The immigration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel in the 1980s is one of the most dramatic stories in modern Jewish history, but we’ve heard relatively little about it in popular culture. The few movies by Israelis of Ethiopian descent, such as Mushon Salmona’s Vasermil (2007) or Bazi Gete’s Red Leaves (2014), have dealt mainly with the difficulties Ethiopians have failed trying to integrate into Israeli society.
The hit television show, Nevsu, and the recent comedy film by Esti Almo, Lady Titi, have mined this territory for laughs and social commentary. But until Aalam-Warqe Davidian’s fascinating and moving Fig Tree, no feature film has looked back to Africa to tell the story of the journey to Israel.
Fig Tree, which won the Eurimages Audentia Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, was inspired by the experiences of the director, and examines the complex reality that Jews faced in Ethiopia during the civil war in the late 1980s. There are clear parallels to the history of Eastern European Jews in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when parents were terrified their children would be sent off to the Russian army, knowing they had little chance of ever returning. But in spite of the similarities, Fig Tree tells a unique story.
The plot revolves around Mina (Betalehem Asmamawe), a 16-year-old Jewish girl who lives with her grandmother and her brother on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, who has lost an arm during his army service but may still be drawn back into the civil war. Her mother managed to escape to Israel in the first wave of Ethiopian immigrants in 1984, but has had little contact with the family since.
Mina’s grandmother (Weyenshiet Belachew) has a complicated plan in the works to get the family to Israel. But Mina is terrified that Eli (Yohanes Muse), the Christian boy she loves, will be left behind. Eli and his mother have grown up alongside Mina, but because they are not Jewish, they don’t have anywhere run. Mina joins her grandmother in devising a scheme to pass Eli and his mother off as Jews, so they can emigrate as well.
While the film details the hardships Mina and her family face, it also shows her identity as an Ethiopian. She is at home in the woods where she and Eli share idyllic moments. Her grandmother supports the family by doing traditional Ethiopian embroidery, and Mina’s best friend sings in a Christian music group. The war threatens everyone in their neighborhood, Jews and Christians alike, just as poverty grinds them all down. When the squads of soldiers ride by their homes and schools to take the boys to the army, everyone hides.
As the day draws closer to when Mina and her family will depart, she becomes more desperate to save Eli. It’s easy to see how to a 16-year-old girl, puppy-love trumps bonds of family and religion. The film works so well because it is essentially a love story set against the backdrop of the war.
In the most interesting sequence, Mina and Eli discover a legless soldier who has tried to commit suicide near the tree where they meet. While they manage to save him, their different reactions highlight their separate destinies. Eli, facing a bleaker future, forces himself to be optimistic, while Mina follows the soldier as he heads off into town and sees beyond a doubt that he won’t make it.
The performances are uniformly excellent, which is a testament to Davidian’s skill with actors, since only Weyenshiet Belachew, who plays the grandmother, is a professional. Betalehem Asmamawe, who is in almost every scene, holds the screen, and Yohanes Muse is so sweet and sexy as Eli you believe that Mina would risk everything for him.
Daniel Miller’s sublime cinematography highlights the beauty the two of them find in spite of everything.
The movie, which opens with a title card about the background, could have benefited from clearer exposition in the first 15 minutes or so, but once the story gets going, the most important questions are answered.
Fig Tree is beautiful, romantic and cinematic, as well as historically interesting, and Davidian has made an impressive feature-film debut.
Hebrew title: Etz Tana
With Betalehem Asmamawe, Weyenshiet Belachew and Yohanes Muse
In Amharic, check with theaters for subtitle information.
1 hour, 33 minutes