There may be a woman these days at the helm of Ethiopia as a country, but there is still a long road to travel for women in the Ethiopian film industry. In fact, while plentiful considering the small number of male counterparts, —Haile Gerima is probably the best known filmmaker hailing from the country in the West — Ethiopian women filmmakers can still be only counted on the fingers of one hand. Maybe two.
Aalam-Warqe Davidian defies those odds, singlehandedly, bringing a tale inspired by her own teenage years growing up in the midst of the Ethiopian civil war. In 1989, to be more exact, is when her film ‘Fig Tree’ takes place, in a remote area of the country. Mina (played with understated perfection by Betalehem Asmamawe) is a Jewish teen who is in love with a Christian boy, Eli. When she discovers she is to soon join her mom in Israel, a dream trip to most from the impoverished country, she finds a way to get Eli a journey out too. In those times, young men were systematically kidnapped in Ethiopia to join the army. Most never came home and the “lucky” ones who did were so severely wounded they probably wished they were dead. In fact, in a strange, haunting moment of the film, we catch a glimpse of one such victim of war. It is what i end up remembering most from ‘Fig Tree’ and I wish it wasn’t so.
The adventures of the young lovers revolve around a fig tree where Eli hides from the kidnappers and manages to do so quite skillfully for quite a while. When his time runs out, well, I won’t tell you anything else. It’s suspenseful, if that’s what you yearn for in a movie.
I personally yearn for something with my entertainment, like a film that teaches me things I didn’t know and ‘Fig Tree’ definitely does that. While I grew up hearing about the Falasha Jews, and I even managed to find a Falasha silver ring on my trip to Ethiopia in the late 90’s, I didn’t know about the kidnappings. I did hear of horror stories in Ethiopia, things that pushed people to flee in droves and even pass themselves as Jewish to escape the hell. This was all, of course, before DNA tests became so common that a simple swab of the cheek could prove a person’s heritage.
This week, ‘Fig Tree’ screens as part of the 7th Israel Film Center Festival, on Wednesday the 5th to be exact. It is a film well worth watching and one I urge you to catch, along with ‘Red Cow’ directed by another exceptional woman filmmaker Tsivia Barkai Yacov which screens the day before.
It is interesting and encouraging to see that film funds from Israel have been supporting independent cinema like this, from different countries too and definitely women filmmakers. That’s one thing that makes me very hopeful.
Because after all, I believe there is great power in cinema — cinema with a conscience.