Israeli film ‘White Eye’ highlights the scapegoating of African migrants

By Anne-Marie Bissada

Posted on Wednesday, 10 February 2021 22:08, updated on Thursday, 11 February 2021 13:26
Photo still from short filim ‘White Eye’

An Israeli man finds his stolen bicycle, and it now belongs to a stranger – an Eritrean immigrant. In his attempt to retrieve the bicycle, the Israeli struggles to remain human.

That’s the premise of the short film White Eye, directed by Tomer Shushan. With the film running at exactly 20 minutes, the tension created by the protagonist and the suspected ‘thief’ is enough to fill hours of discussion.

Director Tomer Shushan

The largest city in Israel, Tel Aviv, is home to just under 40,000 asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan. That’s about half of Israel’s refugee population, according to Refugees in Towns.

Protests in recent years have spoken out against the lack of government support for refugees and asylum seekers in Israel, primarily coming from African states. 

Shushan’s film aims to tell that story using a very common situation.

His film was nominated for this year’s Oscar’s shortlist for the Best Live-Action Short category.

The Africa Report spoke to Shushan about his film.

(The interview has been lightly edited for clarity)

TAR: The theme that you focused on for this film was not at all the original idea you had in mind. In fact, it all came together very fast after you came across your stolen bike. Why did you decide to create this film framing an Israeli versus a not-well-integrated Israeli?

Tomer Shushan: I guess because people here, the society and also the government, have lots of issues with refugees and the fact that people from Africa [are] coming to Israel [having] escaped from their countries […] The society here [is] making lots of trouble for them. And also they are having a hard time because our government is giving them a really bad way of living. They don’t like helping them. They don’t support them. They’re just making their lives harder.

Photo still from the short film ‘White Eye’

I guess it’s something that as a person, as a filmmaker that lives in this city, in this country, and to see it from the [other] side, it’s something that’s always made me think that I should do something about it and tell their stories and show the world this reality. I don’t think it’s really bad things about Israel. I think it’s like all the Western world having a hard time including the refugees in their society.

The protagonist is not really someone we’re supposed to sympathise with. You can’t feel sorry for his struggle of trying to get the bike back with the futile argument he’s picking. What was the the idea behind making him a very unlikable character?

For one reason, I didn’t want him to be very likeable, but I also didn’t want people to hate him. I just wanted to create a character that reflects the average Telavivian guy, the average Israeli guy [who] feels if [he] find his property he can do whatever [he] want[s] and treat other people however he wants; there are no limits.

Did you spend a bit of time in certain communities, like in this case, the Eritrean community, to get a feel of the situation?

I worked with a few of them in previous jobs when I was a student. I made a few friends from their community, and they welcomed me with open arms to their community.

And I could meet their friends, meet their family, visit their homes. And I had the chance to step in and see with my own eyes how the reality looked like.

Is it not often the case that the refugee community – and I’m speaking specifically of Israeli society here, but I’m sure it’s repeated elsewhere –  that they are used as a quick scapegoat. Your bike is stolen. It’s now his. It must have been him. There’s no middle ground.

Yeah, I mean. In Tel Aviv, it’s well known that if someone loses his bike, he goes to that area and tries to look for his bike. Everyone knows it. If you want to find your bike, you need to go there to find it. So if you already found your bike and a refugee come[s] and say it is [his], he must have stolen it.

I mean, that’s what everyone would think. And it’s horrible because sometimes it’s not the case, and I guess that makes lots of people react in really violent ways to these communit[ies], to these people.

There is one character I thought was quite interesting because it wasn’t necessary, but it was almost like you were trying to kind of draw attention to it. And it was the very religious police officer who wouldn’t shake the hand of the female manager. Why would you include that character?

Because I wanted to create some hierarchy between the police officers because one of them was religious and the other one was Arab. I wanted to show that there is also a hierarchy there. The Jewish Orthodox, he’s always right and he has the upper hand and he makes the final choice. And he can do whatever he wants, everything going by his rules. I wanted to create different layers of the society within all the characters in the film.

The title White Eye, is simple and effective. I assume it to mean we’re seeing the ordeal through the eye of the main character, who is considered white. So it’s his perception of a situation. And we don’t see the other.

That’s true. And that’s the main reason. And it’s also that white eyes for me sounds like blindness. You’re blind. You’re blind to the person next to you, blind to society, blind to humanity.

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