While artist Luciana Kaplun was teaching art to children of asylum seekers in Tel Aviv’s Neve Sha’anan neighborhood, a Sudanese man told her that in his country there is a rumor that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is an albino who was born in Africa and immigrated to Israel with his parents.
“It sounded unrealistic to me,” says Kaplun, “but I started to investigate and discovered that they had written a lot about it in Arabic and African languages."
“The core of African culture is based on stories that are passed down orally," Kaplun said. A film she made on the subject, “Who is Atta Allah Abdul Rahman Al-Shaul?” will be screened at the Musrara Mix Festival that opens on Tuesday in Jerusalem’s Musrara neighborhood (chief curator: Avi Sabag, art curator: Vera Korman).
Kaplun, 38, immigrated to Israel from Argentina at the age of 21. Her partner, artist Gilad Ratman, represented Israel at the Venice Biennale in 2013. The couple have a 2-year-old daughter.
“I immigrated when Argentina was collapsing economically,” says Kaplun. “I was active in the Jewish community and settled in Kibbutz Ma'agan Michael. I went to study photography at Camera Obscura [School for the Arts, in Tel Aviv] and fell in love with art. That’s why I stayed in Israel, even though many of my girlfriends left.”
In Argentina, she says, she felt unprotected because she was Jewish. Here, that feeling flipped. That dissonance led her to focus on social art dealing with immigrants in general and labor migrants in particular.
“When I immigrated I didn’t know that I would become a privileged white woman. I feel like I’m on the side of the bad guys, and that influenced my work. I too was an immigrant, like asylum seekers, but I was lucky because I’m Jewish, so it was easier for me to acclimate.”
The half-hour film premiered about two years ago at the group exhibition curated by Ruth Direktor, “Regarding Africa,” in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
Kaplun contacted Nigerian filmmakers, including producer Aderemi Adegbite, who also received a small part in the film when one of the actors didn't show up, and director and cinematographer Ema Edosio.
The filming took place in Lagos, Nigeria, while Kaplun was seven months pregnant. “It’s a crazy city. Masses of people live intermingled and somehow manage to make a living and survive without water or sewers. During filming, we had to deal with local problems such as a generator that stopped working.”
The film has three parts. Each part will be shown on a separate screen in the historical building on Ha’Ayin Het Street 9 in Musrara. The stories take place in Nigeria, Ghana and Sudan. One story is based on the rumor Kaplun heard in south Tel Aviv. The other two she invented.
“I realized that I could invent additional narratives of the same story. I researched Israeli involvement in Africa in the 1950s and 1960s and combined the stories into a narrative that connects to the origin of the rumor about Netanyahu in Africa. Actors play all the roles in the film.”
Throughout the film, Netanyahu is referred to as “Bibi.” Kaplan attempted to weave the African atmosphere and local lifestyle into the legends, using local clothing and showing the dirty streets and inadequate housing. The connecting segments are narrated by a griot, a traditional West African storyteller, who sings and tells the story about Netanyahu while playing a drum.
The first tale tells of a wealthy Sudanese family that makes a living by selling liquor. They have one son, an albino. After Jaffer Numeiri comes to power, the family is forced to flee when the sale of alcoholic beverages becomes prohibited. The chronological distortion is deliberate: Numeiri came to power in Sudan in the late 1960s, when Netanayahu was already a soldier.
“When these stories were created the locals had no internet access, and that why the timelines are rough and mixed up,” explains Kaplun. At the end of the film Netanyahu’s family is subjected to witchcraft, so that the money will be transferred to his aunt and there is also a ceremony in which they cut off the head of a rooster.
The second tale, which takes place in Ghana, presents Israeli-African Nahal Brigade soldiers who study Hebrew, engage in training exercises and dance the hora. “There’s a deliberate mixture of cultures here,” says Kaplun. The teacher and one of the students fall in love. One day the teacher disappears and a new teacher arrives. Later the student discovers that the teacher fled because she was pregnant, and presumably gave birth to a son, Netanyahu.
In the last tale, which takes place in Nigeria, Netanyahu’s ostensible father is an architect who works for the Solel Boneh construction company. He is interested in giving a local sculpture to the Israel Museum, but the tribal chief doesn't agree. At a certain point Netanyahu is abducted and his parents conduct negotiations with the kidnappers in return for the sculpture, and in the end they return to Israel. The motif of the sculpture relates to the contemporary phenomenon where objets d’art that were stolen from Africa in the past are now being returned.
Kaplun showed the film to African immigrants in the Levinsky Library in Tel Aviv. She says they were surprised that anyone was interested in them and their culture. “I didn’t feel that I was being condescending, but I took a story I heard and turned it into a film" Kaplun says, "That was during the period when they wanted to stay in Israel; they didn’t want people to talk about them.”
Would you like Netanyahu to see the film and react?
“I’d be pleased, but I wouldn’t want him to exploit the work for the benefit of his ties with Africa. I wanted to make the Africans feel good, to show them that they’re equal to us.”
The actor who plays Netanyahu in the film is a real albino. “In Africa it’s dangerous to be an albino. They see it as a curse,” she says. “I open the possibility of how to narrate the history. You can hear human history through many voices. I present another voice.”
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