The film ended and the lights came on at the Kol Haneshama Reform synagogue in Jerusalem. There was a moment of silence, and then deafening applause. A few members of the hundred plus audience even rose for a standing ovation.
The movie was “Lady Titi,” the first full-length comedy made in Israel on the subject of Ethiopian Jews. The movie is currently in theaters in Israel, but this was the first screening with English subtitles in the presence of the director and several of the actors. They hope to pitch the film to Netflix, where Israeli series such as “Shtisel” and “Hashoter Hatov” (“The Good Cop”) are having a moment these days.
The film is well-done and very funny, and I highly recommend it. Without giving away any spoilers, the plot turns on an Ethiopian man named Werko, who owes money to the mob and runs away to his mother’s house in an unnamed development town in Israel. To avoid his creditors, he dresses up as a woman (Lady Titi), and gets a job running women’s empowerment workshops aimed at the Ethiopian community.
It is Tzvika Iskias’s first movie, a fact the audience seems hard-pressed to believe. He is trained as a dancer and did a fair amount of dancing in the film, and pulls off the drag character admirably.
“You were amazing and reminded me of Dustin Hoffman or Robin Williams,” one audience member visiting from the US said, referring to other famous films that included cross-dressing. “How did you get ready for that kind of a role?”
Rising up on his toes, Iskias answered, “I studied my wife and how she walked and talked. At one point she said, ̒ Tzvika, too much gay!̓ but from the very moment I entered the role I told everyone to call me Titi and I became almost obsessed with being Titi.”
Another standout performance came from Tehila Yshayahu, Worko’s worried, scolding mother. In some ways she was a typical Jewish mother, yelling at her son, muttering to herself, but at the same time she was uniquely Ethiopian, dressed in traditional Ethiopian clothing and speaking to herself in Amharic.
The script was written and produced by a husband-wife team, Elad Wexler and Esti Almo Wexler. Esti, who is Ethiopian and moved to Israel at age 4, says she hopes the film will start a conversation between native Israelis and the Ethiopians who live among them.
“I want the Israelis to know us in a different way,” she says. “You are used to seeing us in tragedies or in the newspapers. I want to show another side of our culture.”
The film, with a budget of more than $820,000, was partly funded by the Ministry of Communications as well as several private foundations.
The directors hope it will educate Israelis about the 140,000-strong Ethiopian community and the difficulties they continue to face. A new survey by the Commission for Equal Opportunities at Work shows that Ethiopian women earn 50 percent less than their Israeli counterparts.
Ethiopians also say there is widespread racism against them in Israeli society. Shula Mola, the chairperson of the Israeli Association of Ethiopian Jews, said she sees racism increasing in Israeli society.
“At the beginning we could say that the discrimination was because we were new,” she said in an interview with The Jerusalem Report
. “Today, 25 years later we are not accepted because of preconceived notions and racism. Racism is increasing and becoming more open. In the past it was hidden, but now it is legitimate.”
In January, a 24-year-old Ethiopian, Yehuda Biadga, who struggled with a mental disorder, was shot and killed by police after waving a knife in Bat Yam. Members of the Ethiopian community said one of the officers involved had a taser and coud have subdued him. The incident added to the Ethiopian community’s feeling that they are overpoliced.
“I am afraid every time my son goes out at night,” Mola said. “We are over-policed, over-arrested, and nobody says anything.”
Another incident that infuriated the community was the Barkan winery’s decision last year to move several Ethiopian employees from the production line at the Barkan winery, which was trying to obtain a badatz hechsher (strict ultra-Orthodox certification). The rabbis were insisting that the Ethiopian Jews not be involved in the production of the wine, meaning these rabbis did not accept them as fully Jewish. After a widespread outcry and calls to ban Barkan wines, the winery decided to forgo the stricter certification and return the employees to their original jobs.
Perhaps most painful of all from the Ethiopian community’s point of view, was the decades long ban on using blood donations from Ethiopians, which was finally lifted in 2016. When the ban first came to light it sparked widespread demonstrations that sometimes turned violent.
Rates of poverty, crime and domestic violence are also substantially higher in the Ethiopian community than in the general Israeli public.
There are also some notable successes. The current Knesset has two Ethiopian Knesset members, and the first Ethiopian fighter pilot recently finished his training. In 2017, Dr. Avi Yitzhaki became the first Ethiopian to be promoted to the rank of colonel.
Elad and Esti Wexler had already produced three TV series for the Ethiopian channel in Israel. But that channel is watched only by Ethiopians and they wanted to do something to reach a broader audience.
“Sadly Ethiopians are seen by some Israelis as not an integral part of Israeli society,” Elad said in an interview. “The color of their skin makes them different. There is discrimination and economically they have been depressed. The image of Ethiopians is of poverty and crime.”
Some aspects of the film reflect these stereotypes. The male characters are constantly drinking beer, which Tvika Iskias says is true to life.
“It’s like water for us,” he said.
The older generation of Ethiopians tend to be very traditional, and might be uncomfortable with the idea of a cross-dressing Ethiopian, even an actor. Elad Wexler said that in a funny incident, after an all-day filming of a semi-erotic dance scene, the Ethiopian extras on hand had no idea that the woman dancing was actually a man.
There was also Ethiopian music throughout the film. Wexler said he traveled to Ethiopia to get rights to the songs used in the film.
Ethiopian activists hope the fact that the film is a comedy will make people more willing to listen to the film’s message.
“The film is painful and funny at the same time,” Shula Mola said. “It touches on many of the complicated issues the community is dealing with, but it presents them very gently. People usually close their ears and hearts in the face of our difficulties but I hope this film will make them laugh.”
The producers hope to screen the film soon in the US and UK. To view the trailer with English subtitles, go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QVGFykqYOAc
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