Turning a blind eye

As the plight of foreign workers makes regular headlines, two Israeli actors have given their hardships center stage.

When the foreign workers first arrived here, providing creative material for filmmakers and playwrights was probably the last thing on their minds. Yet a wave of productions about foreign workers has swamped the Israeli entertainment scene in the past year or so. While the cinema has produced The Promised Land and the Ophir Award winner What A Wonderful Place, the documentary has provided us with Children By Remote Control and The Paper Dolls. "The Silent Sector", a social parody, is the theater's answer to this burning topic. Written by playwright-director Roni Feldman, "The Silent Sector" places the typical Israeli in the world of Bulgarian foreign worker Christo, portrayed by veteran Albert Cohen, and his Turkish flatmate and fellow worker Kemal, who is played by Poly Reshef. Both are employed by the human resources company "Half-Free Manpower" and their boss is a con-man who mistreats them. "The subject of foreign workers," says Feldman, "is one of the more prominent predicaments in our society and it is hard for a playwright to ignore it. Their difficulties reflect the way we look, and so when you look at them you also see us from their point of view." The event that triggers the chain of incidents that put under the microscope the day-to-day hardships foreign workers have to face, is the bus suicide attack in which Kemal is shot by Israeli fire, mistaking him for the perpetrator. But despite having a visit from the Israeli President who assures him the country humanely takes care of its weak sectors, the National Insurance refuses to pay him compensation because he does not belong to any sector. Cynical Christo, who is more familiar with country's hard-heartedness and bureaucratic rigidity, persuades Kemal to try to convert or get married in order to receive his compensation. Feldman and his cast based the play on conversations they had with foreign workers of various origins. The stage decoration is a replica of a real workers' residence used, rusty and minimal furniture. "Authenticity is pivotal here," says Feldman, "to the point where we place supermarket trolleys with suitcases at the entrance of the theater hall this is how the workers move from place to place, and they do it very often." Seventy-three-year-old Cohen recalls that the special performance they gave at the Knesset made a lasting impact on him. "The Knesset's Committee for Foreign Workers invited us to perform in front of MKs and foreign workers," he says, "and there we met foreign workers employed by 'gangsters' who held their passports, earning as little as $600 a month, most of which they had to send to their wives and kids. When they were told to leave the country, they didn't even have the money to fund their flight tickets, and their employers wouldn't even lift a finger to help. "A friend of mine said something that I thought was spot on. Our foreign workers are not the silent sector we are, the Israelis. We keep quiet about their struggle and do nothing at all to help." Reshef, 56, chips in, saying: "We definitely speak our minds about ourselves in the play and through foreign characters we show that it's painful for us too." In a society obsessed with celebrities and soaps, opting to focus on social dilemmas is a risky move. "You need courage to take such a subject for a play," says Cohen. "You are at risk of stirring up scandals that could divert attention away from the subject itself. Many directors would avoid discussing issues like this lest the audience tells them that the message they are trying to get across is wrong." Reshef nods but adds: "We take part in 'consensus' plays as well but there comes a point where you feel the need to have a say." This play is not for those looking to kill the time. The foreign workers' wrath and frustration penetrate into the audience's mind when they laugh at the gags, shed tears with the characters, and put their heads in their hands with shock. Feldman admits that beyond the criticism his play also expresses the desire to correct the situation, "but between desires and reality there's a big gap and as artists we fill that gap with what we say on stage. If everyone who sees the show leaves with the understanding that there's a person behind every foreign worker it will mean we're on the right track." "The Silent Sector" is now playing at Givatayim Theater and Beit Lessin's Caf Theater.
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