Ethiopian Jewish teenager Mina and her boyfriend Eli in ‘Fig Tree’
Ethiopian Jewish teenager Mina and her boyfriend Eli in ‘Fig Tree’

In ‘Fig Tree,’ an Ethiopian family uproots to settle in Israel

“Fig Tree,” a story of love and war set in Ethiopia in 1989, opens with a view of tall, ancient eucalyptus trees waving in the breeze. It then cuts abruptly to an ax brutally hacking one of those trees — and the wielder of the ax is a young woman of 16 in a schoolgirl’s dress. Moments later, she is resting in the boughs of a fig tree on the banks of a river when a young man claps his hand over her mouth. She screams and bolts — but after a short chase, it turns out that the young man is her sweetheart, and they are only playing.

By turns tender and terrifying, this film debut by Aalam-Warqe Davidian, who emigrated from Ethiopia to Israel as a child, is true to the writer-director’s roots and to the professional education that her adopted country provided. Davidian studied film in Israel and assembled a mostly Israeli crew for this Israeli-German-French-Ethiopian coproduction, which was nominated for an Ophir award for best film and deservedly won the award for cinematography. It will have its Bay Area premiere at 1 p.m. Wednesday, March 6 at the Century 16 Downtown in Pleasant Hill, as part of the East Bay International Jewish Film Festival.

While “Fig Tree” is a narrative film, it is clear from the intimate details of life that she captures, and her deft touch in conveying the uncertainty and trauma of leaving one’s native land, that Davidian drew upon her own immigration memories to shape the film’s story. The young protagonist, Mina, is a member of a Jewish family in Addis Ababa; her mother has preceded her, as well as her brother and grandmother, in making aliyah. While they make clandestine arrangements for their own departure, they struggle to stay safe as Ethiopia grows increasingly violent under military rule. In particular danger are boys, teenage and even younger, who are hunted down and forcibly drafted into the army. Mina’s Christian boyfriend, Eli, is in hiding, attempting to avoid this fate, and in the way of children whose surroundings make them grow up too fast, Mina is ever on alert.

“I feel very personally connected to the film,” said EBIJFF director Riva Gambert, who was involved in American Jewish Congress efforts to get Jewish people out of Ethiopia during the 1980s.

“We often applaud Israel for Operation Moses and other [efforts to rescue] Ethiopian and Sudanese Jews, but we don’t actually understand the heartrending journey that it takes, both before and during the journey, when you are separated from family who may have already gone ahead,” she said. “Just as in the past of our Jewish immigrant relatives, today, too, people have to make very difficult journeys in order to thrive, or survive.”

Mina’s particular journey allows the viewer to witness many lovely, if contradictory, moments of daily life in her village. We experience the presence of nature, beautiful but harsh; family intimacy as well as claustrophobia; and a sense of timeless civilization amid material need.

“The kind of poverty you see in this film is realistic,” Gambert said, “as well as the grittiness and violence that were part of the situation during the [Ethiopian] civil war.”

Despite how painful it may be, though, she encourages people to see it.

“What you want at a festival are inspirational films that touch you even if there’s also sadness.”

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s Culture Editor, and was a longtime J. freelance writer before that.