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FOREIGN SISTER(Ahot Zara)(director/writer/producer: Dan Wolman; cinematographer: Itamar Hadar; editor: Shosh Wolman; music: Slava Ganelin; cast: Tamar Yerushalmi (Naomi), Askala Marcus (Negist), Zvi Salton (Shmuel), Titina Asafa (Negist’s Ethiopian girlfriend); Runtime: 90; MPAA Rating: NR; Dan Wolman Productions/Israel Film Fund; 2000-Israel/ in Hebrew, w/Eng. subtitles)
“If this film was made in the States the director would be labeled as a bleeding-heart liberal.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

“Foreign Sister” won the Volgin Award as Best Film in the 2000 Jerusalem Film Festival. It’s a tense drama from Israeli filmmaker Dan Wolman (“My Michael“/”Hide and Seek“) that is unsettling both as a psychological and political presentation, but borders on being a feminist film yet never quite takes that leap. The film mainly focuses on a harried, neurotic, compulsively-obsessed, middle-aged, bourgeois housewife from Tel-Aviv named Naomi (Tamar Yerushalmi), who can’t take a break from her mundane life of household duties and from taking care of her spoiled husband Shmuel (Zvi Salton) and her demanding 13-year-old son Tom and his equally demanding older teen-age sister Noga. Naomi’s husband urges her to get a maid to help her clean his elderly mother’s house and for the maid to even help her out, but she is someone who feels compelled to do everything herself. Naomi doesn’t know how to relax and enjoy what she has–a loving family, a beautiful house, and the modern conveniences such as a car, a dishwasher and a microwave. But Naomi’s ordinary life has become a hardship, as she’s falling apart from the strain. This is something she only admits to her close lady friend, as she relaxes for a bit at her son’s Bar Mitzvah party and at last communicates her real feelings. She gets a hug in return but no further answer. Naomi also works in a bank in a position of authority, but refuses to quit when her hubby tells her she could have more time to herself that way. All the pressure seems to be self-induced. Hubby is not an ogre and the children are well-behaved, but they are selfish and expect her to do everything for them.

The story picks up in intensity when Naomi combs the streets for a maid. In a spur of the moment decision she hires for 100 shekels to do four hours of housecleaning work an attractive young black woman named Negist (Askala Marcus), who is an illegal immigrant from Ethiopia and a Christian.

Their relationship becomes the focus of the film, as it exposes Naomi’s dissatisfaction with her life and also exposes her to Africans she wasn’t even aware existed in her country. The film explores a controversial subject in Israel, as it openly addresses the question of living and working conditions for the nearly 400,000 foreign workers who live there. The problems are confined to this close-knit group of hard-working and gentle Ethiopian Christians. When their work permits expire they are classified as illegals and must hide from the police. If caught they are jailed and deported. They have been welcomed by the Israeli government for their cheap labor, but are not encouraged to become integrated into mainstream society. The reason they come in such large numbers is because of the opportunities to make money here and get an education, as most plan to return to their homeland.

Naomi’s life suddenly changes upon meeting Negist, as she becomes more aware of her own needs and seems to narrowly avert a nervous breakdown. The two women bond when they find that they have much in common despite their differences in age, race, and class. Through her relationship with Negist, the uptight Naomi is exposed to the underlying racial prejudices that exist in Israel. The Ethiopian woman refuses to work anymore for Naomi’s mother-in-law when in a fit of anger over a misunderstanding she tells Negist “You people are ruining this country.” When Naomi goes to visit Negist to bring her some of her family’s old clothes, she’s encouraged to stay and talk with Negist and her friend (Titina Asafa) in their crowded apartment filled with ten immigrants from Ethiopia. The seven men are sleeping together in one room during the day because they have worked all night, as Negist entertains Naomi in the women’s room and talks her into having her hair braided. She then is goaded into going with them to an Ethiopian nightclub to loosen up. This is the weekend that Naomi’s family plotted together to give her a vacation as thanks for taking care of them, but they do it out of their own guilt and against her wishes. It’s merely another material gift, as they plan for her to be alone in the luxurious beachfront Sheraton Hotel to have some time to relax.

Warning: spoiler in the next paragraph.

But first Naomi drives her new friends to the nightclub where she meets Negist’ male friends, and has a few sips from an alcoholic Ethiopian drink called Tala. But before Naomi can loosen up, the festivities are interrupted by the news that one of the Ethiopians, Naga, got arrested as an illegal by the police and when his friend Andange goes to collect for him the money that’s owed by his Israeli employer, he’s struck by the boss’ son and hits his head on the ground and is bleeding profusely. Instead of taking him to the local hospital in Tel-Aviv, he asks to go to the one 45-minutes away in East Jerusalem where he won’t be stopped for being an illegal. Naomi gets involved as the driver and tries her best to get him there, which means running an army roadblock. But it’s too late and he dies, but his murder will go unpunished.

But because Naomi proves to be such a caring person, Negist calls her my sister (the film’s aim is to relate all the women who go through hardships because of their gender as one). The final scene when she’s reunited with her middle-class family in the hotel restaurant and finds it impossible to communicate with them about what a horror story she has been through and decides to spare them from listening to her adventure into a displaced world (reminding her of the Jewish diaspora) that she will in all probability never return to again. Once again Naomi returns to her familiar grounds to be the protective caretaker of the family and would rather not have them know about what she’s been through. That scene reminded me of the one in Max Ophüls’ outstanding 1949 film noir The Reckless Moment, where the mother reacts in the same way after self-sacrificing herself to save her family at any cost.

If this film was made in the States the director would be labeled as a bleeding-heart liberal. Its expose of the problem of illegals is probably not on the top of the list of problems that Isrealis are concerned about today. Timing is everything. Currently there are so many problems that Israel is facing due to the suicide bombers and continued concerns about the Palestinian territories it occupies. It’s not clear from the film how Mr. Wolman would want to handle the problem over the thousand or so illegal Christian Ethiopians of the 80,000 legal Ethiopian Jews that came to Israel since the 1980s, except by calling attention to the problem he can attack the sensibilities of a moral nation to improve its policies. Though it’s true that the illegal immigrants are being taken advantage of by some unscrupulous people and don’t have the protection of the government, but in fairness to Israel this is a universal problem and not confined only to them.

Mr. Wolman contrasted the lives of the two women from different parts of the world who had different problems and said they were both similarly shaken by their life experiences but reacted in different ways. Mr. Wolman then made the leap that their problem was intensified because they were women and made much of their temporary friendship. I was impressed with Mr. Wolman’s sensitive direction as he got me to care about both women, but other than that I didn’t know how else I was supposed to feel except to understand the obvious: racism is ugly, especially when directed at vulnerable illegals, and the lack of communication in one’s family can be troublesome. Both of their problems have to be worked out by them in their own way — I think Naomi could use a good shrink and Negist needs to get her act together. She might benefit by getting a possible career going as a hairdresser. The impression I was left with is that they are both strong and determined women who will hopefully find a way of dealing with their problems. Mr. Wolman is a capable director, but the dramatics seemed too piled on and the connection established between the women seemed to be for the making of a political point rather than in delving more deeply into anything else.

REVIEWED ON 2/27/2003 GRADE: B –

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”