NEW YORK — There are no shortage of amazing stories about The Land of Israel, and more are still being uncovered. Some are from antiquity, others are from the 1980s. Of this second group comes the true tale of the Red Sea Diving Resort, a fake hotel up the coast from Port Sudan.
It was here, decades ago, that the Mossad kept their base of operations open in plain sight, organizing the secret movement of thousands of Jewish refugees to Israel from the civil war destruction of Ethiopia. It was a plan just crazy enough to work, the type of thing to make one say, “someone should turn that into a movie.”
And so we have Netflix’s “The Red Sea Diving Resort.” Gideon Raff, the creator of “Prisoner of War,” the Israeli series adapted into the Emmy-winning “Homeland,” has assembled an outstanding team of actors to pull off this caper. Leading the charge is Marvel’s Captain America, Chris Evans.
With him are fellow Israeli agents played by Haley Bennett, Alessandro Nivolo and Michiel Huisman. Michael K. Williams is their operative inside the Ethiopian community and Greg Kinnear is the mostly-helpful CIA man inside of Sudan. Lastly, Sir Ben Kingsley adds weight as the Mossad head tasked with keeping Chris Evans, a typically hot-headed cowboy who gets results, dammit, from getting in over his head.
It’s a fun flick, but also touching, especially when it shows the desperation of the refugees. Though set close to 40 years ago, it remains quite timely.
I had the good fortune to speak with writer-director Gideon Raff. An edited transcript of that conversation is below.
I like to think I know more about Jewish history and Israeli history than the average person, but I sure as heck didn’t know this story.
I was born and raised in Jerusalem and I wasn’t aware of this either. I knew of the bigger airlifts from the 1980s and 1990s, and I remember those moving images, but I didn’t know about this hotel until producer Alexandra [Milchan, daughter of Arnon] brought it to my attention.
We traveled to Israel and I met with some of the Mossad agents involved, as well as many of the Ethiopians who did the journey through Sudan. I met with the family of Ferede Aklum, the man who inspired Michael K. Williams’s character in the film. He’s the one who wrote to every Jewish organization saying, “it’s time for us to move to our homeland, to Jerusalem,” or “Yeru-salem” as you hear them pronounce it in the film. He really started the whole operation.
I know it’s a movie, so it’s not all real, but there are some oddball parts to this caper that are too strange not to be real. Little details. I don’t want to give it away before people can watch it, but there are two parts (which we won’t print so as not to spoil the film) — can you please just confirm for me that they happen like you show it.
Yes, [they] actually happened.
I knew it!
There’s no shortage of action in the film. You are crossing rivers, racing trucks in the desert, loading boats. This had to be complicated.
It was an extremely challenging shoot. We were in places like Upington and Pella in South Africa, then near Lüderitz in Namibia, and in the middle of the desert. Crossing the rivers there you face things you don’t face in America. Like bringing someone to make sure there were no hippos or crocodiles in the water. There were baboons on the other shore barking at us the entire time. There were scorpions following our shadow, because it was so hot there they wanted to enjoy the shade of our bodies. These are things you don’t expect!
When we shot our first scene of the Ethiopian village, I felt I needed the look of a corn field. So I walked into a corn field to check it out and one of our local scouts ran to me to say I was going to get into black mamba territory. But the biggest challenges were for the actors. It was so hot, then the river was freezing.
You have Chris Evans in the lead, coming off of what I imagine are very luxe conditions making the Marvel movies in a modern facility in Georgia (the state, not the country), so this had to have been some culture shock for him.
He jumped in and did whatever it took. He’s the least spoiled actor I’ve ever worked with.
You do the right thing in this film. This movie is set by the water, on the beach, and there is no shortage of shirtless Chris Evans. You’ve fulfilled your obligation to humanity.
Everybody has their role.
He seems like a fun guy! But we know him as Captain America, not so much for more serious movies about refugees, or movies with a little more heft.
He was very passionate about doing this movie. He read the script and sought me out. He gave it his all every minute of every day, working very hard to elevate the role I wrote.
It is surprising these days to have someone very much in the public eye play an Israeli hero. There is automatic backlash from certain quarters for anything even remotely Israeli.
Chris understood that this is a story about humanity, about people coming together, about a family reunited. This movie recognizes that we are all equal. We have a refugee crisis right now in the world and it is important to tell uplifting, hopeful stories about people coming together, doing the right thing and making the world a better place.
There have been no shortage of movies recently about Israeli military operations – “The Debt,” “7 Days in Entebbe,” “Operation Finale” – what is it about this young country that lends itself to such cinematic events? Is there something in the water?
There’s something in the water, there’s something in the air. We live in a rough neighborhood and the stakes are always very high. Israel was founded on the idea of being a shelter to Jews wherever they are in the world, and that’s why you get these stories.
Also, places like Netflix allow for a great deal of local content to get seen that otherwise perhaps wouldn’t get seen.
You mean getting it out all over the world at once?
A lot of people in the film industry have mixed feelings about Netflix. But for this movie, if it was done the old fashioned way, it might just play in New York and Los Angeles and maybe wouldn’t get the attention otherwise?
I think you are right. When I heard Netflix was going to partner with us I jumped up and down. It will reach a bigger audience.
Did you show your cast and crew other caper films?
Not really, but my cinematographer Roberto Schaefer and I discussed a lot of cold war thrillers of the 1970s, movies like “Marathon Man” and “The Conversation” and later “Gorky Park” and even “The Lives of Others.” But for the visual transitions, we discussed 1980s movies and that language that changed as things changed from analog.
Well, there is a montage set to “Hungry Like The Wolf” by Duran Duran, which is smack in the middle of what you mean. People forget just how huge they were back then. And what’s fun is that it dissolves to a beach bonfire where they are sitting around and someone is playing Duran Duran on an acoustic guitar – something I don’t think I’ve ever heard before.
We planned that just a few days before. Alessandro Nivola has an amazing voice. Plus I thought we could hint at the fact that he has a little crush on Haley Bennett’s character if he is singing to her on an acoustic guitar and looking at her.
Movies have conditioned us for certain clichés. Early on we see Chris Evans and Haley Bennett and it’s “well, surely they are gonna hook up” but it’s not that kind of story. Was there pressure to put in a love angle?
No, not at all. There were other things I cut out. The biggest challenge of the movie is condensing five years of the operation to two hours, while also honoring the Ethiopian community as the hero of the story. They were the ones who started it all, and are as active as the Mossad agents in their rescue.
Will you have screenings for the Ethiopian community in Israel?
We’ve done a few already, especially for those that helped and advised us.
The biggest challenge of the movie is condensing five years of the operation to two hours, while also honoring the Ethiopian community as the hero of the story
It just so happens there is some tension in the Ethiopian community in Israel right now. This movie can only help to remind people about unity?
I hope so. The Ethiopian community in Israel is fighting for justice, for the end of discrimination and for equality. That’s what this movie is all about, compassion, uniting with your neighbors and fellow humans. Unfortunately the Ethiopians are going through a fraught time right now, but they are fighting a just struggle.
I loved seeing Sir Ben Kingsley in the film. He’s a major presence, but probably only worked a few days for key scenes. Having met him, he really is a striking figure.
He elevates everyone’s work, and he has that gravitas. At first, perhaps, people were a little intimidated until they got to know him and his sense of humor. He is an actor who respects the profession and demands respect for the craft.
I see you are finishing up “The Spy” with Sasha Baron-Cohen, is it done?
It’s in the can. And you’ll see it, hopefully, later this year, also on Netflix. When you find an organization you love working with in this industry, it is hard to let go.
All I know is that it is about a real spy, Eli Cohen. Is it funny? Is it action? All I know is it’s Sasha Baron-Cohen playing a spy.
That’s all I’m allowed to tell you.
We’ll talk more about “The Spy” when the time is right.
“The Red Sea Diving Resort” will be streamable worldwide via Netflix on July 31.