Maid in Tel Aviv


Though Israel’s tiny territory is crammed with journalists and filmmakers, few find anything new to say about that complex nation’s deep divisions. But veteran Israeli director Dan Wolman’s Foreign Sister opens a rare window onto a little-known community: the some 400,000 foreign workers (Filipinos, Thais, Ethiopians, and others) who find temporary refuge from economic hardship in the land of Zion.

Sensitive and direct, the film focuses on Naomi (Tamar Yerushalmi), a happily married 50-year-old Tel Avivian, with a good job, a comfortable home, and two charming teenage children, who nevertheless finds her hectic days strangely unfulfilling. Her husband insists that she take more time for herself, so she employs the beautiful Negist (Askala Markos), an Ethiopian Christian and an illegal immigrant whom she picks up on a street corner, to help her with housework.

But who ends up helping whom? Secular and liberal (as well as neurotic), true to her country’s socialist roots, Naomi becomes increasingly caught up in her maid’s problems. These are many, since the imported workers (brought in as neutral substitutes for an ever more hostile Palestinian labor force) often face acute discrimination and enjoy few rights in Israeli society.

With a documentarian’s frankness and keen eye for detail, Wolman sketches the impact of this hidden world on Naomi’s middle-class existence. The character of Negist, however, remains more remote and inaccessible. About halfway through, the pacing drags, and its final plot twists are predictable. Still, Foreign Sister offers an incisive glimpse into one woman’s inner transformation—her secret sense of loss in the midst of plenty and her sudden perception of a world of suffering lying just beyond her home.