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IFFR 2023 Limelight

Review: A House in Jerusalem


- Creative duo Muayad and Rami Alayan craft a touching coming-of-age tale exploiting some well-known tropes about loss and trauma but in a fresh, powerful fashion

Review: A House in Jerusalem
Miley Locke and Johnny Harris in A House in Jerusalem

Writer-director Muayad Alayan’s coming-of-age drama A House in Jerusalem [+see also:
film profile
is certainly one of the small gems at this year’s IFFR. The feature, penned with Rami Alayan, was showcased in the Limelight section of the Dutch gathering.

The picture sees young Rebecca (Miley Locke) forced to move with her father (Johnny Harris) from England to Jerusalem. He hopes that their new beginning in Israel will help the child heal from the sudden loss of her mother. After they move into an old house in a neighbourhood known as the Valley of the Ghosts, a series of mysterious events unfold and Rebecca is blamed for them. Everything seems to be triggered by the child’s intense curiosity about a trapdoor located in the house’s courtyard, wherein she finds an old doll that has been abandoned there, probably for decades. After a while, Rebecca finds out what is behind all of these weird happenings. As soon as the film seems to throw us into a rather classical horror story, however, it takes quite an unexpected turn.

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Apparently, the house is still inhabited by the spirit of a mysterious girl, called Rasha (Sheherazade Makhoul Farrell), who claims she has been waiting for her parents to come back for a very long time after they fled “from the men with the guns”. Rasha is only visible to Rebecca, and they both try to find out what has happened to her and her family.

Here, the quality of the writing is crystal-clear as the creative duo manages to beautifully touch on several themes besides loss and trauma. A House in Jerusalem is also a tale about friendship, mental health and dysfunctional families, with some obvious hints at Israel’s complex sociopolitical context.

The lofty ambition of combining all of these elements would make it easy to fall into the trap of delivering a potpourri-like script, but luckily enough, they are all well balanced, as they help the narrative move forward.

Without mincing words, the main cast is solid and convincing. Locke, whose attitude and look bear a striking resemblance to those of a young Millie Bobby Brown in Stranger Things, imbues her character with the right dose of rebellious spirit and stubbornness. Meanwhile, Harris infuses his role with fragility, and we truly realise how much pain he is in during the scene where Rasha witnesses one of his saddest secrets. He does his best for his daughter – and himself – to help them move on, seeking out external help and trying to keep things under control. Besides, Makhoul Farrell’s performance is credible in her dual role of “house spirit” and abandoned child who has lost track of time and has no knowledge of the outside world – surely not the easiest task to accomplish for an actress of her age.

All in all, the picture emerges as a compelling metaphor about trauma – the nature of the house’s spirit is fully revealed through a surprising plot twist. Even though the movie exploits some well-known tropes, the final result feels fresh and very intriguing.

A House in Jerusalem was produced by Palestine’s PalCine Productions and the UK’s Wellington Films Limited, and co-produced by Qatar’s Metafora, Germany’s ZDF/ARTE, the UK’s Cocoon Films, Germany’s Red Balloon Film and the Netherlands’ KeyFilm, in partnership with Egyptian-Emirati firm MAD Solutions. Greek outfit Heretic is in charge of the picture’s world sales.

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