×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Fig Tree’

Aalam-Warqe Davidian's semi-autobiographical first feature is a potent glimpse of adolescence amid civil war.

Director:
Aalam-Warqe Davidian
With:
Betalehem Asmamawe, Yohanes Muse, Weyenshiet Belachew, Mareta Getachew, Mitiku Haylu, Kidest G/Selassie, Tilahune Asagere, Rodas Gizaw. (Amharic, Hebrew dialogue)

1 hour 33 minutes.

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.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Fig Tree'

Reviewed at Palm Springs Film Festival (World Cinema Now), Jan. 8, 2018. (Also in Toronto Film Festival.) Running time: 93 MIN. (Original title: “Etz Teena”)

Production: (Israel-Germany-France-Ethiopia) A Black Sheep Film production in association with Median Penrose and En Compagnie des Lamas. (International sales: Films Boutique, Berlin.) Producers: Saar Yogev, Naomi Levari. Executive producer: Abraham Haile Biru. Co-producers: Felix Eisele, Sandrine Brauer.

Crew: Director-writer: Aalam-Warqe Davidian. Camera (color, HD): Daniel Miller. Editor: Arik Lahav Leibovich, Music: John Gurtler, Jan Miserre.

With: Betalehem Asmamawe, Yohanes Muse, Weyenshiet Belachew, Mareta Getachew, Mitiku Haylu, Kidest G/Selassie, Tilahune Asagere, Rodas Gizaw. (Amharic, Hebrew dialogue)

More Film

  • Wings of Desire

    German Heritage Sector Applauds Increased Digitization, Preservation Funding

    LYON, France  — Germany’s film heritage sector is celebrating a new federal and state-funded initiative launching in January that will provide €10 million ($11.15 million) a year towards the digitization and preservation of feature films. Rainer Rother, the artistic director of the Deutsche Kinemathek, outlined the plan at a panel discussion at the Lumière Festival’s [...]

  • 'QT8: Quentin Tarantino, The First Eight'

    Film Review: 'QT8: Quentin Tarantino, The First Eight'

    In one of the intermittent revealing moments in “QT8: Quentin Tarantino, The First Eight,” a documentary about the films of Quentin Tarantino that’s like a familiar but tasty sundae for Quentin fans, we see Tarantino on the set of “Pulp Fiction,” shooting the iconic dance contest at Jack Rabbit Slim’s. As John Travolta and Uma [...]

  • Zombieland Double Tap

    Why Emma Stone Was Haunted by Fear of Vomiting While Shooting 'Zombieland: Double Tap'

    SPOILER ALERT: The following story contains a slight spoiler for “Zombieland: Double Tap.” The zombie slayers are back! Ten years after Emma Stone, Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg and Abigail Breslin first killed dead people walking in “Zombieland,” they’ve reunited for “Zombieland: Double Tap.” “You take stock of your life a little bit,” Stone says of [...]

  • Hereditary

    The Best Horror Films to Stream Right Now

    Good horror movies aren’t always easy to scare up, but with Halloween on the horizon, Variety has compiled a list of some of the best horror films available on Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu. NETFLIX Apostle Cult horror meets religious hypocrisy in this creepy gothic thriller, which follows prodigal son Thomas Richardson, who returns home [...]

  • Brett Gelman

    'Stranger Things' Star Brett Gelman Joins Michael B. Jordan in 'Without Remorse'

    Brett Gelman, best known for his scene-stealing roles in “Fleabag,” “Stranger Things” and “Love,” has joined Michael B. Jordan in Paramount’s adaptation of Tom Clancy’s “Without Remorse.” Jamie Bell and Jodie Turner-Smith are also on board. Jordan is starring as operations officer John Clark, also known as John Terrence Kelly, a former Navy SEAL who [...]

  • US director Francis Ford Coppola holds

    Francis Ford Coppola Honored With Prestigious Lumiere Prize by Thierry Fremaux, Bong Joon Ho

    Francis Ford Coppola took the stage to claim the Lumière Festival’s lifetime achievement honor, the Lumière Prize, in a stirring celebration that marked the festival’s 10th edition on Friday night in Lyon, France. The four-time Academy Award winner accepted the prize after a series of video tributes, musical performances and testimonials from family, friends and [...]

  • 'Human Capital' Sells to Vertical Entertainment,

    Liev Schreiber, Maya Hawke's 'Human Capital' Sells Rights to DirecTV, Vertical Entertainment (EXCLUSIVE)

    Vertical Entertainment and DirecTV have jointly acquired the North American distribution rights to “Human Capital,” an official selection of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival from director Marc Meyers. The film stars Oscar winner Marisa Tomei, Liev Schreiber, Peter Sarsgaard, and Maya Hawke. The ensemble drama follows numerous interconnected stories surrounding a hit and run, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content