“Red Leaves,” the debut feature of Ethiopian-Israeli director Bazi Gete, had its U.S. premiere at the African Film Festival New York last weekend. I arrived a bit late to the screening, taking my seat halfway through NYAFF Director Mahen Bonetti’s introduction.
The lights dimmed and the film opened on an image of a farmhand chasing an obstinate goat—the sheer physicality of which entranced us. When the dialogue finally began, minutes later at a dinner table, the spell was broken as the scene played without English subtitles. The lights came up. The projectionist announced that he would reset the server as a few latecomers took their seats, waiting for the film to start again. When it did, we waited several more tense minutes through the goat scene, breathing a sigh of relief when the subtitles finally showed up.
“Red Leaves” follows the life of an Ethiopian immigrant in Israel—74-year-old Meseganio Tadela, played by Debebe Eshetu—who sells his apartment after his wife dies, vowing to live the rest of his life with his children whether they like it or not. Having held on stubbornly to his culture, in the 28 years since leaving home, Meseganio’s journey to reconnect with his family becomes a fierce quest to pass on fading cultural values to his sons, and an immigrant community, that have lost their way. In the end, things spiral far beyond his control.
“Red Leaves” was notable for its cinematography, storytelling, and tour de force performance of its lead actor, cast months after an exhaustive search of Israel’s Ethiopian community turned up few leads. Gete expanded the search worldwide and found a photo of Eshetu—star of “Shaft in Africa” (1971)—who had studied and taught acting in Hungary with Stanislavsky himself. After a long and pioneering career in theatre, however, the veteran actor and activist was detained by the Ethiopian government for two years on suspicion of political dissidence. He now lives in exile.
The deep range of Eshetu’s experiences gave an almost prophetic quality to his performance, which felt more like a portrait of a real man than an actor’s portrayal. Add to that Gete’s liberal use of non-actors in supporting roles, plus the cinéma vérité style of cinematography, and “Red Leaves” delivers the immediate and emotional effect of dropping the viewer directly into Meseganio’s point of view: pulled between two different cultures, societies, and generations, wondering if any space still exists for him in Israel.
At the post-screening QA, Gete—in a rumpled Oxford shirt, glasses, and a thick Israeli accent—told us that the film’s title was taken from a William Faulkner short story, about slave-and-plantation-owning Native Americans in the antebellum South, decrying white culture as a corrupting influence on traditional values. He didn’t grow up proud of his heritage, he added, but now, having completed the film, feels more Ethiopian than ever.
After the discussion, the audience was ushered across the street to a reception with a DJ and tasty buffet, at which I asked Bazi a few more questions. He told me he works at an Israeli TV station and had made only one short film before “Red Leaves,” which was shot in a couple of months for a modest $400,000. He doesn’t like to travel to festivals, he said, because he would rather be working on his next feature.
In the truest sense of the word, he is an artist, seemingly unconcerned with the business side of the business. He approaches each project as a creative problem to be solved and, once completed, was happy moving on to the next. In an industry increasingly dominated by commerce above art, his voice seems all the more essential.
At the end of the night, the DJ slipped on Brenda Fassie’s “Vul’indlela” and the crowd broke into the electric slide. I joined in and caught sight of Bazi with a wine glass swaying to the music while a patron tried in vain to teach him the dance. “Four to the right, four to the left…” she said, guiding him by the shoulder.
But he seemed far less concerned with the steps than doing what felt right to him.