Film Review

11.20.13

'It's Better To Jump' Tackles Gentrification in Akka

The spelling and pronunciation that one uses to refer to one of the Mediterranean's oldest continuously inhabited sites are telling choices. Since the Crusaders, Western maps have labeled it Acre. Its Hebrew spelling is pronounced “ah-koh,” while the Arabic is best transliterated as “Akka.” The choice of the filmmakers behind "It's Better To Jump" to include the Arabic transliteration in their publicity materials is the closest they come to declaiming a determinate political stance.

The ongoing gentrification of Akka is the issue at the center of the film, which premiered this week as part of the Other Israel Film Festival in Manhattan. The city is the site of a number of other struggles as well: economic, political, cultural, historical―even culinary, as attested by a coda about the origins of hummus. That there is a culture war happening in Akka is never so evident as when Arab inhabitants of the city, speaking to the camera in English, use the Hebrew pronunciation of its name.

The ostensible focus of "It's Better To Jump" is the sea wall that the eighteenth-century ruler Daher al-Omar erected as a deterrent to would-be invaders. For centuries, the viewer is told (and eventually shown, although he is made to wait), the Palestinian children of Akka have participated in a rite of passage that consists of taking a running leap off the wall and into the water thirty feet below. The running start is necessary to avoid the rocks that, a Palestinian subject tells the camera, once nearly broke his back.

This bit about the wall and the jumping tradition composes only a tiny portion of the film. The bulk of the narrative is taken up with interviews. The filmmakers―Gina Angelone and the husband-and-wife team of Mouna and Patrick Alexander Stewart―have assembled an impressive cast of local luminaries. Anchoring this cast is the well-known actor Makram Khoury, who also appeared in a question-and-answer session after the film. There are artists, poets, and rappers; there is a heavyweight boxing champion and a couple of professional soccer players, a pair of earnest and highly-educated sisters, a school administrator, a young and charismatic restaurant owner.

Briefly, here is what is happening to Akka, and what is sensitively depicted in "It's Better To Jump": since the birth of the State of Israel, the city's Palestinian residents have been slowly pushed out by the continuing processes of both natural and forced gentrification. The former process is, at least outwardly, propelled by economic disparities. Akka's Palestinians, many of whom are poor, are daily confronted with irresistible offers from developers and wealthy transplants. This is gentrification of the fashion seen everywhere from Minneapolis to Mumbai.

But there is also an undeniably insidious component to Akka's progressing recomposition: Israeli institutions favor Jews. This is a matter of fact if not a matter of law, and, in any case, it is a matter of public record. A second glance at what appears to be “natural” gentrification reveals it as the other side of the same coin: the Law of Return guarantees a constant flow of favored home buyers to Israel and thus to Akka. Informal prejudice against Palestinians keeps them out of the labor force and permanently stalls their mobility.

There is a process of cultural erasure going on in Akka, nowhere more evident than in the recent sale of Khan al-Umdan to private investors. The khan―the best-preserved such building in Israel―is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, soon to be irreversibly transformed into a 200-room hotel. This sale was bemoaned in the film as well as in the question-and-answer session, during which Khoury spoke about it at length.

This was, incidentally, a fascinating Q&A session. A few members of the largely septuagenarian audience of the screening I attended were quick to challenge what they saw as a one-sided story. A woman in the audience even claimed she had been deceived by the film's publicity material, although one struggles to imagine how the filmmakers might have simultaneously included a sympathetic portrait of the gentrifiers at work. The session came to an end after a rabble-rouser in the front row took the exhausting (and thoroughly exhausted) step of comparing Israelis to Nazis.

This is probably what I should have expected when I went to see a documentary about Israel on a Tuesday night in Manhattan. Nevertheless, it's somewhat disheartening to see so relatively tame a documentary provoking such heated reactions. There are no calls for intifada here, no rabid accusations of genocide or similarly vitriolic pronouncements.

The subjects of "It's Better To Jump" do not demand collaboration in some rhetorical effort. Rather, what is common to each is a resolve to be understood and perceived and treated as people with individual and collective rights to self-determination. This is not a political stance. The children who choose to jump off Akka's sea wall seize the right to own their own fates. This is the same right sought, on a much larger scale, by the interviewees of "It's Better To Jump."