Michael Kenneth Williams and Chris Evans star in "Red Sea Diving Resort." (Photo/Netflix- Marcos Cruz)
Michael Kenneth Williams and Chris Evans star in "Red Sea Diving Resort." (Photo/Netflix- Marcos Cruz)

On Netflix, by way of S.F., a thriller based on Operation Moses

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A group of elite agents is assembled by a government agency for secret operations that fall outside the scope of public diplomacy. They have good group chemistry but don’t always play by the rules, which can lead to conflict with their supervisors.

Their aim: to rescue an oppressed population from persecution and annihilation.

One of the agents is played by Chris Evans, who just ended an eight-year run playing Captain America. But Marvel’s Avengers already had their Endgame (the movie “Avengers: Endgame” came out earlier this year).

What I’m writing about is “The Red Sea Diving Resort,” a 130-minute dramatized version of a Mossad mission in the early 1980s. The film had its world premiere in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival on July 28, when it was featured as the closing-night film for the festival’s San Francisco run, and it will be available on Netflix as of July 31.

The film is about Israeli agents taking over a deserted resort hotel in Sudan, and using it as cover to smuggle Ethiopian Jewish refugees to Israel via the sea.

Most of the characters in the film by Israeli writer-director Gideon Raff — who created “Prisoners of War,” which became Showtime’s “Homeland,” in addition to TV the series “Dig” and “Tyrant” — are composites, based on the real agents who ran the resort for the five years it was in operation.

As the Mossad agent who helms the operation, Ari Levinson (played by Evans) is perhaps the cinematic spiritual descendant of Paul Newman’s Ari Ben Canaan, the hero of the 1960 film “Exodus.” He shares a first name and also a connection — in Levinson’s fictional backstory — to the boat Exodus. Kabede (Michael K. Williams), the local Ethiopian Jew who gets the refugees to the hotel for extraction, is based on real community leaders.

The Israeli mission to save Ethiopian Jews brought more than 8,000 immigrants to Israel on 30 flights between November 1984 and January 1985. This complicated, secret IDF operation — involving the CIA, the U. S. Embassy in Khartoum and Sudanese State officials — originally was called Gur Aryeh Yehuda by Israelis, and was alternately known as Operation Achim (Brothers). According to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, United Jewish Appeal changed the name to Operation Moses. By some accounts, it started a few years earlier, when thousands of Jewish refugees began the trek to Sudan around 1979.

This is an action film with mostly non-Jewish actors playing Jewish action heroes, but there’s also a lot in this film to draw the attention of contemporary, socially-aware viewers. The messaging about opening borders to oppressed immigrants is explicit, and the film is peppered with Jewish phrases hammering home the concept of human responsibility, such as, “If you save one person, you save the world entire” and the Biblical injunction “Don’t stand on [idly by] the blood of your brother.”

As the film ends with a montage of images from the real Operation Moses, audiences realize that some of the film’s moments were visually faithful to the photographic documentation of the real mission. These photos — juxtaposed with music from Idan Raichel, whose songs feature Amharic, a language spoken by Ethiopian Jews — is breathtaking and tear-inducing.

“The Red Sea Diving Resort” team also had a few “ringers.”

“The story is incredible,” said Mark Ivanir, who plays Mossad chief Barack Isaacs, adding, “I know better than most of the people, because I was there in 1984.”

Born in Ukraine, Ivanir moved to Israel with his family in 1972. A decade or so later, as an intelligence officer in the Israel Defense Forces, he was part of three missions to rescue Ethiopian Jews, he said in a phone interview.

“I wasn’t on the planes that loaded the Ethiopian Jews in Sudan, but I saw that plane and saw them coming out,” he said. “That was the first scene we shot in the movie. The plane lands and to see the extras come out was overwhelming, an insane kind of thing. It was really something special.”

Another “ringer” is actress Aviva Neguse, who appears in “The Red Sea Diving Resort” as an Ethiopian refugee. An Israeli native of Ethiopian heritage, Neguse has family members who were among those saved by these Mossad operations; in fact, photos of her father and uncle appear in the closing montage.

Even before the film’s release, social media buzz has been critical in all the expected ways — claiming that this film positions Evans as “white savior” to oppressed Africans, or urging people to boycott or unfollow Evans because he “plays a Zionist.”

Depending on the source, some 125,500 to 150,000 Ethiopian Jews are living in Israel today. Their lives aren’t always easy. Many live in poorer areas and some have experienced racism and discrimination, even police brutality.

But many are integrating into Israeli life. In 2011, Hagit Yaso, an Israeli singer of Ethiopian descent, won “Kokhav Nolad,” the Israeli “American Idol.” And then there’s Mehereta Baruch-Ron, an Operation Moses alum who emigrated at age 10 and has served as deputy mayor of Tel Aviv since 2013. Moreover, the flourishing Israeli high-tech and startup scene is beginning to encourage ideas and companies built by Ethiopian Jews.

If the film is to resonate beyond the Jewish community, a Chris Evans social media boost could certainly help, but his social feeds (as of press time) don’t even mention the film.

Then again, support for the film may originate in the Jewish community and then ripple out. The audience at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, primed with concerns about the current U.S. refugee issue, gave it a standing ovation. After all, “Shtisel” didn’t need a boost from Endgame to conquer the world … it only needed Netflix.

Esther D. Kustanowitz
Esther D. Kustanowitz

Esther D. Kustanowitz wrote a TV column for J. She is based in Los Angeles and has been known to track #TVGoneJewy. Follow her on Twitter @EstherK.