19 November 2019 | gailspilsbury
Travel to another culture and lives in constant danger
Director Aäläm-Wärqe Davidian drops you right into daily life in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa during the long Ethiopian Civil War. The year is 1989, and American audiences plunge into a completely new culture with the backdrop of a chaotic war, where teenage boys are "kidnapped" to supply the government's army.
The protagonist Mina (Betalehem Asmamawe), 16, is Jewish and lives with her grandmother (Weyenshiet Belachew) and her brother Rata (19), who has lost his arm in the war. A Christian woman and her son, Eli (Yohanes Muse), also live with the family. Mina grew up with Eli, and now, in adolescence, they are in love. The family goes to great lengths to hide Eli from the constant army raids to round up boys. When her chores are done, Mina steals away to meet Eli at their trysting spot, a giant fig tree.
A wheeling-dealing government official arranges papers and transportation for Jewish citizens to immigrate to Israel, and Mina's grandmother has been working with the woman to arrange the family's escape. Mina's mother is already in Israel. But Mina's distraught-how can they leave Eli and his mother behind?
The film captures "first love"-its childlike innocence awakening to sexual desire. These beautiful scenes between Mina and Eli, more than anything else in the movie, bring us into the family circle and the terrible ordeals the members endure. We experience what it really feels like to witness a son or your love being snatched by the enemy-being captive and abused to face what horrible fate?
Because we dive straight into the lives of Mina's family without any back story or exposition, we have to work fast to learn the characters' names, their customs, the war situation, and the plot. This full-immersion method of storytelling is the most effective way for an audience to experience a foreign world and crisis situation as if in it themselves.
In Fig Tree, women play a strong role. They absorb all the tragedies occurring around them; they keep life going for everyone else. They're the bulwark and the source of wisdom for children and men to depend on.
The movie's cinematography also tells the story (and won Israel's equivalent of an Oscar). Even though we're in a tense, scary, unpredictable war zone, the film is quiet, told more by the actors' faces and the scenery than through their dialogue. We become familiar with this setting and its culture; we become part of the community. Mina's family could be ours; we know the members that well, We easily identify with one character's anguished words, "I can't deal with all their evil anymore!"
Fig Tree is a beautiful, honest look at our world and the violence and cruelty that pervades it.