Wexlers Visit Literature of the Levant

Hanna Hornfeld and Sean Lee

Award-winning Ethiopian-Israeli filmmaker Esti Wexler and Israeli producer Elad Wexler, her husband, visited English teacher Dr. Deborah Kassel’s Literature of the Levant class yesterday. The Wexlers co-founded Abaynesh Productions with the goal of telling intersectional stories, inspired by Esti’s immigrant, Jewish, Ethiopian-Israeli, and female identity, according to their website.

As a friend of the Wexlers, Kassel invited them to the school to conduct a Unity Week workshop last year. This year, she invited them back because they could add a unique layer to her class, which celebrates the diversity of Middle Eastern ethnicities, religions, and cultures through the lens of film and literature, she said.

After Kassel introduced the Wexlers, and the couple showed a clip from the first major film they created together, “Lady Tity Sings the Blues,” Kassel invited students to ask questions. Members of her class had spent the previous day independently researching the Wexlers and preparing questions, Kareena Gupta (12) said. 

The little Ethiopian representation in Israeli film and television tells a story of sadness, pain, and poverty, Elad said. The Wexlers wanted to change this narrative with their films. “Lady Tity Sings the Blues” is a comedic drama about an Ethiopian man. The film’s use of Ethiopian culture, music, and humor allowed the Wexlers to portray Ethiopian-Israelis as unique and happy individuals, Esti said. 

Taking control of the way Ethiopians are represented has always been important to Esti — even in art school, she did not allow her white peers to shoot Ethiopian people. As a child, when journalists interviewed Esti about her emigration from Ethiopia, she felt uncomfortable. “I asked myself, ‘Why are they controlling my story? I want to tell my story,’” she said. “I noticed when you are not telling your [own] story, you can say whatever you want and you can hurt the people you are talking about.” 

The concepts of representation and taking control of one’s narrative resonated with Ericka Familia (12). “Especially as a Hispanic American living in the U.S., I don’t see my culture often expressed or depicted in mainstream media,” Familia said. She found the Wexler’s goal of reaching the wider Israeli audience with their films to be meaningful.

The Wexlers try to represent marginalized voices beyond Ethiopian-Israelis in their films, such as members of the LGBT community in “Lady Titi Sings the Blues.” “In our community, there is no discussion about [LGBT people],” Este said. “If you ask my parents, they will say to you there are no gays, there is no transgender. It’s not thought of as something positive or acceptable. I have a lot of things to say about racism, but we also have to check ourselves and see people that need to be heard.”

Kassel hopes to challenge students to continue to educate themselves about the complex reality of many cultures of the Middle East. “I wanted to present a vision of a world strong enough to withstand the false, misinformed perceptions of others religions, ethnicities, and complexions,” she said. “I value my role as a teacher as an opportunity to deconstruct biased scripts by sharing a multiplicity of voices and truths in the spirit of peaceful and mutually respectful coexistence.”

Gupta found the intersection of Ethiopian and Israeli culture in Esti’s story to be inspiring. “We haven’t really focused on Ethiopian-Israeli culture, and it’s interesting to see these two worlds come together,” she said.