"Live and Become" The Darling of the Public By Angelika Kettelhack

in 55th Berlinale

by Angelika Kettelhack

The most popular film of the public during the 55th Berlin International Film Festival was a long feature film about a poor child from Ethiopia. He gets asylum in Israel during the famine in the mid-1980s and later on the chance to study medicine and become a doctor in Africa.

Compared to other film festivals the Berlinale is considered number one in integrating the everyday spectator. Nowhere else in the world are as many tickets sold as here to the paying movie fans. In other words: The seats for 343 films, shown with a total of 1100 screenings this year, are not just reserved for the professionals of the cinema but also available for the man and the woman of the street (the German Lieschen Müller and Otto Normalverbraucher ).

“Neither snow flurries nor stormy gusts could dampen the good spirits at the 55th Berlin International Film Festival”, so read the commentary of the last press release of the festival. This year the Festival hit a new high: 180.000 tickets were sold to the public, who along with accredited festival guests attended the cinema more than 400.000 times.

But before the everyday visitor can watch the pictures, let’s say films of 90 minutes, they have to queue up in very long lines and spend almost the same time to get a ticket. This tries one’s patience but is a good proof of increasing passion. Berliners wait every day again and again in the always cold and draughty air caused by the surrounding skyscrapers of the new Potsdamer Platz, where most of the festival’s activities take place. And in the trees of the old Potsdamerstrasse 50.000 sleepless doves and crows croak, sitting there to foul the steps of the cinema-addicts with their excrements.

Likewise it is incredible that from these (see above) 180.000 sold tickets, 19.000 spectators of the Berlinale Panorama section voted with the special “Panorama Publikums-Preis” for the same film: Live and Become (Va, vis et deviens), an Israeli-French co-production, written and directed by Romanian-born Radu Mihaileanu.

A nine-year-old boy is sent away to Israel by his mother. Known as Operation Moses, it was organized during the famine in Ethiopia at the end of 1984/85. Israel and the United States of America helped to transport several thousand Ethiopian Jews, so-called Falashas, to the Holy Land. Schlomo, as the boy will be called later, is the son of a Christian mother, who persuades her child to pretend to be a Jew so as to avoid dying of hunger. Though not one of the boy’s descendants was a member of the Jewish people, he manages to get to Israel by pretending to be an orphan. And so he is adopted by a family of Sephardic Jews, who have emigrated to Israel from France. He is a very intelligent pupil, but he is living in constant fear that the others will discover that he is neither a Jew nor an orphan, but just an African goy . Growing up in Tel Aviv, he learns about Judaism and western values. But he also has to experience the war in the country’s occupied zones and racism. Some Israeli cannot endure that Jews can also be black.

There are many touching moments in the film, for example when Schlomo is sleeping besides his bed on the bare floor because he is used to doing so in Ethiopia, when he takes off his shoes as often as possible in order to feel the earth under his feet or when he speaks with his mother, while he is looking at the white moon, because it is the same moon in Israel and Africa.

Each flashback to his homeland is characterized (underlined) with slow and sad African music. And when the story returns to his new life there is lively music, sometimes even disco music. (The excellent composer was Armand Amar.) But never is the change from African to the Western world and its respective music an attack on the spectator.

Live and Become is a non-spectacular film. It is a quietly narrated epic work, but never boring. You would not believe that it is 153 minutes long. Though a little bit of cutting would not have harmed the story.

The director Radu Mihaileanu, born in Bucharest, whose father’s name was Buchmann, studied in Paris at the film school IDHEC. Already in 1998 he scored an international hit with Train Of Life (Train de Vie), a Second Word War drama set in a Jewish shtetl. His statement on his new film is: “People are too often judged by old and dated stereotypes: Arabs, Jews, Algerians, Romanians, French and Germans… Such identities are restrictive and approximate. They are wrong. They fail to show how cultures interact, how individual paths and destinies cross each other”. The Ethiopian boy, who in his heart is still an African, has become a Jewish-Israeli-French citizen, who “compromises with the jolts of history. During the Second World War the same lie (to pretend to be a Jew), that saved the boy’s life in the year 1984 would no doubt have brought about his death”.

That the visitors to the Berlinale did appreciate Radu Mihaileanu’s film is guaranteed with the new invention of the “Kinomatch Automat”. This machine has been created by the festival makers of the Panorama section together with some specialist of electronic systems and for all in co-operation with the town-magazine “Tip” and the regional radio, called “Radio Eins”. When 19,000 ordinary people love a film, is this not the best sign that Live and Become will be successful in the cinemas?