October 14, 2019

‘Lady Titi’ Shatters Stereotypes About Israel’s Ethiopian Community

The Premiere of the english-subtitled version of “Lady Titi,” Israel’s first commercial film about the Ethiopian community and the first to be directed by an Ethiopian- Israeli, was held in Jerusalem recently. Nominated for three Ophirs, Israel’s version of the Oscars, the movie was released in theaters across the nation.

“Lady Titi” tells the story of a young man named Worko, an Ethiopian-Israeli trying to make it in the music industry. Worko flees to his mother’s home in Bat Yam after failing to repay a loan he took from an unsavory gang in order to finance a music video. To hide, he transforms himself into a woman named Titi and lands a job with a female-empowerment workshop at the local Ethiopian community center.

Producer Elad Wexler and his wife, director Esti Almo-Wexler, established Abayenesh Productions, which produced “Lady Titi,” in part so that Ethiopian-Israelis could be better represented in films. There are some 144,000 Ethiopian-Israelis, many of whom were brought to the Jewish state in the 1980s and ’90s during secret missions such as Operation Moses and Operation Solomon.

The couple says their community’s response to the film generally has been positive.

“Ethiopian people tell us that they feel proud for the first time. This movie has changed something in our little society,” Almo-Wexler said.  

The character Titi is based on some of Almo-Wexler’s own experiences as an Ethiopian-Israeli, and the film seeks to accurately portray life in the community, with half of the dialogue in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia. 

“Ethiopian people tell us that they feel proud for the first time. This movie has changed something in our little society.” — Esti Almo-Wexler

“This movie gives the general public its first chance to see how we are at home and in our neighborhoods,” said Tzvika Iskais, who plays Worko/Titi. “The film represents us in terms of the mother-son relationship, our attitudes, our language. [Almo-Wexler] is trying to express how hard life is for Ethiopians, not through the lens of a sad story but through a guy who becomes a black diva who doesn’t care what people think, which all people seem to enjoy.” 

Shula Mola, chairwoman of the Association of Ethiopian Jews, said the production authentically highlights the group’s economic struggles.

“I know stories about people trying to escape poverty like Worko, who borrow money from nonlegal sources and cannot pay it back,” she said.  

One reason members of the community turn to dubious sources for loans can be found in statistics gathered in the Employment Diversity Index, published by the Israeli government’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. According to the data, Ethiopian women make almost 50 percent less than the average salaried worker. In addition, Ethiopian-Israelis with college degrees have more difficulty finding suitable employment and are thus overrepresented in low-wage jobs. 

The film also highlights racism in Israeli society. In one scene that Almo-Wexler created out of her own experience, Worko/Titi is approached by a woman who asks if she wants to clean her house.

“People assume she cleans houses because of her skin color and they don’t even understand why it is offensive,” Elad Wexler said.

The English-subtitled premiere came against the backdrop of protests in Tel Aviv sparked by the death of 24-year-old Yehuda Biadga, an Ethiopian-Israeli shot by police. Biadga is believed to have had mental health issues and was carrying a knife in the street. Police said he threatened an officer but eyewitnesses dispute the claim that anyone was in imminent danger.

“We have problems with over-policing and the profiling of Ethiopian-Israelis,” Mola said. “I don’t know how to protect my son as the police treat him like a criminal because he is black. The only thing I can tell him is to take his ID card when he goes out and to answer all their questions if he is stopped.” 

Meanwhile, Mola believes it will take governmental reforms and education of the Israeli public to improve the plight of her community.

“Israel has made progress by admitting that institutional racism exists, but the real sign of advancement is results,” she said. “I want to see everyone who cares about society, and the State of Israel, demonstrating for change, not just Ethiopians.”