The Red Sea Diving Resort is now streaming on Netflix, telling the remarkable true story of the Israeli effort to rescue Jewish Ethiopian refugees from the civil war devastating their country and bring them to Israel, but how much of the tale has been changed for the movie?
Directed by Gideon Raff (Homeland), The Red Sea Diving Resort stars Chris Evans (best known, of course, as Captain America) as Ari Levinson, a Mossad agent who heads up the rescue efforts. The Netflix movie focuses on Operation Brothers, which saw Ethiopian Jews making the perilous journey to Sudan in order to then be taken by the Mossad agents to Israel. After being arrested on one such mission and sent back to Israel, Levinson devises a daring plan: the Mossad will purchase a rundown diving resort that had been opened by a group of Italians a decade earlier, and use it as a front while they carry out their operations in Sudan, allowing them to smuggle the refugees from the coast of Sudan to Israel via boat.
As with almost any take on a true story, The Red Sea Diving Resort uses the real-life Operation Brothers as its inspiration, but also takes some creative license in order to package it into a 130-minute movie that plays as a spy thriller that aims for something between Argo and Munich. But while some of the broad strokes have remained the same, a lot has been changed or omitted for the Netflix version.
The True Story Behind Netflix's The Red Sea Diving Resort
Operation Brothers was the name given to the third wave of migration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, taking place in the late-1970s and early-1980s. At that point in time, Ethiopia was in the midst of a civil war, and combined with religious oppression made it a particularly difficult time for Jews in Ethiopia. The then Israeli Prime Minister, Mechamem Begin, wanted to bring the inhabitants of what was called Beta Israel to the country. Because of that, activists in Ethiopia and Sudan worked with Mossad agents to call for Jewish Ethiopians to go to Sudan, where they'd be placed in refugee camps before being taken to Israel. However, because of Sudan's strained relations with Israel, along with the fact the UN provided aid money for refugees, many people were stranded in these camps and extremely poorly treated.
That meant the Mossad agents had to find another way of getting the Ethiopian Jews out of Sudan and to Israel, which is how the events of Netflix's The Red Sea Diving Resort came about. As documented in books such as Gad Shimron's Mossad Exodus, the Mossad agents posed as a Swiss travel company in order to purchase the now-abandoned villas of the Arous Holiday Resort and turn them into a new diving resort. Although designed to be a front, the resort actually proved successful in its own right, attracting a wealth of tourists. That was both a blessing and a curse, as while it made the business look more legitimate, it also meant the Mossad agents had to constantly find excuses to perform their actual operation.
The Israelis ran Operation Brothers for around three years in the early-80s. Ethiopian Jewish refugees were driven from the camps to the resort, where they'd then be taken to small dinghies that would take them out to sea, where waiting naval ships would collect them and take them to Israel. Although this was moderately successful for a few months, the slow-pace of the boats wasn't the most effective, and it also brought other dangers. On one such mission, the Mossad agents were shot at by Sudanese officers, who believed they were smugglers. Although the situation was smoothed out, it marked the end of the maritime missions, and instead led to the Israelis transporting the Ethiopian Jews by air instead. These lasted until 1984, with 17 airlifts in total believed to have taken place.
However, the success of The Red Sea Diving Resort missions caused the refugee crisis in Sudan to grow. As word spread and travel restrictions were lifted in 1983, more and more Jewish Ethiopian refugees made their way to Sudan, where they were subsequently placed in the camps. This caused a great strain and the Mossad agents weren't able to rescue them all, leading to thousands of Beta Israel citizens dying. Along with an outbreak of famine in Ethiopia in 1984, this led to a greater combined effort to repatriate the Jews from Ethiopia to Israel, which was dubbed Operation Moses. This co-operative effort, which involved the Israel Defence Force, the C.I.A., mercenaries, and Sudanese state officers, Operation Moses took place from November 1984 to January 1985, with over 30 completed trips carrying an estimated 6,500 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. This was followed by a later U.S. operation to rescue a further few hundred Ethiopian Jews remaining in refugee camps in Sudan.
This wasn't just an effort from the Israelis, however, but the bravery of activists in Ethiopia and Sudan. It was thanks to the likes of Farede Akum, an Ethiopian activist, who made the perilous journey from Ethiopia to Sudan in order to contact the Mossad agents he had previously worked with, and put out the call to Ethiopian Jews to come to Sudan. There were many such activists involved in leading the way from Ethiopia to Sudan and serving as the link with the Mossad agents, and while thousands of Ethiopian Jews did make it to Sudan and eventually Israel, there were also thousands who died along the way from starvation, exposure, and attacks.
The Story Changes In Netflix's The Red Sea Diving Resort
Netflix's The Red Sea Diving Resort puts the focus on Evans' Ari, who is a composite of various Mossad agents involved in Operation Brothers, including Daniel Limor, who led the diving resort mission. In The Red Sea Diving Resort, it's Ari himself who comes up with the plan almost out of nowhere, hit by a sudden burst of inspiration while studying maps of Sudan to figure out how he can help the Ethiopian Jews.
The story as a whole is condensed down, moving relatively swiftly from building the operation to things going awry, while it also includes a dramatized scene where Ari's boss, Ethan Levin (Ben Kingsley), wants to shut down the entire operation and bring the Mossad agents home. This comes after the Sudanese officers shot at the boat, which in real life happened and necessitated the switch from sea to air travel. While in reality this was a tactical change, in Netflix's The Red Sea Diving Resort it's presented as a rogue agent move by Ari, who goes behind the back of his boss to speak with the U.S. Embassy in Sudan about procuring a plane.
This then plays into its Hollywood ending, where Ari and the team have to flee from the resort in the dead of night, taking hundreds of refugees with them while being chased by the Sudanese military. They narrowly make it to the plane, which is shot at as it takes off, and upon landing in Israel they promise to return for the remaining Ethiopian Jews.
The Political Changes In The Red Sea Diving Resort
While the story is very much condensed down to fit into a movie runtime, it also means that a lot of the historical context is missing from The Red Sea Diving Resort. The Netflix movie opens with Michael K. Williams' Kebede Bimro attempting to lead his family to safety, meeting up with Ari and his team, but although the situation is quite clearly fraught we're not really given the full picture as to what's happening. The movie doesn't spend much time on why exactly the Ethiopian Jews need to leave Ethiopia. Framing text at the beginning of The Red Sea Diving Resort says it has been their dream for thousands of years, but there's little exploration of the Ethiopian civil war, the impending famine, nor the religious oppression that made it such a desperate situation.
That is where the bigger problems with the film's take on this story come in, because it's only really telling us one-half of it. The Red Sea Diving Resort is all about the Israeli rescue effort, and details next to nothing about the Ethiopian Jews themselves. It may start with narration from Kebede, but we learn from little about him over the course of the film, and he himself is an amalgamation of numerous characters, including the aforementioned Farede. We do see the killing of Ethiopian Jews in the refugee camps, but less so on their journey there, and it's also not fully clear just why the Sudanese military is acting the way it is. Chris Chalk's Col. Abdel Ahmed, a person who plays a double guitar with a bullet instead of a plectrum, is the movie's de facto villain, but there's little explanation of why he's killing Ethiopian Jews or attempting to stop the Mossad agents.
The Red Sea Diving Resort is instead more focused on presenting a white savior narrative. Ari is undoubtedly the hero of the Netflix movie, whether it's him refusing to quit the mission or the various random shots of Chris Evans shirtless and doing push-ups, and the emphasis is on making this very much an Israeli triumph. That's not to say the rescue missions weren't a success, but the movie has no consideration of the wider political climate of them nor the difficulties that would be faced afterward. The Red Sea Diving Resort tells a true story, but it doesn't tell the full one.