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Toronto Jewish Film Fest, Spotlight On Africa - '400 Miles to Freedom'

Shadow and Act By Masha Dowell | Shadow and Act April 19, 2013 at 6:34PM

“400 Miles to Freedom” tells a collective story of Jews from the African Diaspora. Leading in telling this amazing and often unheard of story, is the story of a young man, film director Avishai Mekonen. At 10 years old, he was kidnapped and held captive in Sudan; while his family lived in Ethiopia (Beta Israel). After his return; his family made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
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400 Miles TO Freedom

“400 Miles to Freedom” tells a collective story of Jews from the African Diaspora. Leading in telling this amazing and often unheard of story, is the story of a young man, film director Avishai Mekonen. At 10 years old, he was kidnapped and held captive in Sudan; while his family lived in Ethiopia (Beta Israel). After his return; his family made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

The Beta Israel region of Ethiopia was a 2,500-year-old community of observant Jews.  The goal of this community (including Avishai’s family) was to land in their religious home country of Israel. However, once there, they learn that although they are Jewish, they are not accepted.

Avishai was inspired to create this film because he wanted to be able to explain to his son his history as a man from Ethiopia; yet, of Jewish faith. His goal for this project was to assist people with their identity issues; and to educate the non Jewish community.

Throughout the documentary, Avishai struggles to explain to high officials in Israel of his religion. There is one scene where one high ranking Rabbi questions his religion. This hurts him deeply, and he has a discussion with his family about the incident. They don’t understand why he is not easily identified as a Jewish man in Israel. The last thing that he wants to do is blame his confusion on racism. However, it was through this revelation that this documentary came about. Because after he discovers and releases his frustrations; he decides to travel the world to learn about other black Jews. It would then take Mekonen seven years to complete this film.

The documentary then goes on to introduce us to other Jews from the African Diaspora. The stories are amazing. Yet, I can’t help but think of a challenge it must have been for many black Jews to be committed to a faith; yet, not readily accepted.

This documentary opened my eyes to something that I never concluded about religion. That not only is it about a faith in something higher than one’s self, but I have come to understand that religion creates a sense of belonging in various communities. By watching Avishai’s pain and challenges I realized that it appeared that he longed to have a home country and to be accepted. Yes, he was African and of Jewish faith, but through it all he wanted to belong to a group; and that group happened to be Judaism.

As an African-American; that happens to be a Christian. This documentary presents many great questions for me to explore. If religion creates a feeling of belonging in communities; what happens to people that are spiritual; but not religious? Furthermore, this documentary makes me wonder about the many questions of belonging that many blacks in America may have.

In this film, Avishai knew his family was from Ethiopia; and he knew that they fled a dictatorship and landed in Israel, however, what about the black people in America that don’t know anything; will they forever possess the feeling of not belonging?


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