Friday, June 11, 2010

The inspiration for the film
I have to admit up front that I am totally in love with Ethiopian Jews. My kids say I’m racist – in reverse. All I know is I’m fascinated by everything I learn about them and I feel most comfortable in their presence. My sense that they are more connected to their hearts – as are other Africans I’ve met – is, I realize, an idealization of everything non western. My friend Shula Mola, who is the chair of the IAEJ says what I’m picking up on has more to do with the way people lived – a simpler life in villages, in extended families, connected to nature – than being African. Be that as it may, the best (longest, tightest, happiest) hug I ever got was from my friend Talalu, who immigrated from Ethiopia to Israel in the 1990’s.

The picture book
I happened upon the wonderful children’s book is What is my Name and Who am I? by Naomi Shmuel. Shmuel is an Englishwoman with long blond hair married to an Ethiopian Israeli. She’s written a number of children’s books about Ethiopia including Aba Chum (Brown Daddy). Her books have probably done more to break stereotypes than any formal educational program. In What is my Name, our heroine tells us about her multiple names. Unlike us Westerners, Ethiopians have many names. Mom gives a name, Dad gives another, Grandma a third, perhaps a favorite uncle gives a fourth. One’s younger brothers and sisters can’t use your given name – that wouldn’t be respectful – so they give you yet another name. The book’s heroine tells us her father named her Almaz, meaning diamond, because she was the first girl born after many sons – like a diamond among precious stones. Almaz tells us about all her other names and what they mean and says she grew up happily in her family with her many names.

When she comes to Israel, Almaz’s name is changed to Chen. Like most of the people in our film, she doesn’t protest and doesn’t mind. Unlike them, she doesn’t care which name people call her and she never gets to the point of a raised consciousness nudging her, telling her that something is wrong here. (Unlike most of the film’s participants.)

The book is where I learned the ABC’s of Ethiopian names.

The incomparable Nir Katz
A short while later, I had a conversation with Nir Katz. Nir is a story unto himself and you can find our more about his work by clicking here. Nir is another one in love with the Ethiopian community, and he has serious credentials. Nir was travelling in Ethiopia in 1997 (having taught himself Amharic) as a young man when one fateful day, he was trying to hitch a ride out of a village. Nothing came along until a tractor that was going in the opposite direction. Nir had no particular agenda and decided to go with the tractor, which dropped off in a remote village in north western Ethiopia. As he tells it, Nir gets off the tractor and is surrounded by soldiers pointing rifles at him. When they have convinced themselves he is no threat, they give him a hut to sleep in.

When he awakens the next morning, Nir sees an old man sitting quietly against one of the walls of the tukul (hut.) The man asks him,
“Where are you from?”
“I’m from Israel.”
The man says, “I’m from Israel too -- but a long time ago.”

Nir had happened upon Lower Quara, a village of Ethiopian Jews who had been left behind when the people of Upper Quara had emigrated to Israel. Nir stayed, helped, saved a woman from dying in childbirth and got attached. When he returned to Israel, he recruited allies and successfully campaigned for Israel to bring the rest o the Quara Jews home.

Today, Nir is married to an Ethiopian Israeli and is part of a community of Ethiopian and native Israelis who moved to Gedera to work with and strengthen the Ethiopian community there from within.

Years ago, he was substituting for a friend as a group leader on a hike with a bunch of Ethiopian teenagers. They couldn’t have cared less about anything he had to say about the flowers or ruins they were passing. One of them even took the trouble to step on a yellow flower that Nir was trying to talk about. Nir picked up the flower and said, If this flower had a name in Amharic, what would it be? Silence. He suggested Tsahainesh (meaning sun).

“Half their mothers had that name,” Nir told me. “They perked up.”

Shortly after hearing these two stories, I was visiting an Ethiopian immigrant friend named Aleli. It suddenly occurred to me that though I had known him for 3 years, I had never thought to ask him what his name means.

So I asked him. This man who usually wears a serious expression lit up and became unusually animated as he told me a story that went back to his grandmother and mother and his village -- and shed light on many aspects of Ethiopian Jewish life: that boys are more highly valued than girls, that girls marry extremely young, that grandmothers can nurse their grandchildren and more. I decided then and there that I couldn't keep this story to myself and that an article just wouldn't do it justice. I wanted people to see Aleli and to hear his story as he tells it.

The funding
I had a little money. I raised some more – mostly small contributions, Obama style, from friends and family. I hadn’t wanted to do this but a savvy rabbi I met with -- a friend of a friend – convinced me that I had to. I got some money from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. I had heard the founder, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, speak and say things that led me to believe he would appreciate the importance of the message I wanted to get across. I quoted him in a letter to him asking for support. I got another modest sum from a family foundation connected to someone I know. But I didn’t wait to start working on the film – I figured I’d do what I loved and the money would follow. I hooked up with Naomi Altaraz, a community filmmaker in the neighborhood, and we started to work.

The timeline
I work part time as a writer at Shatil, a job I love. I worked on the movie in my spare time. I thought the whole endeavor would take 2 months, 3 tops. Three years later, I’m finally done. I know it’s been three years because Asher, one of our interviewees, is holding 4-mlonth –old Shay (Tzegamlak who just turned three.

So here’s my time line:

Genesis of the idea: 15 minutes
The production: 15 days
Post production: 3 years.

Do you know how complicated it is to make even a short, simple documentary film?
Some of the vocabulary words I’ve picked up over the last three years:

On line editing (that’s a big one)
Edit list
Time code
Sound mix
International version
And all the acronyms:
Beta SP
Beta SX
etc. etc.

If you got this far, I'd love to hear from you. Please comment!