Living in Israel, Johnny dreams of returning to Ghana with modern fish farming techniques. But his wife, Therese, is determined to create the best possible future for their children. When their visas expire, tensions lead to an inevitable clash.
[NOTE: Due to copyrights, the full film will be removed on January 18.]
By Emmanuelle Mayer
In 2002, Johnny was working as a housecleaner in Israel. As a foreign worker from a poor background, living in a small, insular African community in Tel Aviv, Johnny didn’t have many opportunities to learn new things. But he jumped at every chance he could to improve himself and move ahead in the world. He bought an expensive video camera and started filming weddings in the African church. A photographer in his community allowed Johnny to be his apprentice but refused to teach him technique.
So when Johnny saw a curious, 22-year-old art student walk into his church with a camera, he saw an opportunity and seized it. He walked up to me and asked me to teach him how to film.
When I met Johnny in 2002, we were living two streets away from each other in Tel Aviv. But we were worlds apart. He was an undocumented, illegal immigrant, working as a housecleaner in affluent neighborhoods, living in the African community of South Tel Aviv. I was a French-born Israeli citizen who had grown up with the sense of security that social healthcare and education programs had provided.
The chances of the two of us meeting and forming a connection were scarce.
At the time I didn’t realize the power of knowledge or recognize that I had so much of it. In addition to becoming his teacher, I opened Facebook and Gmail accounts for him and taught him how to use editing software. I ordered instructional books for him and helped him read them. Later, when he started planning his return to Africa, I helped him find a professional to teach him fish farming technology.
For the next 10 years, I taught Johnny everything I could, and in exchange, he let me film him and his family. Our deal evolved into friendship.
This film is the product of 10 years of friendship and shared learning experiences. I became aware that things I took for granted - language skills, credit cards, access to the internet, teachers and learning resources - were all things that were out of Johnny’s reach. Johnny had such a thirst for knowledge, and I wanted to share with him everything I could.
For my part, I became fascinated with their culture, and they would always tease me for the amount of questions I asked about their food, medicine and family. We watched videos that came from their family in Africa, showing their house and businesses that were being built with the money they would send home.
I was alone in Israel, as my own family was living in France. Johnny and Thèrese accepted me into their home. We ate meals together from the same plate, I attended church with them and was present for the birth of their children. I didn’t know if the footage I was shooting would lead to something but I was learning so much and enjoying myself while doing it.
When they started planning their return to Africa, I realized Thèrese and Johnny had different views about the future. I wanted to tell the story of how these two courageous people would experience such a drastic change from each of their perspectives. They would be returning to their homeland after 10 years, and I decided I would follow them there. Then something unexpected happened, and Johnny and Thèrese’s lives were forever changed. The friendship and intimacy we had formed made it possible for Johnny and Thèrese to entrust me to document those difficult times.
The film attempts to capture, throughout 10 years and across three continents, the impossible decisions this family has been forced to make as Johnny and Therèse fight to bridge the gap between Africa and the Western world, trying to reconcile their desire to provide their children a better life - one that includes healthcare and education, the basic privileges I have enjoyed since birth.
It is my hope that this friendship and the making of this film will open viewers’ eyes to the strength of these two brave, intelligent people who remain steadfast in their refusal to be guided by fate.
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