Empathy for the plight of Israel’s Ethiopian immigrants animates a film that won first prize at the Jerusalem International Film Festival in 2000 and that opens today at New York’s Quad Cinema. Dan Wolman, an Israeli film director with childhood roots in Ethiopia and years of TV work there, explores their problems in “Foreign Sister,” a dramatic story about a Jewish housewife and her maid, linked by loss and laughter.
Wolman’s empathy can be traced to his father’s background and an almost forgotten page of World War II history. After receiving his medical education in Mussolini’s Italy, Wolman’s father immigrated to Palestine and joined the British army. He served under the daring leadership of Major General Orde Charles Wingate, who led a guerrilla force into Italian-occupied Ethiopia to help restore Haile Selassie to the throne in 1941. Dr. Wolman became the emperor’s personal physician, eventually bringing his wife and 1-year-old son Dan to join him, before returning to Palestine in 1946.
After finishing high school in Jerusalem, Dan studied cinema at New York’s City College and New York University. He became known abroad in 1975 for “My Michael,” based on the novel by Amos Oz, and received the Jerusalem International Film Festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999. When the immigration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel began with Operation Moses in 1982, Wolman, who had studied Amharic as a child in Ethiopia, began training the immigrants to cope with the new problems they faced in Israel.
Speaking recently to the Forward in San Francisco — along with Askala Markos, the star of “Foreign Sister” — Wolman said he “had the feeling there was a lot of patronizing in the way the media treated [Ethiopian immigrants to Israel]. On the one hand, they were romanticized, and on the other hand, there was a lot of patronizing them as the carriers of disease and as people who didn’t know how to use toilet paper.”
Believing that the immigrants should tell their own stories, Wolman inaugurated an Amharic-language television program in Israel called “Through Our Own Eyes,” which remains on the air today. Meanwhile, Wolman and the show’s Ethiopian co-producer began frequent travels to Ethiopia to set up a training course there for directors, writers and editors so they could produce their own programs for all Ethiopians.
Markos met Wolman when she acted in several TV programs he produced. Speaking in Hebrew and occasionally in English, she said she has lived in Israel for 12 years. Born in Addis Ababa, Markos is the daughter of an Eritrean journalist and an Ethiopian-Jewish mother. When she was 16, against her parents’ wishes, she married an Ethiopian Jew who wanted to immigrate to Israel.
Expecting to be taken to a modern town, she said she “cried for a year” when they were temporarily housed in a caravan in a small absorption center near Beersheva. After her divorce, she supported her three children by doing housekeeping, but became depressed when told she couldn’t leave her children and visit her dying mother in Ethiopia. Six months later, her father became ill and she was told she could go if the children’s father took care of them. But after visiting her mother’s grave in Ethiopia, she was unable to meet her father in Eritrea because war had broken out between Ethiopia and rebels fighting for Eritrean independence. Trapped in Ethiopia for a month and a half, she finally returned to Israel, too weak to go to court and regain custody of her children. She currently lives in Jerusalem, works as a hostess in the dining room of a nearby kibbutz and manages to see her children once a week.
Although she is Jewish, in “Foreign Sister” Markos portrays Negist, an Ethiopian Christian immigrant who becomes a part-time maid for Naomi (Tamar Yerushalmi), a good-hearted, over-worked Jewish housewife. In the course of becoming close to Negist, meeting Negist’s friends and trying to help a seriously wounded man in a wild car ride from Tel Aviv to a Jerusalem hospital, Naomi begins to learn some things about herself and her own community.
The fearful life of illegal Ethiopian Christian immigrants came to Wolman’s attention years before when, at an airport, he observed Israeli Ethiopians flying back to visit their old hometowns while handcuffed illegal immigrants were being deported. The story of Israel’s foreign workers — not just Christian Ethiopians but Romanians, Bulgarians, Turks, Thais, Poles and West Africans — is an important one, Wolman said. “There is a lot of unemployment among Israelis who think certain jobs are beneath their dignity, but there is a bad feeling about foreign workers who were brought in because they thought Palestinians could not be trusted. Now a lot of prostitutes are coming in from the Eastern bloc countries and the trafficking is a really horrible story.”
But what Wolman said he always bears in mind is his favorite line from Deuteronomy: “Love the sojourner for you were sojourners in Egypt.”
Judy Stone, author of “Eye on the World: Conversations with International Filmmakers,” was an editor and film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle for 30 years. This is her first appearance in the Forward.