City Paper is not for tourists
Nestled in a booth at a Dupont Circle restaurant, Danae Elon is framed in black: Her hooded sweatshirt, the hair that partially obscures her face, and her videocam are all the same color. The last seems an essential part of her outfit, as the 38-year-old documentarian indirectly acknowledges when she describes making her first feature-length film, Another Road Home.
“For me personally, it’s always been easier to go through anything with a camera on,” she says, smiling. “I think that being sensitive to so many different things, sometimes it’s hard for me to bear certain things without the filter that is a camera. I think it’s a great flaw, but at the same time, it’s really the way I operate. People used to tell me, ‘You just don’t have relationships with human beings.’”
She breaks for a moment. “I don’t really think that’s true, but I truly enjoy the relationship I have with a camera and the way I can photograph people. And the experience of that moves me so much that I want to share it.”
Elon is on camera frequently in Another Road Home, and not just as an interlocutor. She’s the essential link in the narrative, which reconnects her liberal, upscale parents—former residents of Israel who now live in Italy—with Mahmoud “Musa” Obeidallah, the Palestinian man who for 20 years was their housekeeper and her nanny. This reacquaintance doesn’t merely bind two families, of course, but also two nations at war.
Most of the film takes place in New York, where Elon has been based for more than a decade, and nearby Paterson, N.J., the current home for several of Obeidallah’s sons, who funded their American educations with money the Elons paid their father. Eventually, Obeidallah comes to visit his sons and Elon, and her parents also arrive for the reunion.
“I really wanted to make a film about the Middle East, set in America,” Elon says. “I wanted to play it on American ground so American audiences would be able to relate to the subject. Had I tried to reach only a Palestinian or Israeli or a Jewish or an Arab audience, I may as well as made a film back there.”
Nonetheless, the filmmaker acknowledges, she didn’t know exactly what movie she was making when she began. “At first I wasn’t so sure it was going to be so personal. I went to Paterson with an idea of finding Jerusalem, in a sense. But then, as I crossed that bridge between New York and New Jersey, I realized that this story was taking me into crossing other bridges, which had to do with my past, my family, a lot of things that were very far from the political realm. But I always had a feeling throughout the film that I had to use one in service of the other.
“One of the great things that people are able to do in documentary, or in storytelling, is abandon themselves to the story,” she continues. “If you stick to what you thought it would be, you probably would not end up having a film. But if you allow yourself to be taken with what is happening, you come to places you wouldn’t necessarily come to.”
Although Another Road Home is Elon’s first autobiographical work, her other films are also rooted in her life. She’s made hourlong studies of Brooklyn’s Jewish Defense League and of coming of age in Jerusalem and is now planning a “lighter” look at Jewish tradition. “For many years, I was looking for a form of self-expression that really made sense to me,” she says. “I think I’ve always tried to make this film. There are seeds of it in each [earlier] film. I just had to find the voice, or I had to find the mechanism with which to tell the story. But it was only when I decided to take a risk and make it personal that I actually succeeded.”
Elon became a major presence in her movie, she says, partly in response to Obeidallah’s children. “The more the brothers were revealing themselves,” she explains, “the more I had to put myself out there as well. It only seemed fair, and it seemed I could really only justify making the film on a personal level.”
She also notes that Andrew T. Dunn, who shot much of the footage, “threw me into the film. I was on the spot. But I like being in the films that I make now. I’m trying to go away from opinions. If you’re in a film and you’re having an interaction with someone and in the background lies a larger conflict, then what’s interesting is the interaction between you and that person. People remember interactions. If you give someone an experience, and not an opinion, then I think that the effect of a documentary is much more profound.”
A New York University–film–school graduate, Elon began her career as a cinematographer and has shot for the Discovery Channel in South America. When she accompanied Obeidallah from Paterson to his West Bank hometown of Battir, she went without a crew. “I wanted it to be our little journey, sort of a father-daughter journey,” she says. “I was alone in Jordan, alone at the checkpoint, alone in Battir—doing sound, camera, everything. So it was extremely strong, just because I was experiencing this with him, and I was photographing that experience. At times, the experience became more important than the film.
“People ask me, ‘Why don’t we see more of Palestine at the end?’” Elon adds. “‘Why don’t we see more of Musa’s life?’ By the time we reached Palestine, it was about our experience. It wasn’t any more about the film. And so I photographed less and didn’t think I wanted to continue telling that story in this film.”
This final section of the documentary captures the intense experience of entering the West Bank, something that Elon admits overwhelmed her. “It was very strange and difficult, because I was accompanying a Palestinian man through a border that’s only for Palestinians,” she recalls. “I have dual citizenship, American and Israeli. As an Israeli, I’m not allowed to go through that border. I am as an American. But when we got there, it was very confusing to them who I really was. I was experiencing for the first time what it meant to cross a border as a Palestinian. Being surrounded by an army that felt so intimidating to me for the first time in my life—an army which I had been a part of, just 10 years earlier.
“I could really experience how these people treat Palestinians,” she continues. “It’s one thing to know the checkpoints. It’s one thing to go protest the checkpoints. It’s one thing to cross checkpoints with an American passport. But it’s another thing to accompany a Palestinian man, to be [a] Palestinian yet not be one.”
Despite her goal of making a film that was personal and universal rather than simply a tale of the Israeli-Palestinian divide, Elon doesn’t hide her political opinions. “It’s very important that Americans understand how much their support of Israel affects what’s going on,” she says. “If the Americans would just say, ‘Stop,’ and if the Americans would just say, ‘Don’t build 3,500 more units in Jerusalem, because if you do that, we’re going to cut your money.’ Then I want to see what the situation would look like.”
Still, what interests her foremost about her movie is emotion. “Everybody’s very different, and everything’s contradictory. I differ from the brothers; the brothers differ from my father; my father differs from them. And yet we all agree unanimously that the occupation must end, and that the Israeli policies are atrocious. So that’s not the issue. The issue is how are we dealing with ourselves, with our identities, with our lives, within this situation.
“The emphasis was trying to understand how we operate as human beings,” she concludes. “Because that could be story of Israelis and Palestinians, of Chechnyans and Russians, of African-Americans and white people.”
Another Road Home, currently in limited theatrical release in the United States, has already toured the international film-festival circuit and been broadcast on Israeli TV—although not in the West Bank. Elon believes that the film generally unites viewers. “I think they see something they haven’t quite seen before,” she says. “It’s not a film that deals with who’s right or who’s wrong. If you can make a right-wing Israeli and a Palestinian cry at the same moment, I think you’ve done something that might have an influence.”—Mark Jenkins