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Writer & director Radu Mihaileanu, whose latest film, Live and Become won three major awards on its world premiere at Berlin, outlines how he came to make the film after finding a story that mirrored his own life, and how it espouses some important points about humanity in the 21st century.

The story:
At a 1984 Sudanese refugee camp sheltering Ethiopians displaced by civil war and famine, the Israeli secret service has begun Operation Moses, airlifting thousands of Falashas, Ethiopian Jews, to Israel. A non-Jewish Ethiopian woman finds a way for her 9-year-old son (Moshe Agazai) to join the Falashas, telling him to "go, live and become”. Renamed Schlomo, the boy is adopted by a loving, liberal Israeli family. However Israel, rather than being the promised land, turns out to be rife with racism and intolerance. Through an Ethiopian-community leader Qes Amhra (Yitzhak Edgar), the teenage Shlomo (Moshe Abebe) is helped to write letters in Amharic to his mother (Meskie Shribu Sivan). But it takes several more years, and some heartbreak, before the grown up Shlomo (Sirak M. Sahabat) can ‘become’.

Radu Mihaileanu on Live and Become:
Who am I? Am I still me? Have I betrayed my origins and true identity?

Some people regard me as French, others as Romanian. I am both and neither fully French or Romanian. Twenty years have gone by since I last was in Romania. I no longer share its daily existence, I speak Romanian with a French accent; on the other hand I don’t feel a hundred per cent French either. I have missed the children’s television series, the school playgrounds and it’s still a mystery to me why the first form is in French called the sixth one. I also speak French with a Romanian accent.
I am a Jew with a Romanian name (my father was forced to change “Buchman” for “Mihaileanu” during the war in order to escape the Nazis and later on kept “Mihaileanu” because of Stalin. My name at times prompts the question from my religious fellows: “Are you a real Jew?” (“No, Stupid!”), or “By your two parents?” (“No, by the three of them!”).

After I had made “Train of Life”, I was proposed a lot of subjects based on the Shoah or the Jews. The same thing happened after “Trahir” with the Eastern European countries. I turned down all of them. I didn’t want to make the same films again. I didn’t wish to be restricted to the Jewish filmmaker from Eastern Europe. I wanted a new project where I could treat other issues than those I had previously treated.

One day, I met a Falasha (Ethiopian Jew). He told me his story and that of his people: how they had fled Ethiopia, their reception and the difficulties of their integration in Israel because they were Blacks.

His account moved me. I listened for hours and gradually his story felt like mine. They bore a resemblance. I would make a film out of it, I knew it. I wanted to tell the story of a Falasha’s emigration; and then I wondered if I shouldn’t push the subject further. My character had to be a Black man and a non-Jew who would pass himself as a Jew in order to survive.

The idea appealed to me: it gave me the chance to treat of the plight of the Falashas together with a possibility of widening the subject. There was an opportunity for me to tackle a variety of issues such as: identity, morality, the Israeli society and the relations between people in a world that was increasingly complex.

"the question of identity"

An interesting point in the early stages of this exodus is the question of identity. It seems to me our contemporary world is seriously short of insight when it comes to assessing the subjectivity of other beings. People are too often judged through old and dated stereotypes: Arabs, Jews, Algerians, Rumanians, French, and Germans…Such identities are restrictive and approximate. They are wrong. They fail to show how cultures interact, how individual paths and destinies cross each other.

My wish is to picture a colourful portrait. The child who is to become a man is a Black Ethiopian (this is basically who he is and will always be; his nostalgia for this part of him is permanent throughout). He is also made of what he absorbs, through chance or necessity. All at once Jewish, French, Tunisian and Israeli. His new identity shows in his devastating sense of humour that results from his past as well as his present.

This child who will grow up is, in my view, the child of our century. He compromises with the jolts of history. During the Second World War, the same lie that saved his life in the year 1984 would no doubt have brought about his death. I wanted to learn about the child and share his secret. I felt like helping him, following him. I wouldn’t let him down. He’s become a part of me so much I can’t let him go.

Published April 13, 2006

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Radu Mihaileanu


Live and Become

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