September 16, 2019

‘The Red Sea Diving Resort’ Dramatizes Rescue of Ethiopian Jews

Chris Evans in “The Red Sea Diving Resort.” Photo courtesy of Netflix.

There are upwards of 130,000 Ethiopian Jews living in Israel today, most of them refugees or their descendants, brought there in a series of covert rescue missions in the 1980s and 1990s. Fleeing famine, civil war and murderous rebels in Ethiopia, these “Beta Israel” Africans crossed into Sudan in the hope of immigrating to Israel under the Jewish Law of Return. But thousands died of illness, starvation or were killed in refugee camps in the custody of the hostile Sudanese military regime. 

The Mossad (Israeli Intelligence) came up with an ingenious plan that involved leasing a strategically located abandoned seaside hotel as a front and staging area. Undercover agents ran it by day and evacuated the Ethiopians at night. The riveting story of the “Operation Brothers” missions plays out in “The Red Sea Diving Resort,” premiering on Netflix July 31. 

Writer-director-producer Gideon Raff (“Prisoners of War,” “Homeland,” “Dig,” “Tyrant”) was immediately intrigued when he heard about the mission, only recently declassified. “I knew it had the potential to be a very entertaining and uplifting movie that could reach a lot of people,” he said. “It’s a great message. This story of the Jewish Diaspora is really relevant for our times. The idea of these two very different communities coming together touched me in a big way. The Ethiopians were as active in their own rescue as the Mossad was. This is about a crazy, almost impossible mission that went right.”

Raff met with members of the actual Mossad team and Ethiopian community leaders before he began writing 2 1/2 years ago, and later relied on them as advisers. “Some of the facts were shifted because I had to condense five years into two hours,” he said. “The involvement of the CIA came a bit later, for example. It’s by no means a documentary, but it’s a movie inspired by the truth. I felt very responsible to tell this story right and honor this community.”

The characters are composites, including mission leader Ari Levinson (Chris Evans) and Ethiopian mission liaison Kebede Bimro (Michael K. Williams). The cast also includes Alessandro Nivola, Michiel Huisman and Haley Bennett as Mossad agents; Greg Kinnear as a CIA operative; and Ben Kingsley and Mark Ivanir as Mossad superiors. Ivanir served in Israeli Intelligence and participated in later airlift missions. Several Israeli-Ethiopian actors in the film enact their parents’ experiences.

Raff shot the movie in South Africa and Namibia, mostly in remote locations. “The challenges were abundant,” he said. “First of all it’s a period piece. There’s no place on the Red Sea that you can shoot — too much modernity, too dangerous, or the insurance companies won’t let you.” The Arous Holiday Resort was re-created in Namibia, “which was in itself a challenge. Our crew was staying in tents and our actors were working under hard conditions — very hot, freezing cold, crossing rivers. It’s amazing what I did to them.” 

Jerusalem-born Raff thought about becoming an actor but he took a class and realized his desire to tell stories would be better served another way. “I started directing my classmates,” he said. Having lived in Washington, D.C., in his childhood when his father worked as an economic attaché at the Israeli Embassy, he earned his degree in film at Tel Aviv University, served as a paratrooper in the Israel Defense Forces and returned to the States in 2003, where he obtained his graduate degree at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. 

Director Gideon Raff of The Red Sea Diving Resort – Photo Credit: Netflix / Marcos Cruz

After assisting director Doug Lyman on “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” he made his first feature, “The Killing Floor,” in 2007 and returned to Israel for “Prisoners of War” (“Hatufim”) two years later. Now based in L.A., where he lives with his husband, he goes back and forth regularly. His next project, the Netflix miniseries “The Spy,” stars Sacha Baron Cohen as Mossad agent Eli Cohen. It will premiere later this year.

The grandson of Polish-born halutzim (pioneers) who lost most of their relatives in the Holocaust, Raff was raised secular. “But we did grow up with Jewish values and I feel very Jewish. It’s a huge part of who I am,” he said. A vegan, he lives by the precepts of tikkun olam and “love your neighbor as yourself.” “I try to be as compassionate as possible in my life,” he said.

Raff considers “The Red Sea Diving Resort” to be “an extremely Jewish story, in the sense that these are former refugees who are helping other refugees.” The film is being released at a time when anti-Israel sentiment is escalating, but Raff didn’t make the film as a means to counter it. “My mission was to tell a story about refugees at a time when we aren’t doing enough for them,” he said. “I wanted to find a good example and was happy to find it in Israel. I never approach a project as ‘This is going to be pro-Israel.’ But if it has that effect, great. This is an example of something magical and heroic and a story that should be told.”

Not surprisingly, he’s proudest of it and “Prisoners of War.” “Both are based on real stories in Israel and they’ve reminded me why I love this industry and what a privilege it is to tell stories,” he said. “I don’t take that for granted. I’m always excited to tell stories that are very personal but have international stakes. I’m grateful that I get to tell stories that I want to see on screen.”

“The Red Sea Diving Resort” premieres July 31 on Netflix.