Movie Review: When apples fall far from the tree

An Ethiopian patriarch experiences conflict with his family in ‘Red Leaves.’

By
April 15, 2015 13:27
3 minute read.
‘Red Leaves’ movie

‘Red Leaves’ movie. (photo credit: PR)

RED LEAVES
Hebrew title: Alim Adumim
Written and directed by Bazi Gete
With Debebe Eshetu
Running time: 80 minutes
In Hebrew and Amharic
Check with theaters for subtitle information


Conflict between immigrant parents and their assimilated children is a timeless theme, and Bazi Gete’s Red Leaves tells that story from the point of view of an Ethiopian patriarch in Israel.

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The film, which won the Anat Pirhi Award for Best Debut Film and the Fipresci Award (the International Federation of Film Critics Award) at the Jerusalem Film Festival last summer, is an engaging drama. Beautifully acted and carefully written, it shows a side of Israel that rarely makes it to the big screen.

The story is simple. Masganeo (Debebe Eshetu), an elderly Ethiopian immigrant to Israel, has just lost his wife, and he sells the family apartment. At a family gathering, he announces to his understandably disconcerted grown children that he is not going to buy a smaller place or move into a retirement community but will be living with them from now on. His stays with two of his sons form the basis for the film, and they play out like an exploration of different aspects of the Ethiopian Jewish experience in Israel.

The first family he goes to live with is still traditional, both religiously and in terms of Ethiopian identity. But as hard as they try to please him, they fall short. The usual problems surface: Masganeo, an extremely stubborn patriarchal figure, is used to having everything done his way. If he’s with this family now, then everything they do must revolve around him; and when it doesn’t, he’s hurt and angry. Still a passionate believer in traditional gender roles, he manages to alienate his daughter- in-law with his dictatorial ways and is hurt when she vents her frustrations. He gets particularly angry at a teen granddaughter who has a non-Ethiopian boyfriend and is used to leaving the family apartment after Shabbat dinner to meet him.

The next family he stays with lives in an upscale version of the Israeli dream. They are no longer religious, and at first things go more smoothly with than with the first family, partly because the daughterin- law is friendlier and more malleable.

This son is much wealthier, and the money helps make life easier – at first. But when Masganeo realizes his son is having an affair, he can’t conceal his disapproval. This son may have made it in terms of Israeli status, but Masganeo still cares about moral values.

After he leaves this family, a tragic coda shows how tough acceptance still is for Israelis of Ethiopian descent when deporting foreign workers in the country illegally is such a high priority for the government.

For some incomprehensible reason, Eshetu, who gives a brilliant, layered and utterly convincing performance in the central role, was not nominated for an Ophir Award for Best Actor this year – an indefensible omission.

Those knowledgeable about African film are familiar with the work of this distinguished Ethiopian actor. He helped found the Union of African Performing Artists in Zimbabwe and has appeared in a number of international films, among them the 1973 Shaft in Africa.

Although Eshetu has many lines in the film, he tells the whole story with his eyes, which are constantly searching for a past that is gone for good and a world that accorded him dignity and status. It’s a great performance, and it elevates the movie to something much more just a drama about generational and cultural conflict. He makes us understand this often unlikable man and, through understanding him, come to care for him.

Ethiopian filmmakers are just beginning to come into their own in Israel, and while Red Leaves isn’t an “Ethiopian film,” it is part of the trend of movies by directors from diverse backgrounds telling stories about their own experiences.

Bazi Gete’s Red Leaves is an accomplished first feature, and then some. It didn’t get the attention that some of the showier Israeli films received this summer at the Jerusalem Film Festival, and I hope that with this commercial release, it gets its due.


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