by Jessica Mosby
- USA -
Growing old in a nursing home is rarely an enviable fate. For the Palestinian Christian residents of the Catholic–run Our Lady of Sorrows nursing home, old age is particularly disheartening. Located in East Jerusalem, the nursing home is situated right next to the Israeli security wall that cuts through the West Bank. But most of the employees and residents’ families live in Palestine, and therefore need special authorization to cross the border legally.
The documentary takes its title from a concrete block used to build the security wall. Spray-painted with the instruction “This Way Up,” the block was ironically placed upside down and acts as a metaphor for the nursing home’s misplaced inhabitants, who look at the misplaced block through their windows every day.
Lazarevski does not take sides; the film is surprising apolitical. Rather, he quietly captures what it’s like to wait for your life to end in essential isolation. Residents are continuously disappointed by their families’ disinterest or inability to visit, and most rarely leave the nursing home. Some seem slightly pacified when smoking, which is allowed everywhere with orderlies even lighting cigarettes for the physically disabled.
Amongst the understandably cantankerous bunch, Lazarevski profiles one spry octogenarian who, after making his daily rounds around Our Lady of Sorrows, regularly leaves the building to explore the construction of the security wall. Clad in his self-imposed uniform of jeans, a gray sweater over a button-down shirt, and a black skull cap, Jad appears younger and more alive than his peers. The twinkle in his eye and the caring way he interacts with people is a far cry from the resident who threatens to “slap” the lady sitting next to her if she doesn’t stop singing – and that’s after cursing the day she was born.
Despite the less than ideal circumstances and the dated nature of the facility, the nuns and lay employees are very positive and caring. And yet their personal feelings about the state of their country are anything but optimistic. Raed, who after living abroad returned to Palestine and now works at the nursing home, says that his “life has lost its taste.” Lazarevski actually lived at Our Lady of Sorrows during filming, and the trust he gained with his subjects is obvious during their very personal interviews.
The documentary’s subject matter is interesting and original, but at only 56 minutes the film leaves too much unexplained. This Way Up’s premise is never clearly articulated on screen. The context, location, and timeline are only alluded to. Lazarevski is telling a story from a distance; his approach to his subject matter is subtle and observant – maybe too subtle and removed for viewers unfamiliar with the specifics of the Israeli/Palestinian border conflict.
The loose narrative structure does however make for a very intimate and thought-provoking film. Lazarevski’s direction creates a tone of feeling what it is like to be waiting to die in this odd state of isolation without ever actually expressing an opinion on an extremely divisive issue. It’s a documentary in the truest sense of the genre, really documenting an experience.
Despite its shortcomings, This Way Up captures a unique point of view, which is the whole point of PBS’s POV series.
About the Author
Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in Oakland, California. In the rare moments when she's not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.