Wednesday, May 11, 2011

IFF ’11: When Israel Went Out

One of history’s greatest humanitarian rescue missions was planned and executed by the Mossad and the Israeli Defense Forces (with CIA support). In response growing hostility from the anti-Semitic Marxist Mengistu regime, thousands of Jewish Ethiopians, known as Falasha or Beta Israel, walked over one hundred twenty miles though unforgiving desert to the still hostile Sudan where secret IDF airlifts shuttled them to Israel. Three survivors of the long march, two Mossad veterans of the original Operation Moses, and a film crew retrace their journey in Meni Elias’s When Israel Went Out, produced by Micha Shagrir, a special guest of the 2011 Israel Film, where the documentary screens again next week.

The Biblical parallels of the Beta Israel trek are so obvious, they nearly pass unmentioned in the film, save for its title. Yet, many of the survivors and witnesses refer to the largely spontaneous migration as a calling. Of course, life is not perfect for the Falasha in Israel. Many Orthodox extremists continue to question the legitimacy of their Judaism. Yet, the three Falasha survivors returning to their roots are all adamantly naturalized Israelis. One even serves as a Colonel in the Israeli Air Force.

Mengistu might be gone, but it is still a dangerous journey, requiring armed retainers. It was probably also reassuring to have two ex-Mossad agents for company. Unfortunately, the film never really spends any time getting to know them or understanding their motives for joining this exhausting trip (though we can safely deduce a rather edifying sense of solidarity played a role).

While revisiting past homelands is a rather established convention of documentary filmmaking, WIWO works better than most, partly because there is still an element of risk at play (that Elias wisely chooses to downplay), but mainly due to the dramatic nature of the Falasha Israelis’ stories, which are largely unknown to American audiences.

WIWO provides a timely reminder Israel’s population is more diverse than the media typically represents. It is also a rather hopefully film, conveying the optimism of the naturalized Falasha in their new lives. An informative film produced under difficult circumstances by Elias, Shagrir, and their crew, it is definitely worth catching when it screens again next Monday (5/16) at the 25th Israel Film Festival in New York.