The challenge of bringing ‘Fig Tree’ to the screen

It wasn’t easy making Fig Tree, her first feature film, but the struggle seems to have paid off.

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March 29, 2019 05:35
BETALEHEM ASMAMAWE stars as 16-year-old Mina in ‘Fig Tree.’

BETALEHEM ASMAMAWE stars as 16-year-old Mina in ‘Fig Tree.’ . (photo credit: DANIEL MILLER)

 
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 I still love Ethiopia, I still have longings for the place, the people, the culture, the landscape, the language,” said Aalam-Warqe Davidian, the director of the recently released film, Fig Tree, looking out at a very different landscape from the yard of her home on a moshav, nursing one of her twins in the sunshine. 

It wasn’t easy making Fig Tree, her first feature film, but the struggle seems to have paid off. Fig Tree is the first feature film that looks at the Ethiopian immigration from the point of view of Jews struggling to get to Israel, and it’s a complex, moving story about the life of one family during the civil war in the late 1980s, and what they left behind. It had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, where it won the Eurimages Audentia Award – Davidian attended while she was seven months pregnant – and also received an Ophir Award back in Israel for Daniel Miller’s cinematography. 
 
Davidian, who came to Israel from Ethiopia with her family in 1991 when she was 11, says she “looked at the story as a screenwriter, through the prism of a girl who is caught up in these circumstances, from her perspective.”
 
Her heroine, Mina (Betalehem “Betty” Asmamawe), is a 16-year-old Jewish girl living with her grandmother and brother on the outskirts of Addis Ababa in 1989, during a civil war that makes a future there unthinkable. Her grandmother hopes that the family can rejoin her mother in Israel as soon as possible. But Mina is in love with Eli, a boy she has known since childhood, and can’t face leaving him behind, since he is at risk of being forced into the army, where he will likely die or be maimed. Instead of longing for Israel, she worries about how she can bring Eli and his mother along. It’s a complex and ultimately tragic story, but a very real one, said Davidian. 
 
“I wanted the movie to challenge people,” she said. Rather than spelling out every aspect of the story, she wanted “the audience to discover the facts the way Mina does. There was a lack of information about what was going on, how to get out of Ethiopia, how to get to Israel.”
 
A graduate of the Jerusalem Sam Spiegel School for Film and Television, Davidian worked on the screenplay for years, and continued developing it in the Jerusalem International Film Lab, where it won the Beracha Prize. She credits the film’s producers, Naomi Levari and Saar Yogev of Black Sheep Film Productions, for sticking with her through the long process of bringing Fig Tree to the screen. 
 
“They really believed in my vision for the film,” she said. 
 
Once the screenplay was finished and the financing was in place, actually shooting the film in Ethiopia was challenging. 
“I have been back many times since I went to Israel. It’s just four hours on the plane, it’s not on the Moon,” she said. But even for someone who knew the country well, there were obstacles. Davidian had to have the screenplay approved by the censor, who vetoed any love scenes. 
WHILE THE censorship was tough, she had extraordinary luck with her actors, whom she found in Ethiopia. Weyenshiet Belachew, who plays Mina’s grandmother, is one of the most respected actors in the country and gives a performance that has garnered much praise. Most of the other actors were non-professionals. Asmamawe, who is on screen for virtually every second of the film, “had done some theater, but this was her first movie. She was so natural, so expressive. She has this way of showing that she’s listening.” 
 
But her quiet star had a secret, one that she revealed to the director long after she was cast. “Betty is Jewish. She’s an orphan and wants to come to Israel,” said Davidian. “I had no clue that she was actually Jewish when I hired her.” Asmamawe has applied to come to Israel, a long, drawn-out process. “I hope it works out for her.”
 
Davidian hopes her film will resonate with audiences here and abroad, where it is set to be shown at multiple festivals. Noting that the recent film, Lady Titi, a comedy about the Ethiopian community in Israel, was also directed by a woman of Ethiopian descent, Esti Almo, she said, “People say, ‘You’re the first Ethiopian woman director.’ No, she is. But it doesn’t matter. There is room for all kinds of directors and movies.” 
 
She does seem to feel the weight of being seen as a representative of the Ethiopian community and she takes care to explain to me about the different groups within the Ethiopian community, some who came from rural areas, others from Addis Ababa, and the subtle differences among all of them. 
 
“Little by little, we will start to put a stamp on the history of Israel, as we tell our stories,” she said. In her film, “The grandmother is the one carries the spiritual longing for Israel, Israel isn’t only a place to flee to.” But Israelis have not always been welcoming to Ethiopians, and she acknowledges that, saying that Ethiopians in Israel “often got the message, ‘Your religion doesn’t count, your identity is in question.’” However, she speaks warmly of a family in Safed that took in her family when they first arrived, and eased their transition.
 
After moving around the country when her family first came to Israel, she discovered her love of storytelling and cinema, and eventually chose to study at Sam Spiegel because it had “the most rigorous program. I felt that I owed it to myself.” Her “amazing and tough” mother always supported her artistic aspirations, even when she wished Davidian would have chosen an easier career.
Davidian is working on a new screenplay about women in Israel. But with three children – she and her husband, Koby Davidian, a director and producer, also have a four-year-old son – and a movie to promote, it’s not easy getting much writing done. But no matter what other films she makes in the future, it’s clear that Fig Tree will always have a special place in her heart.
 
Holding her baby, she closed her eyes for a moment and said, “Sometimes I wish I were back on the set.”

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