fantasy and horror films, is something I’m very proud of.

As a Palestinian, Rebecca and Rasha’s personal stories show there’s a very important connection to be made between grief and trauma, and survival on a personal level. One of the biggest injustices done to Palestinians is the effort that has been put into ignoring our collective trauma.

Speaking to the audience about personal trauma, I know that signifies something collectively for Palestinians when they watch it. I’m hearing feedback from people who relate immediately to that personal and collective trauma. I’m hoping that will signify something for audiences around the world, particularly in the West, where so much power and money are put into suppressing the acknowledgement of this collective trauma that we went through.

A House in Jerusalem film

Given the personal story, what are your thoughts as you reflect on the experience of making the film?

It took a long time. This was the first feature treatment I wrote with my brother Rami. We’d started writing the first draft in 2009, but we shelved it when we were not able to find the financial means to produce it at the time. We went ahead and made two other feature films that did amazingly well in festival and distribution circles. Then we came back to A House in Jerusalem because it was our very first idea, it was a personal story, and we wanted to tell it for ourselves but also for our parents and our grandmother.

Their trauma and their survival were inspiring. They’ve lived their lives a couple of kilometres from the homes [that were taken from them]. They went past them every day and I could never understand how you can move on from this pain as a child.

Their survival was a very personal statement to me, and my brother Rami, and I really fought to make this film happen. The production wasn’t easy, especially wanting to film on location with the geopolitical reality and the occupation in Jerusalem and West Jerusalem. We were also hit hard by covid, and the shoot was postponed. Everything was hard, but the motivation we had was unstoppable because of the personal nature of the story.

A House in Jerusalem played at the 2024 Glasgow Film Festival and is released theatrically in the UK by Peccadillo Pictures.

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