‘A positive impostor’

by Kaori Shoji

Israeli filmmaker Radu Mihaileanu has only three feature films to his name, but is known for a solid international reputation, the kind of director whose works are eagerly awaited for in film festivals from Toronto to Berlin. Even so, he was surprised by the interest and enthusiasm over his latest, “Va, Vis et Deviens (Live and Become)” — a fictional tale that draws from “Operation Moses,” which airlifted 80,000 Ethiopians Jews to Israel in 1984.

“I was in a quandary because I felt the film had to be made, but at the same time I was skeptical about who would be interested in this little piece of history,” said the director during a recent promotion trip to Tokyo. “But after the film’s success there were a lot of producers who suddenly came up and said they wanted to know more about it, and the fate of the Ethiopians after they got to Israel.” And so Mihaileanu is currently at work on a documentary of the same material and laughs that “usually, it’s the other way around: documentary first, fictional story afterward.”

He adds that the subject hasn’t palled, as it’s something very close to his heart — he knows what it’s like to leave a mother behind in an uncertain political climate, to start again in a foreign country and the struggle for assimilation.

In what way do you identify with Schlomo?

I grew up in Romania under the Ceausecu regime. It was a pretty terrible time for everyone, but when I turned 22 there was an opportunity for me to go to Paris and I took it, knowing that once I got out, I will not be coming back.

My mother and my family saw me off at the airport and there were guards everywhere, on the look-out for teary farewells because that meant the person was leaving the country for good, which was strictly banned. My mother had to smile and look like I was going on a short vacation, but as she stood there she couldn’t bear it, and started crying. I wanted to cry, but had to hold the tears back because we could all be arrested at any moment.

So yes, I know what it’s like to say goodbye to your mother, hoping you and she will survive to see one another again, and I do know what it’s like to be an exile. . .

Your theme is ‘the positive impostor.’ Can you tell us about that?

I think that many people who try to survive a war or a dictatorship, or any number of hard circumstances, will assume a false identity. This, of course, will bring about a crisis, maybe now or maybe later, but it’s very difficult to live with a lie, and a big secret. Schlomo was only a child when he had to do this and yet he recognized that it was the only chance he had for survival.

He pretended to be a Jew, so that he could live and one day be reunited with his mother. I don’t think such choices should be punished, or blamed. And who could say they haven’t been impostors in way or another, at some point in their lives?

The story itself is heavy, but there are pockets of humor scattered throughout.

Yes, I think that comic relief is extremely important, especially in stories like this one. When I was drafted in the army, I made people laugh all the time, partly because I wanted to be a standup comedian and partly because if we didn’t laugh, life was hellish.

Being funny is a gift, and the will to be funny springs from the same instinct as survival, I think.

You have a very exalted view of women, and mothers.

Absolutely. My own mother taught me how wonderful women are, how sacrifice and giving to others often takes no effort for them. I’ve always found that very humbling. And it’s true you know, that women are much better than men. Women and children are the light of this world. This film is really about the special gratitude I feel for women and how they have the power to change the world. Without women and mothers, the world is nothing but darkness. I hope that came across.

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A triple dose of maternal love