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Ophir-nominated dramedy features Eritrean asylum seeker as lead character

As the UN warned Israel Tuesday against expelling Eritreans en masse following major clashes last weekend, the Jerusalem Cinematheque hosted a screening of the Ophir-nominated film “Running on Sand,” a comedy-drama about an Eritrean asylum seeker struggling to survive in Tel Aviv.

Starring a cast of African migrant actors, including lead character Chancela Mongoza, born in the Congo and living in Israel for the last 16 years — alongside the familiar visages of Zvika Hadar, Kim Or Azulay, Israel Atias and others — this funny, heartfelt film tells the story of Omari (Mongoza), an Eritrean asylum seeker who unwittingly is drafted into a struggling Netanya soccer team as he escapes deportation from Israel.

Directed by Adar Shafran, who spoke with the Cinematheque audience after the screening, the film came about as Shafran and the three screenwriters — Yoav Hebel, Sarel Piterman and Assaf Zelicovich — began taking notice of the very ordinary lives of the asylum seekers among them in Tel Aviv.

“They would see refugees passing by while they drank their morning coffee, and said, ‘They’re like us, but we haven’t noticed them,'” said Shafran, describing a typical Tel Aviv scene of people, including the migrants, walking their children to school, speaking Hebrew, doing what other Israelis were doing at the same time.

The asylum seekers, said Shafran, have become invisible in Israel. They’re the dishwashers and janitors, caregivers and cleaners, noticeable for their darker skin tones, but unseen in Israeli society.

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“It’s like there’s a black curtain drawn over these people,” said Shafran.

Chancela Mongoza as Omari and Micheal Kabya-Aharoni in ‘Running on Sand,’ nominated for best feature film in the 2023 Ophir Awards. (Courtesy: PR)

In “Running on Sand,” Omari and his friend, Nigel (Micheal Kabya-Aharoni, an asylum seeker who was adopted by celebrity chef Yisrael Aharoni), are refugee success stories of a sort. They work as dishwashers, speak Hebrew fluently and share an apartment with friends until disaster strikes.

Omari finds himself entangled in a drama that’s partially of his own making, but it’s his own sweet, optimistic personality that extricates him from the complications of lacking legal residency papers.

There are layers of reality and truth in the unconventional story, including the invisibility of asylum seekers, the Israeli government’s difficulties in figuring out how to handle the issue, and rampant racism alongside a certain begrudged acceptance of African migrants in Israeli society.

Chancela Mongoza as Omari in ‘Running on Sand,’ nominated for best feature film in the 2023 Ophir Awards. (Courtesy: PR)

“This movie is about racism but also about invisible people,” said Shafran, relating how many asylum seekers used to pass through the Sinai border before spending time in the Holot detention center and were then summarily dropped off by the IDF on the top floor of the Tel Aviv bus station.

Shafran wasn’t hopeful about winning the Ophir Award for best feature film next week on September 10, remarking that “7 Blessings,” Ayelet Menahemi’s comedy about a drama-filled Moroccan family in Jerusalem, is seen as the current favorite to win.

But he seemed to be okay with that.

“We took a heavy subject and made it comic and our goal is to reach as many people as possible,” said Shafran, “and maybe make a small difference.”