Taking its name from an arboreal rendezvous for an interfaith teenage couple, new historical drama “Fig Tree” tells the story of the Ethiopian-Jewish emigration to Israel during the Ethiopian civil war. In part, that story reflects the personal experience of the film’s Ethiopian-Israeli director, Aalam-Warqe Davidian.
“Fig Tree” won an Israeli Academy Award for Best Cinematography and was screened at the recent Portland Jewish Film Festival. Shot in Ethiopia, it’s a unique perspective on the centuries-old Ethiopian Jewish community known as the Beta Israel.
Some say the Beta Israel date back to biblical times of the Queen of Sheba and the Land of Ophir. Community practices include speaking the Semitic language of Ge’ez and celebrating a unique Jewish holiday, Sigd, commemorating the rebuilding of the Temple. Many Beta Israel have made aliya, the Hebrew term for immigration that literally means “ascension,” today numbering over 170,000 in Israel, where they have experienced both milestones and tensions.
“Fig Tree” is one of three recent films about the Beta Israel shown at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, along with “The Red Sea Diving Hotel,” about a secret Mossad operation shuttling Ethiopian Jews from Sudan to Israel, and “The Passengers,” about a quest for further recognition for Ethiopian Jews to come to the Jewish state. “Fig Tree” screened at the festival on August 1-2.
Set in 1989, “Fig Tree” focuses on Mina, a teenage girl in a poor neighborhood of the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. Her mother is already in Israel, working to bring the rest of the family there: Mina, her brother Retta and their grandmother Shwaat. Not included in the plans is Mina’s Christian boyfriend, Eli; Mina wonders how she can bring Eli to Israel as well.
The film screenings occurred in the wake of two separate fatal police shootings of Ethiopian Israelis this year. On June 30, 19-year-old Solomon Tekah was killed by an off-duty policeman, sparking protests across Israel. Six months earlier, on January 18, 24-year-old Yehuda Biadga was also fatally shot by a policeman.
In an email exchange with The Times of Israel, Davidian wrote about the most recent tensions: “There is a distorted discourse of division, shooting a young man in the heart of a residential neighborhood, killing him.” She expressed frustration at “most of the citizens returning to their daily routine, turning this into a problem for only Ethiopians,” describing this as “a bitter mistake.”
“As for the protest, it is important that there be not only arguments,” Davidian wrote. “I suggest that everyone open their eyes and see that there are not only problems of Ethiopian or other small groups… We have a very big problem here of violence. As citizens, we have to be more intelligent and understand that what the media is broadcasting is not the whole reality.”
She cited “[hundreds] of people who are girls, mothers and fathers who expressed their protest in a more subtle way.”
Even before the second shooting, Davidian had lamented what she sees as some Israelis’ worsening treatment of the Beta Israel.
“When I got to Israel, I felt the situation was that people were more tolerant, more patient and showed very nice hospitality to the Ethiopian community,” she said via Skype. “But now, as related to the political situation we have here, it’s racist.”
Born in the Ethiopian village of Awash and raised in Addis Ababa, Davidian immigrated to Israel with her family at age 10.
“My mother told me that we were supposed to go to Israel more than one year [beforehand],” Davidian recalled. “I was very terrified. I said, ‘No, I do not want to go anywhere, I want to stay here in Ethiopia. My friends and school are here, I do not want to leave.’
“I got to [Israel] and my first day was like a nightmare. In the beginning, I did not want to get out of bed. I did not want to see anything. It was tough,” she said.
She learned to adjust by studying film, including at the Sam Spiegel Film & Television School and as an assistant to documentary filmmaker Ada Ushpiz.
“Fig Tree” not only marks Davidian’s first feature-length film, it represented a chance to make a return visit to her homeland and work with both Ethiopians and Israelis over six months. (Davidian’s husband, Israeli director Kobi Davidian, took care of their family while she was away.) The film’s Ethiopian cast includes child-theater actress Betalehem Asmamawe as Mina, and veteran actress Weyenshiet Belachew as Shwaat. “[Belachew is] a very big, famous actress in Ethiopia,” Davidian said.
The experience yielded insights for Davidian, who said, “In a way, I believe, I was a foreigner for [the Ethiopian cast and crew]. I’m an Ethiopian Israeli. When I got to Ethiopia, I became an Israeli,” whereas in Israel, she’s considered Ethiopian, she said.
“It’s very interesting, the dynamics of identity,” she said.
Within the crew, which included Israeli, Ethiopian, German and French members, Davidian said that there were “issues of racial tension” that made her feel “very uncomfortable.”
“At some point, I said, ‘OK, all of them, they’re grownup people, they need to work together,’” Davidian recalled. “In the end, people managed to work together and create the movie.”
The finished film gives perspective on a crisis for the Beta Israel under dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam and his Derg regime, which ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991, years of conflict with neighboring Somalia and rebel provinces.
Ephraim Isaac, a former professor at Harvard University who is of both Beta Israel and Yemeni Jewish descent, said, “The Derg period, overall, for the people of Ethiopia, was a time of tremendous killing, murdering, great suffering for all people.” And, he said, “many Ethiopian Jews were killed and imprisoned. That’s why there was a flow out of Ethiopia, with large numbers of Ethiopian Jews coming into Sudan as temporary refugees.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, Isaac had begun efforts to connect Jews in the US and Israel with the Beta Israel community. He said some Jews in the West cast doubt on the Jewishness of the Beta Israel, and the State of Israel was “not that anxious” for the Beta Israel to make aliya.
“The Ethiopian Jews are entitled to aliya like all other Jews, whether rich or poor,” Isaac said, noting that the Bible mentions Ethiopia 50 times while neither Poland nor Russia is mentioned once. As for those who would question the Jewishness of the Beta Israel, he said that this was “a very stupid question.”
Eventually, opinion in Israel changed enough to accommodate thousands of Beta Israel in two celebrated airlifts — Operation Moses in 1984; and Operation Solomon in 1991, the year the Derg fell and the civil war ended. Efforts continue to bring another part of the community to Israel — the Falashmura, descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity.
Of the refugees who braved harsh deserts and roads while attacked by vagabonds, Isaac said, “Baruch Hashem [thank God], they succeeded. They found their way to refugee camps and, later, to Israel.”
Yet Davidian sees her film as a poignant evocation of what the Beta Israel left behind in Ethiopia.
“I have felt a lot of times that the talk about immigration is about getting to a new country, a new destination, and there is not enough discussion about what people left behind,” she explained. “The life we left behind is related to our essence today.”
One way the film conveys this is through the interfaith romance between Mina and Eli in the peaceful setting of the fig tree. Yet wider-world problems threaten to pull them apart. Young men like Eli were at risk of conscription into Mengistu’s army, as reflected by a terrifying roundup scene.
The real-life roundups instilled fear in the population, according to Boston University Africana librarian Gabeyehu “Gabe” Adugna. Born in Addis Ababa, Adugna grew up in an Orthodox Coptic Christian family and said that the fear of conscription led him to leave his homeland in 1988, when he was in his 20s. “Many of the youth, regardless of religious identity, left Ethiopia because of that [reason],” Adugna added.
While Adugna never personally witnessed a roundup, “you heard [about] it everywhere,” he said. “They did raids in the neighborhood, took a lot of youth,” with corrupt officials having to fill quotas. Adugna added, “Conscription really affected the poor, who had no other means, whose parents could not bribe neighborhood association officials.”
When the Derg finally fell, “a lot of [the conscripts] came back,” Adugna said. “Some died in the [war] fronts… Some came [back] maimed.”
In the film, Mina and Eli discover a legless soldier who has tried to commit suicide under the fig tree. They rescue him and bring him to Mina’s home, but she ultimately realizes he cannot be saved.
“It’s a very sad conclusion, but she understands that she can’t do anything for him,” Davidian said, describing this as part of Mina’s growing up from a naive youth into a war-hardened adult.
Mina also begins to think about her future after she and her family have a meeting with Hiwet, a corrupt immigration “fixer” in Addis Ababa whom Davidian said is inspired by stories she heard about people abusing their power or position during the aliya.
“This is a point in the history of Ethiopia when Jewish people leave their villages and come to the city [to make aliya],” Davidian said. “People need [someone like Hiwet] when they get from the village to the city, someone they can [trust] to care of them… It also puts her in a powerful position. She is their connection to Israel.”
Concerned that Hiwet is not including Eli in her plans, Mina decides to implement a plan of her own. While it’s up to viewers to see whether Mina succeeds, the director has no doubt about the film’s impact.
“I feel very good [about the film’s reception],” Davidian said. “It’s very exciting and beautiful for me… Sometimes I don’t believe it [the attention]. For me, I’m very proud about this little story I’ve written about a family from Ethiopia. It’s trying to say different things about life. People have seen it, they’re reacting to it. Through this communication, I’m hopeful.”