Debut Puts Ethiopian-Israel Filmmaker on the Map

When newly minted Israeli film school grad David Gavro decided to make a documentary, he had only one goal in mind – to visit the land of his birth for the first time in 20 years.

“I left Ethiopia when I was 6 years old,” he relates from his home near Sderot, not far from the Negev. “I remember it only like a dream.”

Gavro’s project took him farther than he could have hoped. Not only did he make an unforgettable journey to his homeland to record his adopted brother Sisai’s reunion with his father, but after he finished the film, Gavro was invited to return to Ethiopia to show the acclaimed work in a festival.

The globe has gotten a lot smaller for Gavro – “Sisai”? has shown at festivals in France, the Netherlands, Canada and the U.S. after nabbing the prize for best documentary at the Jerusalem International Film Festival.

In fact, the 28-year-old filmmaker was packing for a trip the following day to a festival in Greece while he carried on a long-distance phone interview on his cell phone.

“Sisai” has its West Coast premiere as part of the S.F. Jewish Film Festival’s spotlight on Ethiopian Jews and Jews of color. A panel discussion with Gavro will follow the San Francisco and Berkeley screenings.

The SFJFF lineup also features the three-hankie epic “Live and Become,”? the fictional saga of a non-Jewish Ethiopian boy growing up in Israel after being rescued with 8,000 others as part of Operation Moses in 1984.

“Sisai” is an up close and touchingly personal portrait of an endearing young man figuring out a way to reconcile his past and his future. The lanky Sisai came to Israel from Ethiopia at a young age and gradually came to identify completely with his adopted country. That was also Gavro’s experience.

“I’m Israeli more than I’m Ethiopian,”? Gavro says, “because I grew up in Israel and know only the culture of Israel.”

But his family retains some of its native customs, and his parents still have strong ties to Ethiopia. The plot thickens considerably when Gavro’s father returns from a visit and reports that he has unexpectedly located Sisai’s birth father.

Most moviegoers will be caught up in the narrative tension and emotional drama surrounding the reunion, but the heart of the film is in the details of everyday life that Gavro includes.

“When I did this film I saw a little story about my family, but this story is symbolic of Ethiopian Jews that come to Israel and change their culture,” Gavro explains. “When Ethiopian Jews saw it, they understood a lot of things that other Israelis did not. It was the first time that somebody inside this culture made a film about the culture.”

Consequently, it will be a landmark of sorts when “Sisai”? airs on Israeli television. While the number of Ethiopian-Israeli Jews has swelled in the last two decades as children grew up, married and started their own families, they are still subject to racism and stereotyping.

For his part, Gavro was in and out of trouble with the police throughout his teens. Everything turned around when he enrolled in Sapir College and began studying film. Today he teaches courses at the college in Pro Tools, the preeminent sound-mixing software.

In other words, Gavro isn’t abandoning his roots, the unexpected success of “Sisai”? notwithstanding. His next documentary is already in production. It’s about a group of mostly Ethiopian Israeli children in his town of Netivot who perform in a capoeira dance group.

“They have a lot of problems with their lives, but they want to create something,” Gavro says. “This is going to be a film about creation and identity.”

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