For years Greek Orthodox Patriarch Irineos lived in isolation, locked away in the Patriarchate of the Old City of Jerusalem. Ever since he was accused of selling lands to an ultra right Jewish extremist organization Ateret Cohanim in a sneaky real estate deal, Patriarch Irineos was in exile. In her riveting documentary The Patriarch’s Room, which screened at the 2017 NYJFF, Danae Elon attempts to uncover the truth of the accusations which are laden with incredible significance in the balance of power between the Muslims, the Christians, and the Jews in one of the holiest cities on earth.
A narrator and participant in the ethnographic investigation, director Elon penetrates the shadowy corridors of the Patriarchate and interviews the current Patriarch Theophilos III (the Patriarch jurisdiction is over Arab Christians living in Israel, the Palestinian Authority territories, and Jordan). She speaks to the gatekeeper who has the only key to the room, and to Abu Amar who delivers Patriarch Irineos food in a basket that the Patriarch pulls up with a rope through his window. She also speaks to the Police Commander of the Old City, Avi Bitton, who is charged with protecting Patriarch Irineos.
Each individual implies that the Patriarch is locked in the room of his own free will. Their comments and her attempt to speak with Patriarch Irineos leave the trail cold. However, we are intrigued by the profound picture of what is at stake, the resistance and determination of Patriarch Irineos to survive his demotion and vilification by the Patriarchate and the outcries of betrayal from Christian Palestinians who believe him guilty of conniving with Jewish settlers despite the Greek Orthodox Palestinian cleric’s mandate to stabilize the region in the balance of political power.
The newspaper articles from March of 2005 which Elon uses to introduce the film are damning. Patriarch Irineos is pictured next to headlines alleging “The Jaffa Gate is Ours!” The Jaffa Gate is the most meaningful entrance to the Old City, Elon narrates, as she cogently delineates the circumstances so that we will understand her attempt to decipher the mystery of what happened and why Patriarch Irineos might live in fear. However, no one in Jerusalem wants to discuss the extent to which politics might be a factor in the unusual circumstances at the Patriarchate.
In the Jerusalem segments of the documentary we see the vibrance of the Old City in beautifully edited shots. We are treated to visuals revealing the elegance of the Patriarchate and its somber streets. During panoramic shots of the area, Elon clarifies that if the land had indeed been sold to the Jewish settlers, it was a symbolic takeover of the Old City overthrowing the Greek Orthodox Palestinians’ great authority in the Holiest City on earth and upsetting the balance of power among the three great religions.
The information Elon explains is exceptional. She uses voice over narration against stark views of the Old City, her interviewees, various street scenes, and more. For example, we learn from the defrocked Little Irineos who worked closely with Patriarch Irineos, and was punished for it and exiled from the Jerusalem Patriarchate, that the Greek Orthodox Church is a large landowner.
In a fascinating segment Little Irineos and Elon go to a high tower in the Patriarchate. From there Little Irineos points to the land that the Greek Church owns on all sides, North, South, East, and West. On the land are Israel’s government buildings, museums, expensive hotels, prime real estate, and more. Israel must cooperate with the Greek Church— the oldest and most powerful church in Jerusalem— especially with regard to land deals as its third largest private landowner. Clouding Israel’s horizon is always the potential problem of the Patriarchate coming under the influence of a pro-Palestinian Patriarch. If such were to occur, what would be the result when long-term leases with tenants like the Israeli government began expiring?
During Elon’s investigation various names surface boding that there are shadowy, powerful individuals behind the accusations and the demotion of Patriarch Irineos, who was the only Patriarch in the Church’s 2000-year-old history evicted from his position for reasons other than sickness or death. Another unusual detail is the unanimous decision of the Senate to elect Partriarch Theophilus III. As with the demotion, it is another first; he is the only Patriarch in the Church’s 2000-year-old history to be elected unanimously. Elon intuits these unprecedented occurrences represent, as Patriarch Theophilus III implies during an interview, that internal and external political forces are at work.
After this realization Elon comes to the gradual recognition of Patriarch Irineos’ potential for innocence. Certainly, the land deals would be tantamount to committing suicide by Patriarch Irineos, or an act of insanity or evidence of Alzheimer’s, neither of which he exhibits. Indeed, he manifests great resilience in his trial of faith as he stands for justice, while the Greek Orthodox Church punishes him and Christian Palestinians forget him. There must be something to his claims of innocence.
Elon gradually assembles an understanding of the politics between the Palestinian Christians and the right wing Ateret Cohanim and Mani Dan whom she tries to interview but cannot. She travels to speak with monks of the brotherhood loyal to Patriarch Irineos at the Petra Monastery in Karditsa, Greece. It is a beautiful, secluded area with picturesque rolling hills and a rustic, charming monastery far from the ancient sites in Holy Jerusalem. There, Elon conducts a number of interviews. The monks refer to her as a force of goodness like Mary Magdalene, who went to Caesar to validate Christ’s death and resurrection. They believe that like Mary Magdalene (a sanctified woman not the harlot of Catholicism), she will be able to vindicate Patriarch Irineos. To Elon who is not religious (Jewish/Christian/Muslim), the comparison is humorous.
In a mystical interview Elon captures with the reverend Gerontas Dionysios Abbot of Petra Monastery, he mentions that when one seeks the truth, one must speak face to face with a person. Only then will the truth blossom. Elon intuits that the spiritual monk known as Little Irineos who is most dedicated to returning Patriarch Irineos to the throne of the Patriarchy will help.
She and Little Irineos gain each other’s confidence and become friends. The defrocked monk flies back with her to Jerusalem where he tells her how he was the financial advisor who took over after Nikos Papadimas pulled off a scam then vanished. Papadimas allegedly used the Patriarch’s power of attorney to contract with a real estate company in the Virgin Islands (a front for Ateret Cohanim), to purchase church land for them. When Patriarch Irineos and Little Irineos first hear of such a deal, they are shocked. The Patriarch refuses to sign any papers and ignores the settler’s lawyer’s calls to finalize the deal, even the call threatening an atomic bomb will go off in the Patriarchate. The next day the article appears “Jaffa Gate is in Our Hands,” and the internal political dynamics at the Patriarchate rev into high gear.
To discover these machinations, Little Irineos introduces her to his friend lawyer Elias Khoury. He provides information about Bishop Timothy, a rival of Patriarch Irineos who wanted to take over the Patriarch’s position and undermines him using the help of an “Israeli” voice over the phone. This occurred before the land transactions began. Though it is going on three years since she began her investigation, Elon travels to meet Bishop Timothy on Cyprus but learns little conclusive information.
It is only after she returns to Jerusalem and speaks to former Prime Minister Olmert (2006-2009), and his notorious intelligence minister Rafi Eitan that she sees Bishop Timothy at the Patriarchate. This time he is honest with her and the picture of Israel’s intrigue in using the Patriarchate becomes clear.
For her exceptional efforts Elon is awarded with the prize of being the first visitor to Patriarch Irineos’ room in almost ten years in a heartfelt, poignant, and very emotional meeting and interview. After Elon makes sure he has decompressed and is “OK,” to which he tearfully replies, “Yes,” the truth blossoms. He tells her the specific details of what happened. In his revelations there are grave questions about the political ramifications of what was promised to Israel by Patriarch Theophilus III in order for him to become Patriarch.
Danae Elon has perfected treasure with The Patriarch’s Room. She mystifies and enlightens, perplexes and gratifies. At the basis is a story of fear, greed, desire, political convolutions, subterranean plots, all of it human, dangerous, real. It is a must see.