|Directed by:||Julie Shles||Rating:||TV-PG|
|Release Date:||1993||Running Time:||64 mins.|
|Language:||Russian/Hebrew (English subtitles)||Genre:||Documentary|
Foreigners who immigrate to Israel may think they are leaving discrimination behind, but prejudice is very much alive within the caravan neighborhoods of the promised land. St. Jean, winner of Best Documentary at the Israeli Academy Awards, introduces us to a compelling group of immigrants who struggle on a daily basis with their status as outsiders in a new country, while barely tolerating each other.
“Israelis have another life,” complains a caravan resident. “They think about having fun. They dress up. They take life in stride. We’re so simple, so negligible.”
They come from places like Russia, Ethiopia and Argentina and live together in housing complexes that are attractive for their low cost, but little else. Each small, box-like home is the same as the next, with a huge web of electrical wires dangling overhead. There is little of nature to be seen growing amidst the concrete, and there is even less privacy from one house to the next. This forced proximity makes tempers short, but in a place where not everyone speaks the same language much is left unsaid.
Thus, the viewer can best grasp the quiet desperation of the St. Jean caravan residents by listening to the sounds of daily life. We hear the soggy slap of the wet rag a young woman uses to scrub the small floor of her home; the swoosh of passing cars as she waits to hitch a ride to her job as a waitress; the keen wail of a little Arab girl whose sick family member has just been taken away by paramedics. The sounds of St. Jean’s children linger more than the rest. The repetitive skipping of a little white girl’s jump rope provides a deceptive facade for the shockingly vicious hatred she bears for black people, while the pounding of an Ethiopian boy’s feet upon the caravan town’s streets drowns out the racial taunts burned into his memory.
Director Julie Schles captures a prevailing bitterness among her subjects regarding their plights that gives an extraordinary edge to the film’s social commentary. When a woman who barely scrapes by on a meager salary tries to express the impossibility of connecting with more financially stable Israelis, she describes it as “taking a millionaire and a simple person who’s got almost nothing at all. There’s no such combination in the world, no such friendships.” Many of the residents have lost any hope of fitting into mainstream Israeli society.
Even the optimists in St. Jean have trouble finding anything positive about life amid the bleak landscape of the caravan. A cheery older woman from Argentina comments how much prettier the color of Israel’s sky is than that of her old South American home, while conspicuously leaving out any appraisal of the land below.
To linger too long on St. Jean’s narrow broken streets causes a kind of cultural “cabin fever” among its residents, a restlessness that burns off the screen. Schles takes full advantage of the many dramas playing out before her camera, and keeps its lens relentlessly focused upon the storm of emotions playing across the varied faces of the caravan.
Providing entree into a rarely-glimpsed area of Israeli society, St. Jean straightforward and powerful depiction of life on the fringe earned the film “Best Documentary” honors at the 1993 Israeli Academy Awards. It also serves as a visceral reminder to all city-dwelling Israelis not to take a comfortable urban lifestyle for granted. There are plenty of immigrants living just beyond the city limits who would gladly trade up.