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Friday, March 16, 2007
ESCAPE FROM ETHIOPIA
'Va, vis et deviens'
A triple dose of maternal love
By KAORI SHOJI
On the surface, "Va, vis et deviens" is a political story, drawing from a little-known chunk of history called "Operation Moses." In 1984, 80,000 Ethiopian Jews (known as "Falasha") were airlifted from their native land to Israel in an effort to save them from drought and famine. That incident is a starting point for "Va, vis et deviens," the tale of how 8-year-old Schlomo (Moshe Agazai) suddenly finds himself transported to Jerusalem and told to live as a Jew.
Schlomo and his mother were Christians, and only those who could prove their Jewish background were eligible for exit passes. But his mother had entrusted Schlomo to a Jewish woman who had lost her own little boy to illness and was willing to have Schlomo take his place, whatever his religion. Schlomo is baffled and terrified but his mother pushes him onto the tarmac with the sole instruction to "go, live and become" (hence the title) and he has no choice but to board the plane for Israel.
Once there and herded inside another refugee camp (this time with four walls and bathroom facilities) Schlomo has his first brush with western culture: wearing shoes, eating with utensils and watching TV. He also learns that he must behave and think like a Jew, which is no easy task for someone who has been taught that Jesus is God. Despite these social and religious implications, the story is intensely personal as it traces one boy's journey to adulthood as his identity sways between two countries and two families -- the mother he had left behind in Ethiopia and his foster parents that adopted him in Jerusalem.
Throughout, Schlomo struggles to retain his roots (walking barefoot and feeling the earth beneath his feet remain the one bond he has left with his birthplace) and still find a place in Jerusalem's middle-class society. As a matter of course, issues of discrimination, race and segregation rear their heads: When Schlomo shows up at a classmate's birthday party bearing a gift, the father of the house slams the door in his face.
The main theme running throughout "Va, vis et deviens" (titled "Yakusoku no Tabiji" in Japan) is maternal love -- Schlomo may have undergone some pretty horrible tribulations but he was at least blessed with the women/mothers in his life. His mother (Meskie Shibru Sivan) provided him with the means of escape and survival and Hana (Mimi Abonesh Kebede), the woman who takes him out of Africa , did so with the last shreds of strength left in her body (she dies shortly after arrival), fully aware that he was a Christian. Yael (Yael Abecassis), the Israeli mother who adopts him, bestows the kind of support and love few foster children can hope for, but at the same time you get the feeling she does what she does simply because she wishes to serve humanity. All three women are lessons in motherhood and are examples of the kind of expansive, disinterested love that's one of the definitions of Woman. Watching them, you realize how in recent years, depictions of women in cinema have become more about personal empowerment, glory and strength -- it's rare now to see them engaged in the kind of thankless tasks/deeds that these women seem to go through as a matter of course.
Though life is always a struggle for Schlomo, he at least has Yael to root for him and be on his side and the older he gets, the more he comes to acknowledge his amazing good luck. That said, the knowledge that on the other side of the ocean, his birth mother could be dead, languishing in a refugee camp or trapped in some completely unknown fate, haunts Schlomo, who is now a teenager (played by Moshe Abebe). Eventually, her memory prompts him to study medicine in the hope that he could one day return to Ethiopia, track down his mother and care for her (and others like her). True, his story comes off like a fairy tale but if so it's the best kind: A little boy undertakes a journey, suffers a lot and meets the women who alter and guide his life. Through it all, he never stops walking, with or without shoes.
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