HRTS MA student Ruchama Ehrenhalt created the short film Give It Back about her cross-cultural experiences as an immigrant to Israel. In the film, Olivia (12), just moved with her family from New York and arrives for her first day of school. She struggles to find her place within the hierarchy of her new school. Finding herself caught between the popular students and her shy classmate, Alem, Olivia must ultimately make a choice about who she is and how she will navigate her newfound circumstances. In this essay for the UArizona HRTS Blog, Ehrenhalt explains the roots of the film, which has been screened at 80 film festivals in countries around the world, won prizes, and been highlighted in the press.
When I started elementary school in Israel as a new immigrant from New York, I entered a world that was foreign to me. I observed unwritten social rules and followed them. In short order, I found "my people", the rest of the Anglos. I became a leading member of the group and stayed within that comfortable circle of friends. I did not venture beyond the norms that formed the social status quo in which I landed.
I fell in love with a Ethiopian boy with a shy smile. I never dared to go near him. I muted my feelings, while being only semi-conscious of the social rules and taboos that limited me. Although I was a leader within my own group, I did not dare challenge the status quo and the unwritten rules. Living in the same town and studying in the same class, did not bridge our different worlds. I let those social norms determine with whom I socialized and with whom it was acceptable to fall in love. I am not sure what I missed out on, but I know I missed out. I regret the steps I never took. I regret conforming to the social norms and quiet racism and how I let them determine how I would act and who would be my friends.
When I began working on a script for my thesis film in the Ma'aleh School of Television, Film & the Arts in Jerusalem, I thought of Yosef, the Ethiopian boy I fell in love with but never really knew. I thought of my childhood, and how somehow I received the message that I should not be friends with this boy who was just too different than me. I thought of my personal challenges as a young immigrant and how maybe, learning a new language, navigating a new world, we weren't so different after all. Or maybe we were, and I could have learned so much about his heritage, his culture, and his journey.
The boy I fell in love with I only knew from afar; I never allowed myself to get close enough to know him. In my film, Give it Back!, I am trying to do what I didn’t have the courage to do back then, to stand up against the status quo and fight for what I know is right. To try and go back to a time before I let my surroundings convince me that if we have a different skin color, we do not belong together.
Childhood is recognized as a time for growth and change but it can also be a time for challenging received wisdom, and even a time for revolution. My film especially speaks to children. As little leaders they have enormous power that we ought to harness before it gets depleted by the burdens of being a grown up and before we become so stuck in our conforming ways.
In this film I am trying to go back; I wanted a “do-over”.
It has been almost two years since "Give It Back" was released into the world. Since then, my film has been screened in over 80 film festivals around the world including Armenia, India, Greece, Canada, Nigeria, Croatia, Ireland, South Korea, Italy, Germany, Bosnia, Ukraine, Hungary, Mexico, Brazil, America and Israel. It gives me great joy to see my film travel the world, to have people from different cultures, religions, ages and backgrounds connect to the story.
On occasions when I have had the opportunity to speak to audiences about my film I am almost always asked: What should we be doing differently? My response is simple, but runs deep. There is value in a diverse society. In practical terms this means that if you see someone as “the other”, you probably ought to get to know them better! There is no relationship without empathy and there is no empathy without knowing “the other”.
I hope that this short film has had and continues to have a positive impact on its viewers. I hope it causes children and adults alike to question the status quo and challenge it. I hope it is a pebble in an ocean that will create waves, big and small.
Link to trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z5SXq-ejeEY
Link to article in Jewish Texas Post: https://tjpnews.com/jewish-film-festival-honors-emerging-artist/