Thinking positively

Shmuel Baru is intent on making a full-length film to change perceptions of his Ethiopian community.

ethip film 298 (photo credit: Nurit Baru)
ethip film 298
(photo credit: Nurit Baru)
Shmuel Baru talks as if he is in a one-man comedy sketch. The words fall rapidly out of his mouth and after each sentence he smiles a big toothy grin. The comic backdrop to his words is ironic considering Baru is talking about the tragic conditions of Israel's Ethiopian community, to which he belongs. Poverty, racism, murder, suicide and difficulty with integration are all themes that this 31-year-old actor has bravely woven into a film script that he is intent on making into a full-length feature, Zrubavel, to change perceptions of his community here and around the world. The first Ethiopian Israeli to tackle these issues in the form of a movie, Baru - who has already spent $10,000 making a 10-minute pilot of several scenes from Zrubavel - says its about time that Ethiopians themselves presented the real picture. "What society knows about us comes solely from the media," he says, smiling again. "Who are Ethiopians? The media only shows the things that make newspapers sell or give higher ratings. I want to tackle this from the root of the problem, which I believe is images in the media," says Baru, listing all the traits Israelis usually associate with Ethiopians: gentle, shy, quiet, na ve and a real poor soul. "I am making a film about real people, the point is to show they are normal people just like everyone else." He quips: "What I know about Persians and Moroccans comes directly from the media - Persians are stingy and Moroccans are lazy and all Americans are rich. In the same way, what everyone knows about the Ethiopian community is from the media." Well-known in the Ethiopian community thanks to a series of Amharic-language comedy sketches sold on DVD, Baru adds: "I want people to relate to Ethiopians in a positive way and offer them work in a genuine manner, not because they feel sorry for them but because it pays to offer them work." He notes that aside from the media, the other problem with the Ethiopian community's image is that older leaders continually paint a depressing picture of a poor, weak and downtrodden people. "It is important to show others that you are strong," he states emphatically, describing a scene in the script in which a young boy is crying and his father tells him: "Don't show people you are weak because there will always be some who are happy about that." "It is the central theme of my film - don't show people you are weak," he repeats again for emphasis. "We are fed up with the image of the Ethiopians being the weakest link in society." Baru says that many in his generation feel this way and that may explain why some Ethiopian Israeli youths identify strongly with African Americans. "Black people in America are cool," he says. "The African Americans show the strong side of being black, but here being black is all about being poor." BORN IN the Gondar region of Ethiopia, Baru came here via France with his family in 1984, a year before the big immigration of Ethiopian Jews arrived with Operation Moses. "I always say that I did not make aliya with all the other Ethiopians but came just before the end of season sale," he jokes. His family lived in Safed until 1992 and then moved to Hadera. Not long after, Baru entered the University of Haifa to study acting and political science. He knew he wanted to be an actor, but his first audition at the university did not go according to plan. "I failed the audition," he recalls. "I was really angry, so I left and wrote myself a one-person play and asked if I could come back and show them." They were so impressed by the skit that he was automatically accepted, putting him into the rare category of "Ethiopian Israeli actors." It was during that time Baru met another Ethiopian comedian/actor, Yossi Vassa, who caught the attention of the mainstream public in 2002 with his one-man stand-up show, It Sounds Better in Amharic. Together, the two Ethiopian actors did the rounds of local comedy clubs and eventually put together the DVD series, which Baru says mostly pokes fun at their fellow immigrants and the typical Israeli images of them. Following his years at university, Baru tried to break into mainstream acting and filled several roles at Habimah Theater in Tel Aviv. However, he says, "It is difficult to be an Ethiopian actor. Israelis do not like foreign people, or foreign things, there are no serious roles for Ethiopian actors." Baru turned his talents to scriptwriting about a year and a half ago, because "there were no serious films being made about Ethiopians," and his next challenge was to find some talented Ethiopian actors to play the roles he had created. As he begins to describe the characters in his script - father, mother, son and daughter - they take on a life of their own. The father, the film's main character, Baru says, "is based on my own father. In the film, he is a cleaner and in real life my father is a cleaner. What is amazing is that he is a man of 76, who gets up every morning at five and works until five, and if you ask him whether he is okay, he always replies: 'Thank God, what a wonderful country we live in, thank you.'" BARU SAYS the lack of Ethiopian actors was daunting, but luckily a friend recommended an older man who had always aspired to be a professional actor. "He had no background in acting, but as soon as I met him I knew that he would be perfect for the part," says Baru, of the traditional-looking Meir Dessea, who plays the struggling father figure. The same is true of the spotlight-stealing daughter, played by Tamar Yemla, whom Baru cast after meeting her at a social event. In fact, the only well-known actor slated to appear in Zrubavel is Dov Navon, who agreed to be part of the film after reading the script. "I'm sure the pilot will be enough to get people interested in this issue," says Baru confidently. "It is a story with universal themes and people from all backgrounds will be able to relate to it." With the script written and the pilot made, Baru's next step is to secure funding. The Israel Film Fund has already promised $50,000, which will allow him to start shooting in March, but he estimates he will need another $250,000 to complete the project. After appealing to various Ethiopian funds, Baru says he is pretty much on his own. "I told them that this film will improve the image of the Ethiopian community, but so far no one has been willing to help," he says, adding that such is his drive to make this film, he is even considering asking his community to contribute financially. "I have thought about asking individuals to pay NIS 10 toward making the film, to invest in it and then they can get a copy of the DVD when it is finished," he says. "It is a chance for all of us to change the image of the community. It will also give these aspiring Ethiopian actors a chance to pursue a career and get paid for doing something positive. "The stories told here are very important to me and I am sure that many people will pay to see this film when it is made," he continues, smiling again. "It will show the real Ethiopian community, that we are not a poor or sad community, but that we really do have a lot to offer Israeli society."