Shmuel Beru was around 12 years old in 1989 when Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” stunned audiences with its provocative story of racial conflict between African and Italian Americans in New York.
Five years earlier, Beru had made the perilous journey from his native Ethiopia to Israel, and though at 12 he was not old enough to appreciate the significance of Lee’s radical telling of an African American story from an insider’s point of view, Lee’s work would later serve as inspiration for Beru’s career as a filmmaker in a way that the all-white Israeli film industry could not.
Beru has become the first Ethiopian Jew to create an Israeli film, “Zrubavel,” with a team of fellow Ethiopians. The feature film describes his own community from an insider’s perspective, and last year it became an award winner, even as it proved controversial.
Beru has done for Ethiopian Israelis what Lee did for African Americans, revealing a community little understood by outsiders and presenting Israel as a complex, multicultural society that is not always a successful melting pot. In fact, one of the main characters in “Zrubavel,” a 12-year-old Ethiopian boy named Itzhak, is nicknamed “Spike Lee” because of his penchant for documenting neighborhood residents — sometimes not so favorably — with his inexpensive video camera.
The raw, low-budget movie revolves around several generations of Itzhak’s family: The grandfather, Gite Zrubavel, had been a respected colonel in Ethiopia but now sweeps streets in Israel, even as he maintains big dreams for his children. Although one of his sons died while serving in the military, the patriarch is determined that his remaining son, Gili (played by Beru’s brother, Avinu Beru), should attend a prestigious school to become an air force pilot, only to be faced with racism. Despite Gili’s stellar grades, the headmaster rejects the boy’s application and suggests he become a cook, which he perceives as a more suitable profession for an Ethiopian.
Meanwhile, Gili’s sister Almaz, a singer, wants to marry a distant relative, which is taboo among Ethiopian Jews, and the ebullient Spike Lee prefers making movies to studying for his bar mitzvah.
Like Beru, the younger characters clearly identify with the African American experience of inner-city life — gangs, covert and overt racism on the streets and a glass ceiling in the workplace. And they look to black American culture for inspiration.
Almaz tends bar in a club where blues play over the loudspeakers; when she takes the stage to perform, she dazzles the audience with her version of “Adon Olam,” sung to the melody of the black spiritual, “Amazing Grace.” Her fiancé, a break dancer, calls himself Tupac after the slain rap artist; black youths dabble in crime and clash with corrupt, racist cops, and young Itzhak declares, “I’m making a movie about my neighborhood. I want to be like Spike Lee from America.”
Beru explained his characters’ fascination with African Americans: “Even though they have their own troubles, we see there are blacks who have become famous musicians, athletes and politicians: Michael Jordan, Beyonce, Barack Obama. And we prefer our role models to be successful.”
Speaking from his parents’ house in Hadera, north of Tel Aviv, the same neighborhood where “Zrubavel” is set, Beru is ambitious, ebullient and outspoken. He said he has only vague memories of his village in Gondar, in northern Ethiopia, but he recalls the dangerous, two-month walk across the desert to Sudan as a kind of extended nature hike, albeit with some 10 other families, all traveling by night to avoid bandits, digging the parched soil for water and scavenging plants to eat.
There was a sweltering six-month wait in a refugee camp in Sudan, where Beru saw a number of fellow refugees die, and the airplane flight to Israel in 1984, a year before the massive Ethiopian airlift known as Operation Moses. The family settled first in Tsfat, where Beru’s white classmates had never before seen a black person and touched his face to see whether the color would come off.
Beru’s father, who had been a farmer and entrepreneur in Ethiopia and worked in a factory in Israel, hoped his nine children would become doctors and lawyers. Beru, however, wanted to become an actor and pursued theater at Haifa University.
Later he wrote his own one-man show, performed stand-up comedy in Hebrew and Amharic and landed small roles with the prestigious Habima national theater. Eventually, however, he felt typecast in black roles and decided to become a director in order to create his own projects, beginning with “Zrubavel.”
His goals for the film were social as well as artistic. “I felt a responsibility to my community,” he said. “There are still so many stereotypes about Ethiopian Jews — that we are lazy, pitiful or not ambitious. These stereotypes exist because people don’t know us.
“So I wanted my film to bring audiences into the community, through the story of one family, their hopes and struggles, their determination to keep going even in the face of obstacles,” he continued. “I wanted audiences to see that these are people who love their country, despite the difficulties.”
Beru raised $150,000, the cost of making the film, by making a 10-minute pilot, which drew the support of the Israel Film Fund and a prominent producer, Mark Rosenbaum.
“Zrubavel” so far has been well-received on the festival circuit and stands out for its fascinating depiction of Ethiopian family life and its unique point of view: distinctly Israeli but also African.
Beru was ecstatic when he accepted his best drama award at the Haifa Film Festival last year and when the movie was well received in Addis Ababa.
“It was crazy, because I was once a refugee on the border in Sudan, like the people in Darfur, when every day we didn’t know if we would live or die,” he said. “And then I came to Israel, and I made a film and went back for the first time to Ethiopia with my movie, which they loved. I was almost in shock.”
Even so, Beru said he remains concerned about how the movie will be perceived outside Israel. “After one screening in Manhattan, people asked whether it is really so bad to live in Israel,” he said. “But my intention is not to condemn Israeli society. Israel is my country, it is the country that educated me, and I love it. But I do have the obligation to critique the things I feel are wrong in the society, and to say, “People, open your eyes.’”
“Zrubavel” will screen at the Israel Film Festival in Los Angeles next month, with Beru in attendance for question-and-answer sessions.