Film, Film Review

Boston Palestine Film Festival Review: A House in Jerusalem (2023) dir. Muayad Alayan 

Part of the 2023 Boston Palestine Film Festival


The Boston Palestine Film Festival ran from October 13 through October 22 after postponing the live component of the festival after the ongoing devastation of Palestine. The live festival returns January 19-25, 2024. 

Click here for the schedule and ticket info, and check out Joshua Polanski’s coverage of many of the festival titles here.

A HOUSE IN JERUSALEM (2023) dir. Muayad Alayan 

The third feature film from the al-Quds (Jerusalem) based filmmaker Muayad Alayan, A House in Jerusalem, begins with an ingenious premise: the ghost of a Palestinian girl haunts a house now owned by British settlers from the modern era. The ghost, Rasha (Sheherazade Makhoul Farrell), and the majority of the horror are de-spookified. She isn’t scary; what happened to her is. Rasha’s just a little girl, perhaps a little pale, but she isn’t obscured by any visual effects, nor does she defy physical reality. The decision turns the dehumanizing aesthetics of traditional ghost and demonic films into a thoroughly humanizing endeavor.  

The largely aloof Michael Shapiro (Johnny Harris) and his fearless daughter Rebecca (Miley Locke) mourn their recently departed wife/mother and move to Israel, in land that once belonged to Palestinians displaced in 1948, to begin anew. This new start comes at a cost to Palestinian life and memory. When Rebecca finds an old doll in the well, Michael throws it away and calls it disgusting. The doll belonged to Rasha; it was made by her mother, who seems to have died in the war. Rasha’s only connection to her peoplehood—a special handcrafted doll specific to her hometown—is now lost to history, its memory seemingly lost too.

While I anticipated a more Parasite approach, Alayan puts aside the more primal-fear-based horror to tell a story of memory shrouded in the genre tropes and disguises of horror. In doing so, I largely forgot about the movie I wanted this to be and was able to appreciate the film it was. Perhaps that’s my own failing as a critic—wanting a movie to be a particular sort of movie (and not just good). Regardless: Alayan mostly quelled those wishes, and that’s the work of good storytellers.

The acting of the two children, at no fault of their own, distracts a little; the line readings often feel more like rehearsal, or even achieved through a digital prompting mechanism rather than a final performance. As many filmmakers have said before, directing children is often considered one of the most challenging aspects of the craft. And I believe this is Alayan’s first time directing a child, certainly to this extent, let alone two of them. When it counts, though, the girls both land the film’s dramatic conclusion. 

Now, a few words about the conclusion. While I haven’t seen Alayan’s two other films, I can say this with certainty: A House in Jerusalem is one of the most optimistic Palestinian productions I’ve seen. He seems to suggest a future is possible where Israelis can help preserve rather than destroy Palestinian memory and culture. Don’t misunderstand me: in no way does he undercut the material reality of Palestinians; the IDF/Mossad raid (I can’t tell the difference, sorry!) in the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem is one of the most emotionally surprising raid sequences I’ve ever encountered. Still, he made an optimistic film that sees humanity instead of monstrosity. And there’s something admirable in that.

A House in Jerusalem
dir. Muayad Alayan 
103 min.

Screens Saturday, 1/20, 12:30pm @ Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Part of the Boston Palestine Film Festival
Copresented by Jewish Voice for Peace Boston and Boston Underground Film Festival

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