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The epic story of an Ethiopian boy airlifted from Sudan to Israel in 1984 during Operation Moses—a massive airlift of thousands of "Falasha" (Ethiopian Jewish refugees) fleeing oppression in their native country. Although Schlomo, as he is renamed, thrives in a loving adoptive family, he is plagued by two secrets: He is neither a Jew nor an orphan, just an African boy who survived and wants—somehow—to fulfill his Ethiopian mother’s parting request that he “go, live, and become.” Buoyed by a profound and unfaltering motherly love—both in his memory and in the arms of his adoptive mother—he ultimately finds an identity and a happiness all his own. Directed and co-written by Radu Mihaileanu (Train of Life).
 

  We Become What We Become, To   Live: 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 Become.

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.”