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Ethiopian Jewish life in Israel: 'Zrubavel' producer shows movie at WDCJCC
Washington Jewish Week / February 12, 2009

By Larry Luxner

In Shmuel Beru's award-winning new movie "Zrubavel," a sweet little 12-year-old named Yitzhak runs around his neighborhood, documenting daily life with a cheap video camera. His friends nickname him "Spike Lee" and little Yitzhak, initially a rather minor character, eventually comes to represent the future of his entire community.

It's no coincidence that Beru feels a kinship with the budding filmmaker he created. Like Itzhak, Beru is an Ethiopian Jew struggling to find his place in Israeli society.

"As an artist, I try to tell simple stories. They should be interesting, and also something the audience will like," said Beru, 33. "I wanted to make a movie about a typical Ethiopian family living in Israel. They are very Zionist, but their lives are full of surprises."

On Monday of last week, Beru presented the film his first, and the first film ever created by Ethiopian Israelis to more than 200 people at the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center. The event, co-sponsored by the embassies of Israel and Ethiopia as well as the American Sephardi Federation and B'nai B'rith International, also featured Ethiopian-Israeli vocalist Meskie Shibru-Sivan and traditional Ethiopian cuisine.

If the audience's enthusiastic response was any indication, "Zrubavel," could be the beginning of a promising career for Beru, who is from the Ethiopian city of Gondar. In 1984, at the age of 8, he left Ethiopia as part of Operation Moses and spent a year in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum and various refugee camps before being airlifted to Israel, where he and his family settled in the northern town of Tzfat.

"I eventually went to a yeshiva, where I discovered the Jewish God. I decided to renew myself, but I quit studying because nobody wanted me to learn. I was lazy," said Beru, who had never written a script or even studied filmmaking before.

"You can say that in some way, I saw myself in this movie," he told WJW. "It's like Spike Lee trying to tell the story of Malcolm X. This kid tries to tell his own story; he's the voice of the entire community."

In "Zrubavel," (named after the Tel Aviv street where Beru happens to live), life centers around Yitzhak's grandfather, Gita, a janitor. Despite the Zrubavel family's meager income, Gita dreams of sending his son to an expensive school in order to becaume an Israeli Air Force pilot. At the same time, his daughter falls in love with a distant relative in violation of Ethiopian tradition while another son becomes religious.

The 70-minute film, in Hebrew and Amharic with English subtitles, won Best Film Award at the 2008 Haifa International Film Festival. Its debut at the WDCJCC marked the first time "Zrubavel," has been shown on the East Coast (though it was screened Jan. 13 in Palm Springs, Calif., where most of those in attendance were not Jewish).

In making his movie, the determined Beru managed to get financial backing from the Israel Film Fund and the Gesher Foundation. Asked if he's surprised at the film's success, Beru laughed. "No, because I knew what I was doing," he said. "Otherwise, I would not have made the film."

"Zrubavel," is definitely low-low-budget; filmed in the Israeli town of Hadera, it involved 30 people and cost only $150,000 to make a pittance compared to most movies today.

In fact, most of the actors in "Zrubavel," are not professionals. The man who plays Gili, one of the main characters, is Beru's brother. The boy who plays Spike is his nephew, and a minor characters who tries to make a shidduch for his daughter is actually Beru's father.

Beru, who started out as an actor, currently makes a living as a stand-up comedian, doing his shtick in Hebrew and Amharic.

"I always knew that I had the ability to be a good actor, to be someone in this industry. But I kept getting only small roles, and I didn't want to wait for somebody else to do me a favor and give me a main role," Beru told WJW. "That's when I decided to direct my own film."

Beru he said it took him two years to write the script for "Zrubavel," which was finished four months ago and will be released to the general Israeli public on Feb. 23. His next project is "Mother, Where to?" a film about the exodus of Ethiopian Jews to Sudan in the 1980s; Beru is currently looking for a producer and financing for this epic.

One theme that comes up now and again in "Zrubavel," is the racism experienced by nearly all Ethiopian Jews trying to adjust to Israel.

"The reality is worse than in the movie," he said. "I did not want to make a movie about racism and discrimination, just about Jewish immigrants who come from another culture and try to become part of society. But there's racism everywhere, not just in Israel, but that sentiment also exists in Israel and I didn't want to hide or ignore it."

Beru said it isn't always overt, and it doesn't always take the form of insults.

Sometimes, it comes from white Israelis "who are suprised about the way I talk, and they say, wow, I didn't know there were Ethiopians like you. That's a kind of racism too.

"But there's another message in the movie, when Yitzhak tells his grandfather, 'don't cry, because other people will be happy to see your weakness,'" said Beru. "I think that's the message we need in our lives: no matter what your problems are, you must be strong."

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