LIVE AND BECOME (Va, vis et deviens)
Directed by Radu Mihaileanu (2005)
The images we see of Ethiopians are often those of children with distended bellies clinging to life as a Western television announcer comments about their depressing fate. No one, however, speaks for the children. Winner of the Audience Award at the Berlin Film Festival, Radu Mihaileanu's Live and Become gives words to people whose voices have been silent. The film tells the story of Ethiopian Black Jews known as Falashas who were brought to Israel in Operation Moses in 1984 by the Israeli Mossad. It was an operation that successfully airlifted 8,000 Ethiopean Jews to Israel, but sadly also one in which 4,000 died during a brutal journey on foot to Sudan or later in refugee camps.
Mihaileanu (Train of Life) was born in Bucharest, Romania to Jewish parents who had spent time in the Nazi labor camps. In 1980, like the film's protagonist, he was torn from his parents when he fled the dictatorship of Ciaucescu to move to Israel and later to France. In Live and Become, a boy clinging to his mother in the Sudan is told by her to "go, live and become". She tells him that he must pretend to be a Jew and instructs him to remember that his name is Solomon, his father's name was Isaac, and his sister's name was Aster. The film spans fifteen years in the life of young Solomon (called Schlomo by the Israelis), describing his experiences of being alone into a foreign country that speaks a language he doesn't understand and filled with people of a different religion and a different color. Mihaileanu crams a great deal into the film's 142-minute length and it often seems cluttered, yet we can listen and understand its heart and the clear voice in which it speaks to us.
As he reaches Tel-Aviv, Schlomo begins the long processes of absorption and integration into Israeli society but the barriers engendered by social and cultural differences prove difficult to bear. He angrily acts out his frustration in a boarding school in Tel Aviv and is sent for adoption to a left-wing French Sephardic family, Yoram and YaE Harrari (Roschdy Zem and YaE Abecassis), who already have two children. They are a close-knit, warm and loving family but face many problems with the boy they did not anticipate. Yael must fight the prejudice of parents in the school who want to withdraw their children from school because they think, coming from Africa, he must be a carrier of disease.
At first refusing to eat, he makes an effort to fit in but hears over and over that because he is black he is not really a Jew. A battle erupts within Israel between fundamentalists and Orthodox Jews over the premise of a black Jew and Schlomo is caught in the middle. Afraid of being discovered as a Christian, the boy immerses himself in Jewish theology, learns Hebrew and French and studies the Torah, yet he carries the burden of his lie around with him. The story then jumps ahead a few years. As a good-looking teenager (Moshe Abebe) Schlomo meets Sarah (Roni Hadar), a white girl he likes but must contend with the virulent racism of her father. Rebelling against the authority of his surrogate parents, the boy is sent to a kibbutz to work and study but maintains a correspondence with Sarah.
As Schlomo (Sirak M. Sabahat as an adult) grows into adulthood and takes responsibility for his guilt, he feels compelled to confess his inner truth and the film capitalizes on every touch of his personal drama. Live and Become tackles one of the most controversial subjects in Israel, that of Jewish identity and racial purity. While it does not hesitate to show the ugly side of Israeli life, it also embraces its humor, sensitivity, and compassion. Although unfortunately the film occasionally slips into clichE Live and Become works because it is about more than the experience of one person. It tells a universal story of alienation, wanting to belong, and the pain of feeling alone, feelings shared by people of all religions throughout the world.