Meet the Director of 'Fig Tree,' a New Film About Young Love in the Midst of the Ethiopian Civil War
At TIFF, we talk to Aäläm-Wärqe Davidian, the Ethiopian-Israeli filmmaker telling a story that has parallels to her own life
To be 16, in love, and in the middle of a civil war—that's the territory mined by Ethiopian-Israeli filmmaker Aäläm-Wärqe Davidian in Fig Tree, which received its official World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). It's her first feature film, and one of several directorial debuts by Africans – and African women, in particular – that premiered at TIFF in 2018 where Davidian was named one of the "Directors to Watch."
Set in Addis Ababa in 1989, the story revolves around Mina, a 16 year-old girl Jewish girl living with her grandmother and brother. The family tries to keep going as the war rages around them, and as they make increasingly frantic plans to flee the country for Israel, where Mina's mother already waits for them. But Mina is also a girl in love, giving her a private anguish to deal with along with the general tension and anxiety that permeates her world. Eli, her boyfriend, is Christian, and just the right age to join the local militias. Eli hides in the forest, making the great fig tree their meeting place.
Aäläm-Wärqe studied her craft at the Sam Spiegel Film & Television School in Jerusalem, and then worked as a researcher for noted documentary filmmaker Ada Ushpiz. It was there that she woke to the realization that film was her true medium. "This is my language," she says.The filmmaker based the story on her own experiences growing up in war torn Ethiopia. Born in Awash, she grew up there until the age of 11, when her family, much like Mina's, fled to Israel under what is called Operation Solomon. Once she got to Israel, she says she was surprised to discover that people thought of Ethiopia as a Third World country. Over time, the feeling lent momentum to her film making ambitions. "I must share my world, my people," she says. It was the world of Ethiopian Jews she didn't see reflected in the media around her; even more so, the lives and stories of its women.
The film conveys the simmering tension of Mina's world with an unflinching and unsentimental eye. Trucks of soldiers come rumbling into town without warning to scour the streets and forcibly kidnap any eligible young men and boys for their armies. The kids in the school panic and run, the streets are engulfed in chaos, and then comes the miserable wailing of the unfortunates who are hauled onto the truck and taken away. Mina's brother was once one of them, returning home with a stump where his right arm used to be. Menacing public officials come for an ominous census. "Do dirty Jews live here?" they ask. The shocking exists alongside the banal in the only world that Mina has ever known. She is determined to wangle a passage to Israel for Eli too, her stubborn teenage optimism at odds with the reality of their situation.
Davidian used a local crew and cast of Ethiopian actors, including genuine survivors of the Civil War. They bring a sense of authenticity to roles that often convey more without words than in the dialog, including the self-serving broker who's arranging the secret airlifts to Israel for profit, the stalwart grandmother who doggedly keeps the household together, and the paraplegic soldier whose existence casts the pall of dark truth over the story.
It was from her childhood memories that Davidian found not just the backdrop, but the characters for the story, including the grandmother. It was the role of women during wartime that became her focus. "They manage the war," she says. "The everyday routine the women build during the war. They build something so beautiful." In that perseverance and desire to create and maintain a home in the midst of chaos, she finds the spark of hope in the story. "It was very interesting to understand her love for life," she adds.
The dialog is in Amharic with both English and Hebrew subtitles, and the movie stars Betalehem Asmamawe, Yohanes Muse, Weyenshiet Belachew, Mareta Getachew, Mitiku Haylu, Kidest G/Selasse, Tilahune Asagere, and Rodas Gizaw.
A still from Fig Tree courtesy of the filmmaker
The film is beautifully shot, offering audiences a real sense of intimacy with both the character and her environment. The warmly lit calm of the fig tree where Mina and Eli spend their happiest hours together erupts into the tension of running through the streets, frantic to hide any boys or young men from the marauding bands of soldiers.
While Fig Tree got its official World Premiere at TIFF, it did also screen at the Haifetz Film Festival last year. On September 8, 2018, Fig Tree garnered the Best Cinematographer Award for Daniel Miller at the 2018 Ophir Awards, the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars. Fig Tree had been nominated for five Ophir Prizes, including best film, and best screenplay, after its screening at the Haifa Film Festival. Miller is a long time collaborator with Davidian, a creative partnership she says goes back to their student days at Sam Spiegel. She says they worked on the movie for about two years before the actual shooting began. Overall, it took six years or so to put the production together, including securing funding from a variety of sources. Presented by Black Sheep Film Productions, av Medien Penrose, and En Compagnie Des Lamas, the movie is an Israel/Germany/France/Ethiopia co-production.
Aäläm-Wärqe Davidian. Photo courtesy of the filmmaker
Davidian's future plans include a documentary about the gentrification of an Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel, with another script in the works. She's also writing a feature about an Ethiopian Jewish girl searching for a father she thought long dead. The situation of Ethiopian Jews is certainly rich territory worthy of multiple film treatments. "All my short films are about immigration," she says, "what we bring to Ethiopia." As she notes, Jews were prevented from owning land there pre-Civil War. "During the war, we got some power," she notes. However, as the situation collapsed into vicious anarchy, it became untenable. The dynamics of power and powerlessness are brought down to human level in Mina's story.
Fig Tree is slated to open publicly in Israel in early 2019.
Watch the Q&A with Aäläm-Wärqe Davidian from after the premiere: