“I eat with my hands,” says Shmuel Beru, whose award-winning first feature film “Zrubavel” was released in theatres this summer, “I am an African – I don’t belong to the West.” We are sitting in Shlomo’s Humus place in the Yemenite Vineyard, a sunny labyrinth of South Tel Aviv, where Beru is very much at home. “We began producing the first humans in Africa, people think that Wall Street created humans, but we were first. We just didn’t have the money for public relations to market the idea further.” Lack of funding has not stopped Beru, who wrote, directed and filmed his first film on next to nothing, and is currently working on three new projects.
The first of these is a play co-produced with Esther Rada, under the working title of “Oy Va a Voy” (Yiddish for “Oh No!”). There will be a preview performance this Wednesday, September 16th at the Tmuna Theatre in Tel Aviv. Choosing a Yiddish title for a play whose subject is family relationships among Ethiopian Israelis is perhaps not so unusual for Beru, who handles opposing elements and contradictions with ease: capable of being wildly funny about the most serious of subjects, working simultaneously on several projects while telling me “there is always time for work, you have to devote time to life.”
The play confronts the most painful issues affecting Ethiopian Israelis: unemployment, domestic violence and changes within family structure and relationships. “I am very attached to my parents,” says Beru, “I love my family. And I know that family relationships are very complex. My parents are very important to me, so it was natural for me to be drawn to a topic to which I feel a strong connection. My connection to the story is an emotional one.” As we discuss the play over breakfast, the neighborhood begins to wake up around us and Beru’s friends stop by, each in turn, to share a laugh and a hug. One of them was even in the movie – he played a policeman. His connections are strong – to his family, his neighbors and the extended community of Ethiopian Israelis. Life and work intertwine, each strengthening the other.
Yet affection, for Beru, does not mean withholding criticism. He spares no one his sharp and candid gaze. Domestic violence is a charged topic – on one hand, it is a serious problem, on the other hand, there is the sense that Israeli culture and the media feel comfortable ignoring the presence of Ethiopian Israelis and only acknowledge their existence when there is an instance of domestic violence to report. Choosing to deal with this subject in the theatre is a bold choice, one that comes from the heart.
“I want to put an end to domestic violence,” says Beru, “People do not have enough information to find solutions. I want the play to suggest some solutions. Separating is one possibility. Any solution that leaves a person alive is good. Providing information for men – if you are having a hard time and not succeeding, you can find help, the last person to blame is your wife.” Beru will play the role of the husband, saying, “It makes me wonder if I might be capable of being that kind of person, it’s frightening. I am returning to the stage after a long time. I missed it very much.”
Not one to do things half-way, Beru is also putting together a new stand-up routine, which will premiere in October. He warns me, “We [Israelis] have been created from hate. I talk a lot about Israelis in my stand-up routine. I am very mean in my humor.” When I ask him about the situation of Ethiopian Israelis in Israeli theatre, Beru (who has performed in Habima and participated in the Teatronetto Festival in 2005 with a monodrama) harbors no illusions. “Israeli theatre is not as open as it aspires to be, he says, “It’s rather conservative. Blindcasting – there is no such thing in Israel. Everything is very well defined here. There is the Ashkenzi who is more European than the Europeans who can play Shoah (Holocaust) related roles, the Mizrahi (Sephardic/Middle Eastern) who looks Italian and the Mizrahi who can play criminal roles. Roles for Ethiopians? If they need a police man, a guard…bit parts without any meat to them.”
“There are classic plays, like Chekov – a black person cannot play those roles. No director would be crazy enough to cast a black Nora (in Ibsen’s A Dollhouse). The play dictates the characters. But in a modern play you can have characters that are independent of color, that are derived from the expression of the character’s inner world.”
Giving expression to the inner world of the Ethiopian Israeli community in his first film, “Zrubavel” Beru is now working on the last stages of a screenplay on the journey from Ethiopia to Israel. Historical elements are interwoven with the personal story of a family separated as one brother is taken into the Ethiopian army and the other journeys with his family to Israel via Sudan. “This was the journey I took,” says Beru, who came to Israel in 1984 at the age of eight, “the details are different, but the feeling is the same.”
Beru was born in a village near Gondar – Gondar Rosh Mariam and lived there until the age of seven. Of his childhood in Ethiopia he says, “I don’t really remember…I want so much to remember, that I begin to imagine I do.” The middle child in a family of nine, he says that relatively, they survived the journey quite well, walking to Sudan, where they spent almost a year waiting before they were able to leave for Israel. Of the camps he says, “You can’t explain what it was like in the camps in Sudan. A day there is like a year.”
There is a look of wonder on his face as he realizes it’s been 25 years since he first arrived in Israel. Educated in religious boarding schools, living in the midst of Tel Aviv’s anything but religious cultural scene, I ask him if he still feels connected to religion. His answer is emphatic – “Yes, so connected. I live in a place where so many wonderful things happen. I ask a lot of questions about God in Tel Aviv.”
Oy Va A Voy
Written by Shmuel Beru with Rakia Teka, Directed by Shmuel Beru
Assistant Director and Music: Ester Rada (formerly from the performing trio Noam, Dvora and Ester)
Actors: Tetana Asefa (Cameri Theatre, Rina Yerushalmi), Skai Geta (performed in “One of a Kind”, Beit Zvi graduate), Biru Teshla (stand up comedian)
followed by a screening of Beru’s award winning film “Zrubavel”
Sunday, November 1 at 18:30
Beit Dani, Schunat Hatikvah 76, Merkaz Duhal