Become What We Become, To
The Roots of My Film
Here is the question of my life: What
is human identity?
The story of my life cannot be separated from that question. My father’s
real name was Mordechai Buchman, but he changed it to Mihaileanu during
the war, after he escaped from a camp. He had to change it! There were
Nazis all around, and there is no name more Jewish than “Mordecai
Buchman.” I was born well after the war, in 1958, but even so
I have kept the name “Mihaileanu.” To change it back would
be to kill my father’s history, to deny what kept him alive—yet,
inside, I know I am “Buchman.”
In all my movies, people become imposters in some way, simply to survive.
I was born in Rumania during the Ceaucescu dictatorship, and escaped
early—first to Israel, later to France. I had to survive alone.
That is why all of my movies are about escaping, surviving, fighting,
searching for identity, racial integration. It’s the universal
story. Think of all the people from all the countries and continents
who come to the United States—a whole nation of immigrants, people
who have had to fight to integrate, sometimes very far away from their
native culture. In Europe today, people come from Africa or Asia. In
Asia, you have Chinese going to Japan and Korea, Koreans to Japan. We
are a planet in movement. Even when we don’t move, the movement
is inside us. Through television, the internet, books—we are all
in a fight to become, let us say, more human. To answer the question
of who we are.
In 1999, an earlier film of mine, dealing with these very themes, showed
in Los Angeles. An African man approached me after the lights went up.
“You’ve told my story in this film,” he declared,
“For I, too, am a Jewish refugee.”
I thought he was joking—but no. He was a “Falasha,”
one of the Ethiopian Jews who were airlifted out of Sudan in 1985.
That night, I dropped everything to hear this man’s tale. I cried
all night, listening—I didn’t know anything about the life
of Ethiopian Jews. Of course, I had heard about “Operation Moses,”
the name of the 1985 operation—but only from the Israeli side.
I knew nothing of the hardships, including the racial prejudice, which
African Jews suffered, even within Israel, after they’d been brought
to safety. That night, for the first time, I truly understood, through
this man, the reality of Ethiopian Jews, going from Ethiopia to Sudan,
and all they lived through, afterwards, in Israel. How they lost half,
or all of their families. Through him, I found my film, Live and
My young hero Schlomo is an Ethiopian refugee boy who suffers very passionately
the same question which, in a more peaceful way, haunts me and all of
humanity: How to be, at the same time, himself on the inside as well
as outside. He is in Israel, he becomes Jewish, but at the same time
he is outside the culture. Because he’s Black, he is rejected
by some Jews. He feels the rejection even more painfully because he
is concealing a deeper secret—that he is also Christian.
My co-writer Alain-Michel Blanc and I spent five years researching the
Ethiopian experience in Israel. We documented everything in detail,
to be very sure that, historically, the film would be completely right.
There are so many sensitive points, especially regarding actions by
the super-fanatic religious right in Israel. We didn’t want to
make any mistakes about that, or any event. I made my young Ethiopian
hero a Christian who must pretend he is a Jew to survive—a little
reversal of the usual historic situation!—because above all, the
question of “identity” is so universal, and painful.
All of the stupidity we live through today, fighting over religion and
differences of skin color, is absurd. We can see that human beings are
close to each other despite our surface differences. When a kid is in
danger, we don’t care about all that. Late in the film, when my
young hero has fully absorbed Jewish teachings, a rabbi asks him, “What
color was Adam?” The answer he gives is my answer, too: “Adam
is made of clay, and clay is red. We are all the color red.”