Stories about Stories
A few years ago Volker Heise had a huge hit when he showcased the city of Berlin for a whole day on television. Now he has conducted the same cinematic experiment this time in Jerusalem, a city like no other in the world: a theatre of conflict, a melting pot, a place of yearning. “24h Jerusalem” enables the viewer to experience the everyday life of the city up close, to delve into the lives of its diverse residents and to gain insights in real time that are so much more accurate and enlightening than those gained from a political report or a commentary put together by a news correspondent on TV.
Mr Heise, in 2009 your “24h Berlin” project showcased the city of Berlin - the city in which you live – for a whole day on TV. What do you find so fascinating about this extended “long-term” format?
As a maker of documentaries I want to tell stories and on TV serial storytelling is the supreme discipline – of this I have been convinced for quite a few years. Serials are in fact an inherent storytelling form for the medium of television, because television is an everyday part of people’s lives and is in itself a kind of serial. On the basis of this conviction I decided five years ago – it is possible to focus on a city for a whole day, to make the city your leading man, so to speak, just as it was in the great novels of the modern age, like Berlin Alexanderplatz or Manhattan Transfer.
Why then Jerusalem of all places?
When I first heard about the project, the idea of Jerusalem held a weird attraction for me. People think they know the city, it is part of our culture and yet somehow we don’t really understand it. There is permanent conflict, it is in a state of flux, everything, really everything, has something to do with history, religion and politics. Trying to capture this is, of course, a very exciting prospect.
Normality is definitely not on the agendaYou just said that in Jerusalem everything is political. Your project also had its problems with this, the shoot even had to be postponed for a year – due to a boycott.
We did in fact make two attempts to get the project off the ground. The original idea from three years ago was to get an Israeli and a Palestinian partner to work together on the project and that the program would be shown on TV both in Israel and Palestine. In the end the whole thing just collapsed around our ears. The Palestinian side said no way would they cooperate with the Israelis as long as Jerusalem was occupied. And so they boycotted the project. The idea of Israelis and Palestinians narrating a day in the life of a city that is so controversial, a city in which there are obstacles to every peace settlement that seem insurmountable – it sounds like a great idea, but it just was not on the cards.
Nevertheless, how did “24h Jerusalem get off the ground?
It took us quite some time to find a way. The documentary is a European project and we were realising it for a European audience. We had assembled 20 European teams, 20 Israeli and 20 Palestinian. Each individual team consisted of a director, production manager, along with camera and sound people. In the end there were to be almost 500 people involved in the organisation and production of the documentary. Throughout the whole of the project the teams worked independently of each other. The offices of the Israeli and Palestinian teams were only about five minutes away from each other, but the they never saw each other, they just did want to.
When it comes to the reality of life in Jerusalem, one thing is for sure – normality is definitely not on the agenda. Each side has its own historical tales, its claims, its demands. So the decision to let Israelis and Palestinians shoot their scenes in separate teams is in fact more than a mere compromise, it is the only way to show that the reality of living in Jerusalem is a tough and fiercely contested existence. The unity of the city could only be achieved in our cutting room.
To capture the complicated urban societyThe protagonists in your film are the normal, everyday residents of the city. How did you go about choosing them?
Working with our Israeli and Palestinian colleagues it took us quite a long time to find them. We placed an imaginary criss-cross grid over the city in order to decide on the right subject areas: politics, everyday life, culture, history, architecture, schools –and, of course, religion. At first the various roles were cast in a somewhat obvious way, for example, rabbi, imam, priest. These images can be deciphered easily. Later we tried to find people whose roles were not so clear, so black and white, people who would add a different touch and a different tone, people who, however, were still very important for the city. Jerusalem is not just a city that has been divided up into Jews and Palestinians, it is a much more fragmented city. It was our intention and aim to capture this complicated urban society, and that meant accepting and showing its diversity.
Do you think you have done justice to the city’s particularly conflict-prone situation with your film “24h Jerusalem”?
Sociologists define the word city as a place of maximum diversity in a minimum of space. This situation almost always leads everywhere to conflicts and this applies to Jerusalem in particular. What does it mean when three world religions and two societies lay claim to a city? Our aim was not to find an answer to this question, but to show what it means for people living in Jerusalem. That is why in the end I would say that 24h Jerusalem is not so much a city portrait as was the case with 24h Berlin for a portrait always implies synthesis, a story with an end. We have tried to put together all the events, happenings and stories of one day into one big jigsaw puzzle. Some pieces still don’t fit and that is good, because it is in those gaps in particular that we catch a real glimpse of the city.
The TV broadcasters Arte and Bayerisches Fernsehen presented 24th Jerusalem on 12 April 2014, starting at 6 AM and continuing throughout the entire day. The film can now be seen for two months on 24hjerusalem.tv.