Dusty. That’s the first word that comes to mind with the opening scene. The emaciated faces, the desperation in their eyes, the listless toddlers devoid of the boundless energy that would normally be second nature to them.
It is clear that this is a scene from somewhere in Africa. The hot sun, the dusky complexion of the people tells you that much. But this is not an ad for the WHO. This is not a film about famine and starvation.
This is the story of a little boy whose mother loved him too much—enough to send him to a new land from where he would not come back; at least not if he had any sense.
We do not know his name. But the prominent crucifix around his mother’s neck tells us he is Christian. And while everyone in this Sudanese refugee camp is suffering due to disease and hunger, some are going to get saved.
Ethiopian Jews, also known as Beta Israel or the Falasha, have made the arduous journey to Sudan like many of their fellow Ethiopians in order to escape the famine. But they have lost 4,000 people to the extreme conditions of this dangerous trek. And in the relief camps, they are persecuted by Muslims and Christians alike.
And that is why, a secret airlift is being conducted by the American and Israeli governments, Operation Moses. The Falasha, are being given an opportunity to immigrate to Israel. And the unnamed mother tells her child to “go, live, and become” in the land of Israel. He must hide his identity and forget his family, so that he may pass himself off as a Yehudie.
Live and Become, directed by Radu Mihaeleanu, is the story of Shelomoh (Solomon), the son of Hana, his Falasha mother by camaraderie, who chose to honor the desire of his Christian mother with whom she had shared only the briefest of glances.
Rich with subtext, this movie is not easy to watch. And that must be noted because the narrative does not depend on exaggerated theatrics. Like some of the greatest stories ever told, the bare facts are more powerful than any dramatization could ever be.
Not long after arriving in Israel, Hana dies of tuberculosis. Her last words to Shelomoh urge him to never tell anyone who he really is. Burdened and overwhelmed by the love of his two mothers, he is adopted by a third, Yael Harrari, and her husband, Yoram. The secular Jewish couple has two children of their own but they welcome Shelomoh into their family with open arms.
And from there begins a long journey of conflict, doubt, faith, and homecoming. Thrust into a strange situation where he is completely alone in his mind, he finds solace in the fact that even though his mother is not with him anymore, she sees the same moon as him. His childlike heartbreak at the cruelty of it all, the unfairness… There are no words to describe the extent of his loneliness and misplaced sense of guilt.
While Operation Moses has been seen as a parallel to the biblical story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt, Shelomoh’s story is a personification of everything these exoduses entailed. And just as the children of Israel wandered in the desert for 40 years before coming home, Shelomoh must struggle with his otherness while feeling Jewish in every other way that matters.
It is a situation made even more complicated by racism. While most Israeli Jews come from a number of diaspora communities including but not limited to Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Bene Israel, and Karaite Jews, the dark skin tone of the Falasha people sets them apart from everyone else. So much so, that some Orthodox and Conservative people refuse to treat Shelomoh with dignity and respect, even though he tries desperately to prove his Jewishness to them time and again.
Needless to say that when he falls in love with a fair-skinned girl from a conservative family, the young woman is ostracized by her family as well.
Live and Become is about all these proverbial darts that pierce Shelomoh’s heart right from childhood. It is about his torment at being forced to live what he perceives to be a lie. It is about his yearning for a home he can perhaps never go back to. It is about his mother, who he believes is still alive in a Sudanese camp or back in Ethiopia.
The somber, lilting background score by Armand Amar echoes the weeping of Shelomoh’s soul. And while the music itself is almost heart wrenching, it powerfully draws the viewer into his fragmented yet resilient mind.
Watch Live and Become for the power packed performances by Moshe Agazi (child Shelomoh), Sirak M. Sabahat (adult Shelomoh), and Yael Abecassis (Yael Harrari) and for its compelling storytelling.
This gem is more than just a film. It is perspective wrapped in reflection, an inquiry into the depths of humanity’s tenacity, and a question mark on the bigotry we continue to practice despite everything history has taught us.