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Live and Become

Menemsha Films

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Not long after my husband and I brought our son home from an orphanage in Addis Ababa, I checked out a faded public library book on Ethiopia. Daniel was six years old at the time, and though he spoke almost no English, I thought he'd enjoy flipping through the photos. When he got to a page with an Ethiopian priest in a white robe, he stopped and put his hands together in a prayerful pose. This sign that Daniel had been raised as a Christian was one of our first clues about his life before adoption.

Like Daniel, who has lost much of his first five years, the nine-year-old Ethiopian boy in the feature film Live and Become is also cut off from his past. The film begins in a refugee camp, as a group of Ethiopian Jews is being relocated to Israel to escape the 1984-1985 famine. Though the boy is Christian, his mother makes the selfless decision to force him to leave with one of the women who is fleeing. His mother tells him that he must go in order to "live and become."

Once in Israel, a Jewish family adopts the boy, now known as Schlomo. Yael, Schlomo's adoptive mother, is a strong and loving presence, especially when he's the target of racism. After a group of parents at Schlomo's elementary school calls for him to leave, due to their fear of disease, Yael, in an especially primal scene, kisses her son and licks his face in front of the parents who lodged the complaints.

The film takes Schlomo through young adulthood as he struggles with whether to reveal the truth--that he was not born a Jew--to his Israeli family and friends. The best course of action isn't clear, even to him; he says, "I'm not Jewish, but I feel Jewish." At the same time, he longs for Ethiopia and a chance to see his biological mother again. The film isn't expressly about adoption, but it is the story of mothers: the mother who gives birth to him and ensures his survival by letting him go; the mother who ferries him to Israel; and the adoptive mother who is with him the rest of the way.

I thought about having Daniel, who is now 10, watch this film with me, but I felt he wouldn't sit still for a movie "where all they do is talk." I think we'll save it until he can better understand Schlomo's search for identity. While the film is visually stunning and epic in scope, it struck me as didactic, which made Schlomo seem more symbol than real boy. Still, my need to know everything about the inner life of an Ethiopian adoptee, even a fictional one, kept me hooked.

I won't have many films to help me with that.

Subtitled (the film is in Amharic, French, and Hebrew); $29.95. 

Reviewed by Renee Olson, a former editor of AF.

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