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Considering the high regard we attach to our culture and history, Ethiopians sure are getting the short end of the stick when it comes to representation in the international film, literature, music or performing arts scene. Neighbouring Kenya boasts a much more impressive portfolio of portrayals, at least in Hollywood, compared to Ethiopia.

We really do not have that much to show off except the likes of Shaft in Africa, that Angelina Jolie movie Beyond Borders and a mediocre Simpsons episode that features an Ethiopian restaurant in the United States. Movies such as Haile Gerima’s Teza or Yared Zeleke’s Lamb do not count in this discussion - though are far more impressive achievements - for those are Ethiopian co-productions made by primarily local effort and barely reflect just how much the international community thinks about us.

Still, there is a sense of pride in seeing our culture and history being portrayed in some nature. It is preferable had we been the focus of Out of Africa (Kenya takes that honour) instead of a lame duck movie such as The Red Sea Diving Resort. But then again, beggars cannot be choosers.

The Red Sea Diving Resort dramatises events of a major covert Israeli operation to evacuate Ethiopian Jews into Israel. Based on true events, Operation Moses and Operation Joshua, where thousands of Beta Israel refugees in Sudan were successfully evacuated in the mid-1980s, the film takes liberties to portray the whole episode into an Ocean’s Eleven type heist thriller.

It stars Chris Evans as Ari, an American Jew, who helps the Beta Israel community migrate across the Ethiopian border into Sudan with the help of Kebede (Michael K. Williams), an Ethiopian Jew himself. Ari hits an obstacle though in smuggling them out of Sudan, where they get stuck as refugees.

Back in Israel, he comes up with a fantastic idea. He manages to persuade Israeli intelligence, and a team of professionals, to help him purchase a hotel, called Red Sea Diving Resort, located close to Sudan’s coast along the Red Sea. He would use the hotel as a front to smuggle Ethiopian Jews languishing in Sudanese refugee camps.

In this politically turbulent time, it is unclear how such a plot line was able to get green-lighted. It is not so much a movie about trials faced by Ethiopian Jews in emigrating to Israel or even a dramatisation of the covert operations but a modern Israelized version of Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden.”

To say that The Red Sea Diving Resort suffers from a white saviour complex does not do justice to the extent the movie goes to extol its white characters and almost entirely disregard its African ones. With the exception of Kebede, the latter are one-dimensional characters, without any inner conflict, used as props to look miserable and defeated. Even Kebede comes out looking much more like the “magical negro” than the filmmakers intended instead of a two-dimensional character with feelings, thoughts and aspirations that do not play directly into the heroics of Ari.

This is made all the worse by the fact that not a lot of care and research went into how the Ethiopians are portrayed. The film opens with rebels - not clear which ones these were - attacking a town where the Beta Israel lived. The scenery - dry grasses and traditional huts - suggests Northern Ethiopia, but the rebels look like they are straight out of Beasts of No Nation instead of resembling any rebel group roaming the countryside in 1980s Ethiopia.

Worse, almost all of the Beta Israel characters are played by African Americans, including Kebede. He is played by Williams (most famous for playing the cool-as-a-cucumber character Omar Little in The Wire), who has only managed to learn enough Amharic to speak it at a five-year-old’s level.

What can possibly prompt them to cast non-Ethiopians with thick American accents in Amharic-speaking roles?

After all, it is hard to imagine any self-respecting studio such as Netflix allowing the release of a movie where all the supposed French characters have thick Italian accents.

It is not the star power of the likes of Williams. They have no star power. It is that the filmmakers did not care - after all, they live in a world where the international community regularly struggles to tell whether or not Africa is, in fact, one country or not. The only people who can actually tell that none of the actors have worked hard enough to ace the accents are Ethiopians.

And they are small fish to care about. Such small fish, they do not even have Netflix.

PUBLISHED ON Aug 17,2019 [ VOL 20 , NO 1007]

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