It’s a question integral to much of the current international immigration debate: When war breaks out, who gets to flee and who’s left with nowhere to run? As a child, writer-director Aalam-Warqe Davidian was among a majority of Ethiopian Jews who emigrated to Israel. In her loosely autobiographical feature debut, a teenager facing similar circumstances — an escape to safety amid the nation’s civl war — becomes frantic with worry over loved ones who may not have the option of flight.
Like the deceptive calm before a gathering storm, and with elements of lyricism and typical adolescent coming-of-age intrigue, “Fig Tree” is a fine drama whose seemingly casual progress only heightens its ultimate impact. The universal appeal of this Israeli and European co-production figures to earn it the kind of arthouse exposure too seldom enjoyed by African features.
Judaism has existed in what is now Ethiopia perhaps as far back as the fourth century, its adherents enjoying periods of political independence that were a distant memory by the time a military coup ended Emperor Haile Selassie I’s reign in 1974. The new Communist government grew openly hostile toward Jews (and religion in general), triggering a tidal wave of emigration. By 1989, when Davidian’s tale takes place, securing such departures grew increasingly difficult. Meanwhile, citizens caught between the wobbling regime and guerrilla opposition movements became desperate to get out.
Mina (Betalehem Asmamawe) is a 16-year-old living with her grandmother (Weyenshiet Belachew) on the outskirts of Addis Ababa. She’s high-spirited despite fairly heavy obligations not just at school but also in grandma’s business as a highly respected weaver. Somehow Mina finds time to be playful, usually in the company of her “brother” Eli (Yohanes Muse), also a teen. He’s actually the son of a Christian woman that grandma took in long ago, and both are treated as part of the family. While Mina and Eli still roughhouse like kids, there’s a new edge to their horseplay, and those unacknowledged desires no doubt have something to do with her terror that he and his mother may soon get left behind.
Grandma is negotiating passage for herself and Mina to Israel (where the girl’s mother already lives), something that, due to the vagaries of flights and official approval, might happen any day now. But Mina becomes ever more concerned that once they’ve left, the slick travel agent-cum-fixer who’s pocketed their money will have no motivation to help Eli, no matter whatever she promises beforehand. Then there’s the additional fear that he might be forcibly recruited by the armies roaming the streets and raiding houses, snatching up men between the age of 15 and 30.
The physical perils of a nation already at war with itself remains distant if palpable to these characters until the end, with one exception: Passing the time at the riverside one afternoon, our young protagonists discover a legless man in soldier’s uniform who’s hanged himself from their favorite fig tree. They rescue him in time, yet he doesn’t appear glad to be saved; his hopelessness seems to encapsulate the fraught, oft-famine-plagued country’s own dubious estimate of its future.
The dominant mood here is one of uneasy waiting. Yet in Asmamawe’s winning performance, Mina is too full of life not to be easily distracted by passing pleasures. She and Eli live in the moment, unable to focus very long on dangers that remain comfortably abstract so long as they’re not immediate. When finally they do become immediate, “Fig Tree” lets its accumulated repressed tension explode, to potent effect.
For all the film’s leisurely rhythms and agreeable local color, this is an astutely crafted work, all the more so for making its dramatic and political points in such seemingly offhand fashion. The tech/design contributions are flavorful, notably the unshowy yet attractive cinematography by Daniel Miller (“Working Woman”). The score, with its ambient shadings, credited to John Gurtler and Jan Miserre, adds to a sense of understated yet omnipresent tension.
Approaching civil war through the lens of otherwise ordinary adolescent growing pains, “Fig Tree” conveys a great deal while appearing to directly say very little — not unlike the way that, say “To Kill a Mockingbird” wove issues of institutionalized racism into the everyday lives of children scarcely capable of grasping why such conflicts exist. Youth may be resilient, but in any culture, trauma can quickly end its innocence.