Aalam-Warqe Davidian’s directorial debut humanizes the horrors of the Ethiopian civil war via the lens of a young couple in love in Fig Tree.
We are drowning in tragedies. We are inundated with the Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse – War, Famine, Pestilence, and Death – on a daily basis. It can be too much to take in, too painful to process. Our nervous systems shut down and we resign ourselves to apathy – “Oh well, what can I do anyway?”
Personal stories, autobiographies, memoir, and lived experience cut through that sheet of static, that deadening blanket of deafening noise. They peel the callous away from our skin, remove the stones from our hearts, and allow us to feel and empathize with distant conflicts. They help remind us that we are more alike than not, even when the day-to-day life looks so very different.
Fig Tree follows Mina (Betalehem Asmamawe), a 16-year-old young woman living in the Shula, or Fig, neighborhood of an impoverished area on the outskirts of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. Mina’s family are Jewish and are laying plans to emigrate to Israel to escape the brutal reign of Mengistu Haile Mariam, the head of the revolutionary army known as the Derg that overthrew the Emperor Haile Selassie I in 1974. Set in 1989, Fig Tree drops us in 15 years into the Derg’s reign. To supplement the Derg’s declining forces, Mariam’s rounding up and kidnapping all males between the ages of 16 and 30 to join the Derg’s army.
This poses as immediate threat to Mina’s boyfriend and pseudo-brother, Eli (Yohanes Muse). Eli’s a Christian boy that was adopted by Mina’s grandmother years ago, when his mother fled the country. He hides out in a fig tree on the outskirts of town in a bid to escape the marauding bands of kidnappers.
While hiding out in the fig tree, Eli and Mina find a soldier who’s lost his legs in war, who’s attempted to hang himself with thin orange twine. Eli and Mina rescue him at the nick of time, carrying him back to the village on Eli’s back. The soldier returns to consciousness and hauls himself away using a pair of crude wooden hand supports, dragging his torso through the dust and dirt, making it about 50 yards and then collapsing in the street. No one thinks anything of it, simply stepping around his prone body. The passive resignation to such a heartrending sight is the perfect representation of the heart and soul of Fig Tree. What effects do a life of terror, poverty, and brutality have on the human soul and psyche?
What effects do a life of terror, poverty, and brutality have on the human soul and psyche?
Most of Fig Tree focuses around the twin plots of Mina and her family’s escape to Israel and Eli’s hiding from the authorities. Mina’s family secures passage out of the country, leaving Mina worried about what will happen to Eli once they leave. She plots and schemes various ways to save Eli, including sleeping together to make him her husband. Mina’s family discovers her machinations to save Eli. Her father beats her unmercifully with a leather belt, with her grandmother scolding her to be smart, even if she can’t control who or how she loves.
All of these cogs come together, resulting in the film’s gut-wrenching final moments if not causing them directly.
Reading this synopsis, it may seem as if not much happens in Fig Tree. You wouldn’t be wrong, but that’s not really the point of Davidian’s debut feature film. Based on her own experiences leaving a war torn Ethiopia as a young woman. It’s more of a slice-of-life depiction of a very unique upbringing during very tumultuous times. The film is more about the textures of everyday life of a regular girl than any kind of epic. That’s what makes it so successful, landing like a steel fist to your rib cage, like a steel-toed boot to the base of your neck. The detailed cinematography, with long languorous looks lavished on the rich malachite greens and brick reds of Mina’s grandmother’s linens; on bright, burnished steel and glass, glinting in the sun; the nearly sexual shape of figs rolling around in the dirt; the sweat running down a child’s forehead. This nearly microscopic exposition of life in an Ethiopian village transplants you behind the windshield of a young girl’s eyes, feeling her excitement, her terror, her incomprehension of the world’s brutality and the ferocity of her heart.
This radical empathy makes the painful reality of the brutality of life in Ethiopia under the Derg hit home like a closed fist. You will cry, most likely. You will leave, stunned, shaking your head.
The relationship between Mina and Eli offers a particularly poignant perspective on the situation. The scene where Mina offers herself to Eli so he can become her husband, is heartbreaking in its innocence. The pair sit down to play a hand-clapping game, with all the seriousness of a newlywed couple. The juxtaposition of childhood and adult life is striking. Every young adolescent thinks they’re wiser than they are, that they know everything. Coming of age stories are often moving, due to this, and the fact that it takes us back to a time where everything is so vibrant, potent, and intense.
Anybody that’s gone through adolescence will likely be able to empathize with Mina and Eli. It’s a universal story, as old as time. Which makes the brutality and terror of life under a brutal regime all the more striking, all that much harder to watch. Which is why it’s so important we do so, to pay witness, to truly open our hearts to make sure these things don’t happen again, even though they’re probably happening right this second.
Full disclosure, all of this talk of being numbed to the atrocities happening around the globe are written from a place of my own privilege. While these atrocities may be foreign and remote from where i am writing in Portland, Oregon, this is just daily life for people living in Ethiopia and likely much of Africa, as well as other parts of the globe. The ability to tune out is a luxury, which makes it that much more essential to rip the callous off our hearts, to tear down the walls of our own perceptions. Or perhaps i am unique in this, and others remain more tender and open and informed around the clock. Either way, this screening at the Whitsell Auditorium as part of the Portland Art Museum made a big, big impact on this particular viewer. I’ve long had a fondness and a fascination with Ethiopian culture, mostly the music and the food thus far, as that’s what i’ve been exposed to. Fig Tree humanizes the struggle that’s been going on for decades in Ethiopia. I’m not really sure how things stand today, i’m ashamed to say. I’m going to be fixing that. I encourage you to do the same, and watching Fig Tree is a great place to start.
Amazing performances, outstanding cinematography, and an invaluable illustration of a very important historical epoch that not enough westerners know about make Fig Tree essential viewing for all lovers of African film and culture. Aalam-Warqe Davidian’s an auspicious talent and definitely one to watch. Cannot wait to see what she gets into next!
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