The Art of Storytelling

in 13rd Films From the South Festival

by Morten Piil

In modernist cinema the virtues of traditional storytelling are deliberately twisted and broken down. From Alains Resnais’ L’anné dernière à Marienbad to its late Danish heir Christoffer Boe’s Reconstruction, the storytelling itself become the center of fascination and attraction.

A certain kind of cinema exists in hall of mirrors, reflecting upon itself. It might also reflect radically new perceptions of reality. All modernist art forms do that – have to do it in a continuous exploring way. But still there exists another kind of cinema, where the straightforward storytelling is paramount. I don’t mean of the factory-made Hollywood film, solely aimed at profit. I mean a cinema, which derives from an ancient oral storytelling tradition, with listeners sitting around the campfire.

At the Oslo festival two films especially can be placed in this tradition: Travellers and Magicians by Buthan director Khyentse Norbu and James’ Journey to Jerusalem by the Israelian director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz. The sheer pleausure of storytelling – the supense, the sudden twists – is very much part of the raison d’être of both films.

From the point of view of style, the distinction of James’ Journey to Jerusalem is, that it works very well both as a fable about innocence corrupted (but not quite corrupted) and as a satire in the tradition of social realism. Its story about at very naive ung Southern African priest-to-be, who learns the way of the world in a grossly materialistic Israelian society, is presented as a kind of morality fable, almost like a fairy tale about a young man in search of a Holy Grail. This stylization is emphazied by the use of a religious negro choir, regularly singing a song that summarizes what is otherwise being told. These musical interruptions are very well integrated, both as a breather in the otherwise very compact story and as a satisfying rhythmic way of commenting on the story.

But the main thing about James’ Journey to Jerusalem is not the formal scheme, but the urgent reality. The art of storytelling in this film lies in convincing us about the corruption and cynicism of a society which is not so very unlike that of many western European countries. The persecution and ruthless exploitation of immigrants depicted in this film hits home.

The art of storytelling in James Journey to Jerusalem resembles in various ways the films of Ken Loach and Lukas Moodysson. This is not an art that promotes itself as formally innovating. The director goes straight to the heart of the matter and maintains his grip from start to finish. But not in a conventional way. Everything in James Journey to Jerusalem springs to life with striking vividness and immediacy. And its stylistic blend of fable and social realisme has its own kind of originality.