Ethiopian Actor is on a Quest to Live and Become
Sirak Sabahat lives in New York City, but the road that led him here was full of hardships few Americans could ever imagine. Sabahat is the star of Live and Become a film about an Ethiopian boy named Schlomo who settles in Israel after U.S. and Israeli forces air-lifted thousands of persecuted Falashas (Ethiopian Jews) to the country in the mid-80s as part of a mission called Operation Moses. Orphaned upon arrival in the new country, Schlomo faces intense racism as he tries to fit in, find love, and keep a dangerous secret.
Of the film, the New York Times says ?Live and Become exerts a tidal pull. It makes you feel the weight of history, of populations on the move in a restless multicultural world. It makes you reconsider cultural assimilation, a process that may seem to be complete but whose underlying conflicts may never be fully resolved.?
This is a concept Sabahat knows very well. Despite some key dramatic differences, the 26-year-old actor?s story is shockingly similar to that of the character he plays. Seven years after Operation Moses, Sabahat, a Falasha himself, his family, and thousands of others embarked on a treacherous, year-long march from their village to Addis Ababa, losing many on the way. They marched to fulfill a religious prophecy that the Falasha would return to Jerusalem. Once they reached Addis Ababa, they were airlifted to Israel as part of Operation Solomon. When he settled in Israel at the age of 12, he experienced much of what his fictional character did in Live and Become.
Stereohyped spoke to Sabahat recently about his movie, his past, and what the future holds.
Stereohyped: The story of the Ethiopian Jews and Operation Moses and Operation Solomon are not familiar to a lot of Americans. What has the reaction been like?
Sirak Sabahat: People identify with the humanity part. They see the struggle of the individual and they see themselves, because this is a county built on immigration. Many people left their own homes in this time or in different times ? whether it was 50 years or 10 years or five years ago. They have some kind of mark in their hearts for a cause that is so devastating. So people are responding to the story of a person who is going out from hell to have a chance and a privilege, in a way, to be alive. American people are very attached to this story, because it?s a very good education about people coming from different places in Africa. People are more lovely about this film in the United States. It?s the humanity of it.
SH: I would think that this film would resonate most deeply with the Jewish and African American communities. Do you find that to be true?
SS: The African American community, they think this is their story. The Jewish community also, they see this as their story. But not just those two groups. Every person who sees this film, whether they?re from Latin America or Asia or whatever, every person is expressing the same thing ? that they feel that this is their story. Remember that you have more than 11 mllion people in the United States ? immigrants, legally or illegally. When they see this film they?re so into it. This is a very universal story.
SH: There are some obvious differences, but the character you played is like you in many ways. How did bring your experiences to your performance?
SS: It wasn?t easy. It was just restoring memories of my childhood. To bring things that I didn?t want to reveal and to confront them again. At the end of the day I understood that I have a responsibility, not just as an actor, to do it the best way I can, because I?m speaking on behalf of a thousand voices. I had a little bit of difficulty dealing with my past, but it was also rewarding to be able to bring out everything that I have inside of me.
SH: Did you experience the same racism that your character did when you moved to Israel?
SS:I?ll be honest with you. Yes, indeed. I felt the same discrimination from other people. But I see that this is a disease that we have everywhere in this world. We have it here in the United States and in Europe. The form and the shape of it is changing from the 19th century to now, but it still keeps coming in different ways, and I have experienced that in Israel. But the best way I have found to deal with it, at the end of the day, is to acquire yourself and education. Because an education will be a true liberation of your mind and your heart and through education you can absolutely overcome the ignorance. In the meantime, there are great forces in this world doing so many good things. This is my true understanding and my true vision ? for people to see the beautiful colors and for people to put the spotlight on those who are creating a better humanity. Not to put a spotlight on those creating barriers between human beings.
SH: How did you decide to become an actor?
SS: I didn?t decide it, actually, it just came to me. I saw Alfred Hitchcock?s eight-minute show, and he spoke on that eight-minute show about how a person can be on the stage whatever he wants to be. He can be a doctor; he can be a lawyer. He can be whatever he wants to be. And I said to myself, if you can be all those things on the stage why are people going to study those things at the university? [He laughs] But I saw that acting was to speak your own voice and to say thing you want to say. Art pursues truth in a way. If you stick to it, then things will come and you can make a change. And I thought through cinema, through theater, through televison I could make a change and have an impact. And even through writing.
SH: I read that you own a talent-based reality show in Israel [in 2004].
SS: That reality show was like the show Fame. Do you know Fame? They brought the best actors, singers, people who have big talent. It was a lot of competition to be accepted to the program. I was the first Ethiopian, you know, black-skinned person, to be on prime-time TV. It was to dare. I did it for myself but also for my community. You know, no one in my community had been on television for more than five minutes.
SH: That?s crazy!
SS: What would you say if you say if I said I was the first colored actor to be nominated for the Israeli Oscar?
SS: Yes, indeed.
SH: You?ve broken a lot of barriers.
SS: Yeah, and the struggle is very hard. Something you pay a very high price for being in the front. I didn?t choose this idea ? being the first to open the doors. I just felt this was the time and necessary for me to express my voice.
SH: What made you decide to leave?
SS:Even though it was a great honor, those things. At the end of the day I wasn?t developed as much as an artist can. It was hard to express the art in a very comfortable way. I can develop here in the United States the way I can?t develop in Israel.
SH: Where do you see your career going in the future?
SS: You know, I?m still asking myself everyday the question, what is to live? What is to become? I wish I could give you a very honest answer. But the only thing that I know is that I am working on things that are very important to me and very important to the message that I want to pass ? that half of the world is gaining weight and half of the world is losing weight. It?s an endless battle between those worlds. In the future, I would like to contribute to people?s minds and souls at the same time. So today I?m working with Exodus Films, writing a screenplay for a new film titled 51 Stars. [It is about] the question of race, gender, identity ? things that we all are asking ourselves sometimes. But I would like to do theater. I would like, in the United States, to do something that would fulfill my soul. This is my only wish, to do something meaningful to me, and that I would be absolutely peaceful with. I can?t be specific with it, but I think you know what I?m saying.
SH: Back to Live and Become. What message would you like for viewers to come away with?
SS: I just want people to know that their life compared to other peoples is absolutely a fortune they possess in their hands. We see the ads about people truly starving, and we understand these concepts in our minds. Wow! Three seconds ? 1?2?3? A child died in Africa. But for people living in this world it?s very hard to imagine, to try to realize, what is the struggle? To identify, human to human. I would like them to appreciate what they have here. Their problems in the United States could be a tremendous gift to children who wake up in the morning and they don?t know if they?re going to see the sunset. I would like the people to realize that we need, at the end of the day, after we pursue everything in our life, we need to maintain the most fundamental thing, and that?s called humanity. This is what I would like them to understand. That people who come from that continent or from any other place for that matter, that people have a vision, they have a dream, they struggle so much to stay alive. Fifty years from now no one is going to remember who said what or who did what to who or who slept with who, the world is going to remember the ones who went far away to save those who can?t help themselves.
SH: Thank you so much. Your story is amazing.
SS: It?s not my story that is amazing, you know. This is my experience in life. And the emphasis should be not what I?ve been though in life, because there are many people like me. The emphasis should be on those you will never have the chance to hear speak and tell their story. So when I speak, I represent those voices you will never hear because they are already gone. It?s not about me, you know. It?s not about what I have been through. If it?s going to be that way, as an artist I would be very successful, but as a human being I fail. And I don?t want to fail.
Live and Become is playing in New York City as Landmark Sunshine Cinema and the Paris Theater.