His Sister’s Keeper

IN HIS PROVOCATIVE 1998 TV film “Sex, Lies and Supper,” director Dan Wolman draws a jarring parallel between the loneliness of Romanian workers in Israel who miss the families they left back home, and the yearning of Israeli war widows for the families they will never have. Wolman’s latest, award-winning feature, “Foreign Sister,” offers a further exploration of the hidden bonds between that new Israeli underclass of migrant workers and the society that embraces their cheap labor with one arm and brutally chases them out with the other.

Wolman chose to focus on a group of workers who comprise only a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of Third World migrants who reside in Israel with or without work permits – Ethiopian Christians. One of the first things the film’s Ethiopian protagonist, Nigest, tells her prospective employer, the middle-class and middle-aged Naomi, who has just literally picked her up off the street and is driving her to her mother-in-law’s house to clean, is: “I don’t work Sundays. I go to church.”

Thus begins the process of Nigest’s asserting herself as a woman of identity and dignity, and a relationship that propels Naomi into a painfully ironic comparison of the two women’s stations in life. Naomi discovers that despite their glaring differences, each is the victim of a different kind of oppression. It was Naomi’s inability to cope with her multiple roles as mother of two teenaged children, bank employee, wife of a well-meaning but clueless husband and devoted daughter-in-law of an obstinate woman with failing health, that led her to seek Nigest’s help. At 50, she is growing bitter and desperate upon realizing that within the confines of her spacious home, equipped with such trappings of comfort and convenience as a washing machine and dishwasher, her life nonetheless consists of constant servitude to others. As she gets to know Nigest, who has left two small children with her mother in Ethiopia, and cleans houses in Israel to earn money to finance their education, Naomi’s heart is touched and a bond of “sisterhood” grows between the two.

“Foreign Sister,” winner of the Wolgin Award for best feature at last summer’s Jerusalem Film Festival, is a deeply personal portrait of individual lives that also makes a statement about its time and place, with a realistic yet kind, unsparing yet gentle touch. In this and previous acclaimed films Wolman wrote and directed, including “My Michael” (1975), based on the novel by Amos Oz, and “The Distance” (1994), the contemplative, sensitive filmmaker excels at revealing subtle facets of the Israeli experience that capture its essence.

The social statement contained in “Sister” came naturally to the 59-year-old, Jerusalem-born director, who besides making some 12 feature films and working on a variety of other projects, has been actively involved with the Ethiopian community in Israel for years. It began in his infancy, when he spent three-and-a-half years in Ethiopia. Dan’s father, Prof. Moshe Wolman, was a physician in the British army under the command of Orde Wingate, who, after serving in Palestine during the 1936-9 riots, had gone to wrest control of Ethiopia from Italy in World War II. After Addis Ababa was liberated in 1941, the elder Wolman brought his family over to join him and stayed on, serving as a doctor to, among others, Emperor Haile Selassie.

MEETING WITH THE REPORT over early-morning coffee at his Ramat Gan home – the second story of a private house surrounded by lush greenery, whose ground floor belongs to Wolman’s parents – the soft-spoken director, with cropped silver hair and blue eyes, recalled his childhood. “When I was little I spoke fluent Amharic,” he said. “My father still does.” When immigration from Ethiopia began in the 1980s, the Wolmans “adopted” a family, whose son, Fasil Legasse, eventually became a close friend and business associate of Dan’s. Feeling the Ethiopian community was not receiving fair treatment in the Israeli media, the two established, in 1995, an all-Ethiopian production company, Fasildan Communications, supported by the ministries of education and immigration, as well as the Joint Distribution Committee, which they use to serve the community as a tool of education and enrichment. Its flagship program is “Through Our Own Eyes,” a half-hour weekly program on educational TV in Amharic and Tigrinia – the latter the language of 10 percent of the immigrants – that has just aired its 200th show. “Giving legitimacy to their culture and language is an important part of our program,” said Wolman, extolling the longstanding popularity of theater in Ethiopia and the high quality of its universities.

Through his work with the immigrants – Ethiopian Jews, who receive Israeli citi-zenship upon arrival under the Law of Return – Wolman discovered the other Ethiopians in Israel, the illegal workers, who later became the subject of his film. “We were going to record a young Ethiopian singer, Yifat Avraham, in a rendition of the Song of Songs passage: ‘Look not upon me because I am black,’ for the television program,” he recalled. “We hired an Ethiopian composer to write the music. On the day of production he didn’t show up. I was told he had been injured and was in hospital. I wanted to go visit him. It turned out he had gone to a Palestinian hospital, because he was illegal in Israel and was afraid the authorities would catch him in an Israeli hospital.”

That incident found its way into “Foreign Sister,” where the illegal workers’ tenuous existence was both part of the script and part of the reality of production. During filming, a key male actor was arrested and deported – Wolman’s efforts to pull clout or post bail to secure the man’s release having failed. “I had to change the script and invent a different male character to take the story where it needed to go,” said Wolman. Luckily, as it were, for the film, Wolman owns the production company and is able to work around such disasters.

“I have an unusual technique of making films,” he says with a mixture of pride and resignation, citing the chronic shortage of money with which he has had to cope throughout his career, forcing him to tread slowly and economically. “‘Foreign Sister’ had only five people on the set, as compared with a typical feature, which will have 50. I use good actors who are not famous but are loyal. Every time I have some money I set up a day or two of shooting. ‘Sister’ took a year and a half, working a day or two every month. Askala Marcus (Ni-gest) and Tamar Yerushalmi (Naomi) had to be on call and take a day off work when I asked them.”

“It has a lot of advantages,” he reflects. “There is something wearing about working day in and day out. This way you have time to think, to make changes. I have two weeks to prepare a day of shooting in the best way. This gives me more freedom in making the film.”

Wolman says he relies heavily on the support of family and neighbors. His wife, Shoshi Wolman, is an accomplished film editor who works for other directors as well as her husband. The youngest of their three children, 15-year-old Eilam, composed and performed a reggae song played in “Sister.” Dan’s brother Amnon is a professor of music, who composed the score for “The Distance,” about the relations between an Israeli who settled in the U.S. and the aging parents he left behind. The car in “Sister” is the same car that appeared in “The Distance” – Shoshi’s 1991 Mitsubishi (Dan doesn’t drive). Indicating different sides of his living room, Wolman describes key scenes of his movies that were shot there; other scenes were shot at his parents’, downstairs, and others at the neighbors’.

“I owe thanks to all the institutions that did not help me,” Wolman notes wryly, musing on what his work would look like if he had a decent budget. (Wolman made “Foreign Sister” for under $ 200,000.) He has some harsh words for the publicly sponsored Israeli Film Fund, generally a key source of funding for Israeli features, whose lectors rejected the scripts of “Distance” and “Sister,” both of which went on to be Wolgin award-winners. In both cases the fund pitched in with post-production funding after seeing a rough cut produced on a shoestring budget.

AFTER ENDURING INITIAL REjections and humiliations from local critics – “My Michael” was the turning point – Wolman is today hailed as a master of his art. “Dan Wolman is one of Israel’s warmest, most humane and most generous film directors,” wrote Nachman Ingber in the Tel Aviv weekly Ha’ir. “For him, the cinema is an opportunity to enter the Israeli soul, to portray its pains, to celebrate its joys… He has insight, an attitude of grace, and he becomes a sort of poet of the small, most banal moments…Wolman’s style is simple, flowing and wonderfully accurate. Wolman has achieved an amazing cinematic articulacy.”

Ha’aretz critic Uri Klein wrote, in his review of “Foreign Sister:” “Wolman makes his humble films under nearly impossible production and budget conditions. But he makes them, and some of the determination that motivates him seeps into them and shapes their plots and the faces of their characters.”

To earn a living between his “personal” projects, Wolman has made promotional films, television films and done a variety of other directing jobs. These days he is shooting a youth adventure film for producer Yoram Globus in Eilat. “Like any freelancer, I never knew what I or my family would live on next month. But I have always had work. I know that working slowly, my way, I will make a film every year or two. I love making films.”

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