Avishai Mekonen to screen his new film �400 Miles�

Avishai Mekonen’s new film, “400 Miles to Freedom,” will have its Rhode Island premiere on April 15, as part of the Israel@Sixty-Five celebrations sponsored by the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island. Mekonen, the film’s co-director/producer will speak at the 7 p.m. event. The film’s title refers to the distance Ethiopian Jews walked – from Ethiopia to Sudan – before leaving Africa for Israel in the 1980s. While in Sudanese refugee camps, Ethiopian Jews concealed their identities and religious practices from their neighbors in order to survive.

“For many years, it was difficult for me to speak about what I went through,” said Mekonen, himself an Ethiopian Jew who made aliyah. “The price Ethiopian Jews paid to be free was very high. We walked for miles and miles without giving up, pursuing our dream to reach Israel and be free from religious persecution. This is a story that is not often told.”

Calling the Ethiopian Jews’ exodus a story of “biblical proportions,” Mekonen believes that their experiences, which were dangerous for them and for others, are highly informative. “The agents of the Mossad also made great sacrifices in order to assist us; they risked their lives for their nation,” he said. “Men like Mossad agents Danny Limor and Shetu Gelanech, who saved my life, are examples of heroism that all Jews should know about.” The film details how Mekonen, then 9-years-old, was kidnapped in Sudan. Eventually, he escaped his captors and was rescued by a young Ethiopian Jew, Shetu Gelanech, who worked with the Mossad and reunited Avishai with his family.

“We did not speak about this for years. My movie opened up a wound that forced us to talk about it,” said Mekonen. “I want this film to make audiences more aware of violence towards children. The primary victims of the current civil war in Syria will be children. I’m bewildered that in 2013 the world is shutting its eyes to the Syrian conflict’s refugees. It’s tragic.”

In addition to his personal aliyah experience, the movie also emphasizes other Jewish communities’ narratives. The film, he said, shows audiences that Jews are a diverse people who have different racial and ethnic identities. “Each Jewish community has unique cultural and historical experiences. In the end, though, we all unite in our shared faith,” said Mekonen. “Whenever I screen the film, I find that people are thirsty to know more about different Jewish cultures. I am for education and for showing this tapestry of cultures.”

Mekonen moved to the United States from Israel 12 years ago and now lives in New York with his wife Shari Rothfarb Mekonen, with whom he co-directed and produced the film, and their two children. He said that American Jews who see “400 Miles to Freedom” often ask him, Why are you here? Is it bad for you in Israel? “They have difficulty understanding that this is a personal choice and not an indication that I’m dissatisfied with Israel,” Mekonen said. “There is a tendency to dwell on the negative. I want to highlight the positive.”

The program, which includes the film screening (60 minutes long), followed by a conversation with Mekonen, will be held at the Alliance JCC at 7 p.m. on Monday, April 15. The cost is $5 per person for general admission/$3 per person for seniors and students.
(Tags: Ethiopian Jews, Movie)

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