[Editor’s Note: This piece was originally written during the Matatu Festival of Stories last month. Unfortunately, we were unable to publish it on time for the film’s showing during that event. In recompense to you, we have polished it to perfection to deliver, just in time for Autumnal family shenanigans.]
The Hollywood elderly have done a funny thing in the last few years: they’ve packed their bags and left! To India in those Best Exotic Marigold Hotel movies, to Vegas in Last Vegas, to everywhere in The Bucket List. Given the present age of the hippie generation and Hollywood’s motive to churn out unrealistic fantasies, this wave of “no entry under 65” parties makes a lot of sense. But on another level, it’s total nonsense. Most people can’t afford to get on a plane to some resort spa for the rest of their lives when they retire. They stick around. They want to remain a part of their kids’ and grandkids’ lives. Often they want not only to live with their families but also to have certain expectations met: traditions, rituals, standards of treatment.
Is this not fair? Are they not responsible for our own very existence on this planet? It can be one of the most difficult questions for a family to ask itself, and because of that it’s one of the richest subjects in all of the dramatic arts. But in American pop culture, where the 18-35 demographic is all that matters and 60 is the new 20, these issues are not going to get much airtime. For honest stories about our elders, how they treat us, and how we treat them, we have to turn elsewhere.
The first shot of Red Leaves follows a goat as its owner viciously pulls it from its pen. For two minutes, the goat bleats, kicks, and throws itself to the floor as the farmer drags it by the leg across the frame. No matter how much of a fight it puts up, we understand that resistance is futile. There are no other scenes of animal suffering in Red Leaves, but the movie doesn’t take its time with establishing a tone and theme. This is a study of intergenerational conflict that pulls no punches, an intimate bitter pill with no time for sentimentalizing its main character’s twilight years. It can be a tough watch, both for its subject matter and the directness with which it’s portrayed. However, if you engage with this film, Red Leaves’s cathartic honesty will generously reward you for your time.
Debebe Eshetu plays Meseganio Tadela, an Ethiopian man trying to connect with his children after the death of his wife. After her funeral, he announces to his gathered relatives that he has sold his apartment and intends to live with them from now on. Years ago, Meseganio emigrated with his family to Israel (he gives the news over Shabbat), and their bewildered, condescending reaction to his decision reveals the cultural disconnect that propels the movie’s drama.
What follows, without giving too much away, is Meseganio’s two attempts to live with his sons’ families, both of which fall apart for different reasons. We can tell immediately that it’s not going to be a good fit with his first son, Baruch (Meir Dassa), when he shows up unannounced and demands that his daughter-in-law Zehava (Hanna Haiela) make him a pot of coffee. His manners and expectations can be patriarchal in the extreme, on a different plane of existence from those of the younger generations. Yet as time goes on, we also see his softer side and come to understand him as a man who loves his family and wants the best for them.
One later scene that revolves around gursha, an East-African practice where people feed each other literally hand-to-mouth, begins as a tense display of the generational rifts at hand, but evolves into a touching illustration of the characters’ shared cultural roots. Director Gete’s handheld camerawork and minimal sound editing recall the Dardenne brothers, and his style in scenes like this is detached but empathetic to all parties. He never shies away from the full brunt of Meseganio’s obstinacy or his family’s lack of respect. When conflict arises, he always puts the question to the audience: who is mistreating whom?
But though his style remains objective throughout, Gete concludes Red Leaves with a fiery message about the debts we owe our elders and what can happen when we don’t pay them. It’s not a message that’s fun to digest if you want all the old people in your media to be Betty White and Lily Tomlin telling dick jokes, but it’s a necessary one. If you’ve got the option and an appetite for honest storytelling, catch Red Leaves ASAP.
Kells is an Oakland native with a sad compulsion to put his opinions online. He hopes that you like them, but what’s really important is that you like yourself. @awkeller510