Jerusalem’s light rail commuter line cuts sleekly through Jewish and Arab neighborhoods, bringing Jews and Arabs into close proximity whether they like it or not. Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai uses this train as a device to draw pen portraits of everyday Israelis and to examine some of the problems that bedevil contemporary Israel.
His film, A Tramway in Jerusalem, is currently being screened online. It’s composed of a series of vignettes that unfold in the crowded cars. Some are more interesting than others, but each one gives us a glimpse of reality, however benign or harsh.
A group of rabbinical students discuss passages from the Talmud. They’re fixated on a young man whose deep knowledge and words of wisdom inspire respect and maybe even a little awe.
The new coach of a professional Jerusalem soccer team is interviewed by a journalist. A voluble admirer standing nearby insists on answering the questions, much to the coach’s annoyance. “A coach like him is like a dream come true,” he says. The coach is clearly upset by this intrusive fan.
A right-wing Israeli states that Palestinian statehood is out of the question and that the Oslo peace process was a failure. The woman next to him appears to disagree, in a reflection of the polarization of opinion in Israel.
An attractive young woman tells a much older woman about a romantic liaison she’s having with a man she barely knows. She is advised to break away from him. The somber look on her face indicates that she is heading in this direction.
A discombobulated Italian priest speaks to himself in Italian, dropping Jesus’ name and making references to biblical lore as he prattles on.
A French tourist reads an old travelogue about Palestine, his young, restless son trying to pay attention. The father says that different religious sects in Jerusalem were unable to get along and hated their neighbors. Has anything changed?
The informality of life in Israel reveals itself as a mother and adult son casually converse in Yiddish and as she pivots to talk to a yeshiva student next to her and to another person across the aisle.
Waiting for a train on the platform, an agitated young couple decide to end what is left of their relationship.
A Jewish woman accuses a middle-aged man of being a rapist. And in a racist swipe, she claims he’s an Arab. He stoutly denies her accusation, but a security guard throws him on the floor.
Looking like a late 19th century revolutionary, a young Jewish man wearing a peaked cap extolls the virtues of Leon Trotsky, the Russian communist leader.
A Palestinian woman who carries a Dutch passport but who cannot speak Dutch is grilled by a security guard. Meanwhile, another guard tries without success to win back the affections of an ex-lover.
In what is Gitai’s most politicized segment, a beefy Palestinian rapper belts out his feelings in full view of passengers, most of whom appear preoccupied with their own concerns. “Palestine lives within us,” he sings. “We’re an occupied country,” he adds. “We’ll liberate Jerusalem with out blood.”
A middle-aged couple quarrel. “You want to split up?” asks the husband, still bitter over the revelation that his wife had an affair with his best friend.
These are the diverse voices of Jerusalem, a city of social and political complexity, and Gitai encapsulates them in his revealing film.