In the tumultuous days of Ethiopia’s civil war, “everyone suddenly wanted to be a Jew”
It’s 1989 and Ethiopia is being torn apart by a civil war. The country has sunk into the slough of violence and despair and people, particularly Jews, are desperate to leave. Fig Tree, directed by Israeli/Ethiopian filmmaker Aalam-Warqe Davidian, is set during this tumultuous period.
Premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, Fig Tree has since made the rounds of movie festivals and will be screened in Washington, D.C. on November 1.
In a village near the capital, Addis Ababa, Mina (Betalehem Asmamawe), a 16-year-old Jewish girl, and her grandmother (Weyenshiet Belachew), a weaver, wait patiently to emigrate. As this spare film opens, Mina gathers wood in a field and carries it home. Her Christian neighbors are jealous that she can immigrate to Israel. “Suddenly everyone wants to be a Jew,” says a Christian woman sarcastically.
Mina’s friend, Eli (Yohanes Muse), the son of a Christian woman who lives with Mina and her grandmother, is thoroughly fed up with the mounting instability. “This place is killing me,” he says, dreading the probability that he will be conscripted into the army.
The military is indeed scouring the countryside for new soldiers. Eli runs away, thinking he can lie low and evade mandatory service. Mina, intelligent and vivacious, catches up with Eli at their favorite meeting place, a gnarled old fig tree. There they encounter a dusty soldier with a rope around his neck. They try to help him, but they are a little late.
This one-and-a-half-hour film unfolds languorously, in rhythm with the slow and unhurried pace of life in Mina’s ramshackle village, and the cast is wonderful.
Mina receives a phone call from her mother, who’s already arrived in Israel and hopes to be reunited with her daughter and mother very soon. The deadpan expression on Mina’s face is telling. She does not seem excited by the prospect of leaving Ethiopia. Perhaps she fears that Eli will be left behind and that she will never see him again.
As Mina waits for news of their departure to Israel, a census taker arrives at her grandmother’s house. “Do dirty Jews live here?” the official asks. Is this a tacit commentary on the normal state of relations between Ethiopian Jews and Christians? Davidian does not elaborate.
With chaos growing daily, government officials make it known that males from 15 to 30 are required to report for military duty.
Mina finally learns the date of her departure to Israel. But is she ready to go without Eli? Their “fixer,” an officious woman in an airline uniform, advises them to pack lightly and meet at the gate outside the Israeli embassy in Addas Ababa.
It remains to be seen whether Eli will join Mina on the Israel-bound airplane, but as far as Mina is concerned, hope springs eternal.
Fig Tree captures her mood and those of others in her circle and paints a plausible picture of a time and a place in the annals of Ethiopian Jews.
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