Romanian director brings an Israeli story to the screen

"Without miracles, you can't make a movie," says Radu Mihaileanu. "And finding these actors was a miracle."

ethiopian mom baby 88 (photo credit: )
ethiopian mom baby 88
(photo credit: )
"Without miracles, you can't make a movie," says Radu Mihaileanu, director of Live and Become, which just opened all over Israel and tells the story of a Christian Ethiopian boy who joins the influx of Jewish refugees to Israel in 1985. "And finding these actors was a miracle." Romanian-born Mihaileanu, 47, is speaking about the three actors who portray Shlomo, the main character, at different ages. Moshe Agazai plays Shlomo as a child, Mosche Abebe portrays him during his teen years, and Sirak M. Sabahat takes the role of the young adult Shlomo. During the five years Mihaileanu spent researching, writing and making the movie, which was filmed mostly in Israel, he assembled five different teams of three actors, all of whom had to be able to speak Amharic, Hebrew and French, the language spoken at home by the character's foster family. Finally, before shooting began, he chose the group of three actors who appeared in the film. All of them live in Israel, and Mihaileanu says he grew very close to them. "They became a family to me. They're incredible," he says. While most directors would balk at spending years searching for the right cast, this meticulousness reflects Mihaileanu's attitude toward his work. "Making a movie is such a big responsibility," he says. "I have a conscience. I want to really bring something to people, not just manipulate them or create beautiful images." The movie has been shown and was well received in France and at film festivals, both Jewish and non-Jewish, around the world. Mihaileanu said there had only been one Israeli screening at which schoolchildren, including those of Ethiopian descent, had seen the movie, and he was proud that his young actors told him, "This is our community movie. It's our story." Although many Israelis are familiar with the basic outline of Operation Moses, Israel's mission to rescue Ethiopian Jews from famine and bring them to Israel, few know the details. Mihaileanu became interested in the story, which he calls "the most incredible adventure of the 20th century," when he met an Ethiopian Jew in 1998 at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, where he was presenting his previous film, Train of Life, a story of Jewish survival during the Holocaust. When he heard the man's story, he was touched by how he had survived so much but still made light of his troubles, "as if he were embarrassed to have suffered so much." Mihaileanu began researching the subject and trying to figure out a way to bring this story to moviegoers. He felt the story would be most effective if it focused on a non-Jewish boy, who, following his mother's wishes, poses as a Jew in order to emigrate to Israel. "We don't care if this kid is Christian or Jewish," Mihaileanu says. "This kid just has to be saved." In the end, the character "stays true to his mother and his Christian identity, but becomes very involved with Judaism and knows how to interpret the Torah as well as any Jew, better than most." Shlomo's multi-cultural identity is "a mirror of our world." Mihaileanu, the son of a concentration camp survivor, calls himself "deeply Jewish." He fled persecution in Romania 25 years ago and has been based in Paris ever since. Shlomo faces discrimination and also fears that his Christian origins will be discovered once he reaches Israel, and Mihaileanu understands that critics may use the realistic portrayal of the journey to criticize Israel for saving only Jewish Ethiopians. But he is fiercely defensive of Israel. "Look, Israel can't save everybody. They said, 'We'll save the Jews.' Who did the Vatican save, during this time of famine? How many did the Muslim world save? This is the one situation in the world where saying you were Jewish would get you saved instead of killed," he says. "The Mossad agents were really the heroes here." Since Mihaileanu puts so much into each movie he makes, he takes his time choosing a subject and is not sure yet what his next project will be. He spends a great deal of time here and enjoyed spending Yom Kippur in Tel Aviv this year. "I love the quiet you have when all the cars stop. What other country in the world stops all the cars and planes for a day?" He had a special appreciation for the quiet after having battled Tel Aviv noise during the filming of Live and Become. The movie's generally positive portrayal of Israeli society has made the film a tough sell among some European critics. "I've had people say to me about the left-wing family who adopt Shlomo, 'Does that exist?' They really don't know that there is a left here, that Tel Aviv is a very tolerant city," he says. "I hope that the movie can help a little bit with that, changing the perceptions people have of Israel."