Ethiopia, September 1974, Emperor Haile Selassie was ousted by a pro-communist military junta who then installed a totalitarian-style government run by Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam. Communism was officially adopted, and as a result, the new regime gradually began to embrace anti-religious and anti-Israeli stances, which meant hostility towards then Jews of Ethiopia (Beta Israel, also known as Ethiopian Jews). Concerned for the fate of the Ethiopian Jews, the Israeli government officially recognized the Beta Israel community as Jews in 1975, for the purpose of the “Law of Return” (essentially an act that grants Jews all over the world the right to *return* to Israel). In the early 1980s, Ethiopia went through a series of famines and civil wars. As a result, the lives of hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians, including the Beta Israel community, were on unstable ground, with many fleeing to neighboring Sudan. The Israeli government would then step in to assist, and in several covert military operations, eventually rescued much of the Beta Israel population (the Ethiopian Jews), taking them to Israel – operations that continued throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s.
A project that will tell one family’s story during the above operations, is set to be unveiled later this year.
Ethiopian-Israeli filmmaker Alamork Marsha is developing her feature film debut, “Fig Tree,” which is based on her experiences as a child in war-torn Addis Ababa in 1991.
The script, which has traveled a bit over the last 3 years, won the $50,000 top prize at the pitching event at the Jerusalem International Film Lab in 2014. It was also selected for the Locarno Open Doors Co-production Lab, which was dedicated to Sub-Saharan African cinema that year.
In her pitch, Marsha revealed how “Fig Tree” was inspired by her childhood, living with her grandmother on the outskirts Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, during the civil war, and her Jewish family’s decision to move to Israel.
“Through this film I want to go back to my grandmother’s house in Ethiopia to describe life in the war and express the dissonance between two conditions, the war that brings death with it and the human lust for life,” the filmmaker said. “One of my clearest memories is that I am playing chase with my friends and the next minute I am trying to avoid the soldiers’ crazy looks as they are dragging boys into trucks in order to send them to fight in the frontline. This surreal moment keeps repeating itself. I am playing and the war around me is kicking.”
The filmmaker, along with others selected for Locarno, met with and presented their projects to potential international partners in areas of financing and distribution especially.
The Ethiopia-set production on “Fig Tree” (using both non-actors as well as actors from the local theatre scene in Addis Ababa) is produced by Saar Yogev and Naomi Levari at Tel Aviv-based Black Sheep Film Productions, along with Penrose Av Medien and En Compagnie Des Lamas.
It is further supported by Rabinovich Film Fund, Gesher-Avi Hai Production grant, the Beracha Foundation, World Cinema Fund, MFG, CNC-Cinema Du Monde, Gesher Multi Cultural Fund, and Israel Film Fund.
By the way, announced in the fall of 2015, Fox Searchlight is developing what was described as an “Argo”-like film based on the above rescue of Ethiopian Jews – an operation that was called “Operation Solomon.”
The above photo is from “Fig Tree” courtesy of Black Sheep’s website.