Identity switch comedy sheds light on complicated Ethiopian-Israeli life

Abayenesh Productions’ ‘Lady Titi’ is Israel’s first commercial film starring Ethiopian actors and focused on an Ethiopian storyline

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Be prepared to fall for Worko, the wily Ethiopian Israeli star of “Lady Titi,” who creates a sexy female persona for himself in order to outwit a pair of underworld creditors and ends up rediscovering himself.

The 94-minute film, released in Hebrew and Amharic, uses a well-known comic trope in its identity switch, but offers audiences an altered view of Ethiopian-Israeli life, featuring a tightly bound Ethiopian community, one that is mired in poverty, underemployment and the institutional racism of Israeli society.

Don’t kid yourself, this is definitely a comedy, and Worko, played by newcomer Zvika Hizikias, milks the role for all its worth. His Worko is a sexy, long-haired singer who’s been trying to make it in the music world, mistakenly borrowing money to make a video he thinks will ultimately prove his talent.

When he can’t pay back his creditors, Worko runs home to his widowed mother in Beit Shemesh, where he ends up dressing as sexy Titi in order to snag a job at a local community center where he runs a women’s empowerment group. Hilarity and confusion ensue.

Worko, aka Lady Titi, played by Zvika Hizikias (left) and his new sidekick, actress Elsa Almo (Courtesy Abayenesh Productions)

It’s the first commercial Israeli film focusing on Ethiopian characters, produced by Elad Wexler, and written and directed by Esti Almo Wexler, partners in work and life. That already makes it significant.

It’s also the first comedy for Almo Wexler, a Bezalel-trained photographer screenwriter who never thought of herself as a comic writer. But she wanted to tell aspects of her own story as an Ethiopian Israeli struggling to make it in Israel.

“I said, ‘no one will buy it, a comedy about Ethiopians? What, are we going to start laughing at ourselves?’” said Almo Wexler.

She wrote a one-pager and pitched it at an event at the Haifa Film Festival. Then she had to write it.

She harkened back to the time when she was a master’s student living in Tel Aviv, caving under the pressure of student loans and rent.

Titi (right), with her threatening creditors who are trying to track Worko down. (Courtesy Abayenesh Productions)

“I couldn’t find work, I didn’t get paid for work that I did do, and I also ended up returning to my mother’s house,” said Almo Wexler. “I ended up returning to my roots and I began looking at myself.”

She worked as a house cleaner for a long while, and drew on that experience, specifically the seemingly invisible cleaners at malls and other public buildings, for a trio of sharp, comical cleaners featured in “Lady Titi.”

“A comedy is my way of saying all the things that are annoying to me about Israeli society,” said Almo Wexler. “The racism, the attitudes toward women. It’s racism that’s institutional, that’s under the rug. It’s always out there, it’s not just by chance, either.”

For Almo Wexler, as with Worko, those inequalities and injustices felt confusing.

“I thought, ‘I’m an Israeli citizen, I graduated university, so why do I earn less, why can’t I move up?’” said Almo Wexler. “I thought it was just me, and then I learned that it’s not just me. It’s like that with everyone, but no one talks about it.”

According to a recent survey of minorities in the labor market released in February, Arab and Ethiopian women in Israel earn less than half of the national average salary and are the most disadvantaged groups in the country’s job market. Overall, women’s salaries are fifty-nine percent of men’s salaries in Israel, the survey found.

Zvika Hizikias as Titi (left) with his new best friend in the film, actress Elsa Almo (center) and Esti Almo on the ‘Lady Titi’ set (Courtesy Abayenesh Productions)

“Telling the truth releases you,” said Almo Wexler. “People hugged me for telling the truth, they said I finally told what’s been stuck in their throats. I put things on the table and that frees them to deal with their lives.”

There’s no mention in the film of what the Ethiopian community had to suffer in order to reach Israel, the oft-told journey across the Sudan, the hardships suffered, the years of poverty and hunger.

This, instead, is a bald look at inner Ethiopian life in Israel, at underemployed adults, the drinking of endless bottles of beer, broken marriages and lots of male chauvinism and inbred racism.

Esti Almo Wexler, third from left, with actors from “Lady Titi,” Israel’s first commercial film about Ethiopian Israelis (Courtesy Abayenesh Productions)

Even Almo Wexler’s mother approved of the film, said Almo Wexler. “ I asked her if I went over the line, she said no, community has to face this. Lady Titi is in the ghetto and the Ethiopian community really identified with that.”

It’s a film that wouldn’t have been made without the backing of Almo Wexler’s husband and producer, Elad Wexler, said Almo Wexler.

“Elad got us to [producers Moshe and Leon] Edry and to Rabinovich [co-producer Micky Rabinovich]. He got us there, he made sure it would happen,” she said. “There’s something that happens when Elad Wexler calls the office as the producer, and people are more ready to meet. There’s something in our connection, in his stubbornness, that allows us to succeed, he just doesn’t give up.”

Director and screenwriter Esti Almo Wexler and her husband and business partner, Elad Wexler, of Abayenesh Productions (Courtesy Eldad Menuchin)

The couple first met while studying at Hebrew University; Wexler was studying history and Almo was at Bezalel but they became a couple only three years later. They’ve been married for ten years and have two children, and began working together after Almo Wexler needed a producer.

Their firm, Abayenesh Productions, is also the name of their next film, a drama that will be filmed in Ethiopia and Israel. There’s also a documentary in the works, “The Sandman is Looking for Tenna,” about an aunt of Almo Wexler’s who was lost in Ethiopia, and a TV series to teach Amharic to kids.

“Lady Titi” is being screened at upcoming festivals and events around Israel, after first being released in Israeli theaters, and plans are to screen it in the US and England.

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