‘Second-class Citizen’ in Israel, Ethiopian-born Screenwriter Tackles Ignorance of Her Birthplace

Alamork Davidian's 'Fig Tree,' which was nominated for the Israel's prestigious Ophir Prize, brought her back to the nation of her birth to tell a story based on her childhood memories in the outskirts of Addis Ababa

A scene from the 2018 award-winning movie 'Fig Tree,' directed by  Alamork Davidian, an Israeli of Ethiopian origin.
Daniel Miller

Alamork Davidian found out she was 40 only a month ago. She had spent four decades of her life not knowing her exact age, sailing in a cloud of rather pleasant calendrical uncertainty. For years she learned to like this blurry timing situation, the indefiniteness. But now when she’s asked about her age, she smiles. Having never been able to answer that simple, basic question, “How old are you?” she understands that from now on she will have to provide an unequivocal reply, like everyone else.

“My mother remembered my birthday but not the exact year I was born,” she says. “She showed me a picture she had found in which I was celebrating my first birthday. It says it was taken in 1971 according to the Ethiopian calendar.”

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With a quick calculation (there’s a several-year gap between the Ethiopian and Gregorian calendars), Davidian was able to clarify exactly what year she was born. “It’s really too bad because I really enjoyed not knowing exactly how old I am. This whole issue of the meaning of age, and time – I really liked never being concrete about it,” she says. “And I missed my 40th birthday!”

Her 2018 film “Fig Tree,” which is showing in Israeli theaters this month, premiered at the prestigious Toronto Film Festival in September, where it won Eurimages’ Audentia Award for best female director. The movie also made Davidian the first director of Ethiopian origin to ever be nominated for the Israeli Cinema Academy’s Ophir Prize, the top honor for the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars. “Fig Tree” was nominated for five Ophir awards, including best film and best screenplay, and went on to win for best cinematography.

Alamork Davidian, screenwriter and director of 'Fig Tree,' 2019.
Emil Salman

Davidian’s premier film is an extraordinary creation in Israeli cinema. The writer and director chose to return to the nation of her birth and tell a story based on her childhood memories in the outskirts of Addis Ababa. Most of the actors are amateurs recruited from the streets of Addis Ababa; Israeli and Ethiopians worked together on the production. The result is a visually beautiful film that provides a great sensory experience and an exciting look at the faraway reality of the place where many Israelis grew up – and continue to pay a painful price for it.

In some ways Davidian’s immigration experience is not so different from those of millions of immigrants all over the world. When she arrived to Israel at age 11, she tried to adapt to the local customs as quickly as possible, to study the language and get acquainted with everything Israeli. She cast aside all the memories she had brought from Ethiopia, burying them deep inside a drawer and locking it shut.

“It wasn’t a conscious decision; I stopped dealing with the world that I came from,” she says. “It’s not that someone came up to me and said directly that my culture isn’t interesting, but that was the case, the concept was that my culture wasn’t sexy because I didn’t come from France or the United States. So for many years I spoke strictly in Hebrew, except at home where my mother insisted we continue to speak in Amharic. But I really wanted to speak in Hebrew because until I was 17, I considered Amharic an ‘uncool’ language, and the culture from which I came I thought of as primitive.”

However, it was apparent to Davidian that her debut film would have to be made in Ethiopia. She wanted to take the memories, feelings, sights and experiences still with her and project them onto the big screen. In this sense, “Fig Tree” is not only an act of pride, love and yearning but also a declaration that aims to rectify most Israelis’ image of Ethiopia.

“In the movie I wanted to tell the story of life as it happens in this Third World, a concept I encountered when I arrived to Israel and I learned that Ethiopia was a ‘Third World country,’” she says. “What does that mean? What does it say about me or about other people I know and my life? I felt it was a concept that wraps everything up into one box and says, all the crap that happens there, it’s okay because it’s a Third World country, and what does it have to do with us? So from my standpoint, the movie is an attempt to deconstruct this, to show there are people there, life, there’s ‘me.’ And exactly for that reason it was clear to me that this movie was going to be filmed in Ethiopia.”

A women’s world

Davidian was born in a small village north of Addis Ababa, the country’s capital. She was one of two children, her mother was a merchant and her father, a military man who was seldom home. Her grandmother, a mother of 12, lived with them. One of her strongest memories is linked to the dominance of the women around her. “It was a world of strong women. I was born during a civil war. The men were at war. One of the things that surrounded me was that women had all the power: the school principal, the owners of the grocery store I went to, my mother and grandmother. There was a strong sense of a women’s world. The fathers were at war, the boys had to leave the house all the time and go into hiding. They feared for their lives.”

A scene from the 2018 award-winning move 'Fig Tree'
Daniel Miller

“Fig Tree” takes place in 1989, during Ethiopia’s civil war, and one of its strongest scenes is the “ingathering,” as Davidian describes it. Military trucks go through the city streets as the residents scatter, the boys and men frantically looking for a hiding place. The women help them disappear off the streets. The soldiers catch anyone who didn’t move quickly enough and shove them onto a truck – fresh cannon fodder for the front lines. Shouts and protests don’t do any good. Anyone watching this scene knows that only some of the men on those trucks would wind up coming back home.

This is why the love of Mina’s life is hiding by a river under a large fig tree. Mina, the film’s Jewish heroine, visits him there. The beautiful surroundings present an incongruous calm, which reality threatens to disrupt at any moment. When Mina’s family prepares to immigrate to Israel, she looks for a way for her Christian beloved to join her on the journey.

The movie isn’t Davidian’s autobiography but she has mixed in scenes, feelings and memories from her childhood. She vividly recalls the day on which the movie’s “ingathering” is based: “I left school and saw there was a ‘gathering of young boys’ going on, that’s what they called it in Amharic, but in effect it was a kidnapping.”

Davidian’s family began preparing for Aliyah when she was eight. She was not very enthusiastic about the idea. “What interested me then were my friends, I didn’t want to leave them for another world,” she says.

Some years after arriving, Davidian enlisted in the army, where she was a teacher. She finished her service and met Ada Ushpiz, a documentary filmmaker who was making a movie about the Ethiopian community and looking for a researcher. Davidian signed on. After that project ended, she started the theater studies program at Tel-Hai College in northern Israel and then attended the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem.

She began writing the screenplay for “Fig Tree” during her final year of studies. In 2014 she entered it into an international theater incubator where she won a prize; two years later she directed a short film about her arrival to Israel. “With My Face to the Wall” won the prize for best independent short at the Tel Aviv International Student Film Festival and best short film plot at the Jerusalem Film Festival.

'Fig Tree,' is not only an act of pride, love and yearning but also a declaration that aims to rectify most Israelis’ image of Ethiopia.
Daniel Miller

Since “Fig Tree” takes place in Ethiopia, it made sense for it to be filmed there. Davidian and her producers, Naomi Levari and Saar Yogev, recruited an Israeli team and began searching for Ethiopian filmmakers to work alongside them. To do this, she says, they connected with an Ethiopian photographer who lived in the Netherlands for many years before returning to his homeland, where he established a cinema school to help establish a local film industry.

This is how a dozen Ethiopian students started scouting for amateur actors to play in “Fig Tree.” The lead actress, Betalehem Asmamawe, was discovered at a local theater group in Addis Ababa. Her acting in the film has been praised by Variety and Hollywood Reporter.

Tensions on the set

Davidian had already visited Ethiopia a few times after immigrating to Israel, but she brought some additional emotional baggage with her on the trip she took to make the film.

“I was so excited by the very fact that I was returning to Ethiopia and going to make the first full-length Israeli movie ever filmed there, and my plans were to make it an international film for all the world to see,” she says with a laugh. “I went there with a crazy fantasy, and I felt that here I was going to save the world, portray characters that would reach the whole world. It was important to me to show how not all the people there are cut out of the same cloth, that there are human beings behind all the stories you see about immigrants on television – to show that there are human beings there, that there’s life and that people don’t leave a place where life is good. Many refugees leave their homeland because they have no choice, to save their lives. It’s not that they want to work as cleaners for white people. That’s not their dream.”

Davidian wanted her movie to reach the whole world but the Ethiopian authorities had their own plans. They not only demanded to see the script ahead of time but also sent two representatives to monitor the filming and make sure that nothing forbidden or suspicious took place on the set.

The filming itself was no small challenge. The Israeli crew were professionals, but the Ethiopians working with them were students or had a background in television and most lacked experience in film. Even though the director was Ethiopian, it didn’t take long for problems to arise on the set: The Israelis were the professionals in the lead, with the Ethiopians as their assistants.

The Israelis felt insulted that they weren’t being accepted. The Ethiopians, meanwhile, told Davidian that they were doing the film for her and not for them, “so [the Israelis] shouldn’t tell us what to do,” she says. Suddenly there was a racial war going on.

“I asked myself, how did this happen? It seems that this kind of encounter automatically brings in issues that have nothing to do with what is going on. I imagine that if we could have cleared away all their prejudices, our situation would have been better,” she adds.

‘Second-class citizen’

Davidian’s life partner is cinematographer Kobi Davidian. The couple, who has three children, has worked together over the past five years to establish an Ethiopian Jewish archive. The project is funded by a Swiss charity and this summer they plan to publish the 100 testimonies they have collected on a website and make it accessible to everyone.

Davidian thinks that the way Israelis treat black people has deteriorated over the last 30 years. “I remember my own absorption process,” she says. “Many people came to the [absorption] center to play with us, to support us, invite us over; families invited us over for Shabbat, took us on hikes, did wonderful things. Today, though, there are cries of ‘don’t bring them here,’ ‘go back to Ethiopia,’ as though there’s some great fear of us.”

She participated in the 2015 protests that drew many members of the Ethiopian community into the street to rally against discrimination and racism and bring attention to their particularly harsh treatment at the hands of the police.

“It’s very humiliating to be a black person in this country,” she says. “It’s clear to me that I’m a second-class citizen because of so many things that happen here – schools that have a quota for Ethiopian immigrants, or people who don’t want to rent us a place to live.

“Last year, for instance, we wanted to move and at a certain point I decided to change my name and tell them on the phone that my name was Alamork, so that I wouldn’t have to explain that it’s an Amharic name. Because I understood that the many times I would explain this on the phone, landlords didn’t want to continue the conversation. So it’s true that there were people who were willing to let me live in their homes and agreed to lower the rent after we met them. But I know that I live in a place where I don’t feel entirely secure because I’m a marked person.”

The 2015 protests, she says, allowed Israelis of Ethiopian origin to express “strong unapologetic criticism, especially against the violence of bureaucracy.” The protests weren’t just caused by the police beating of a young man from the community, but were an outcry erupting against a great deal of injustice.

“It was about a younger generation rising up to say, ‘Enough of this,’” Davidian says. “We earn less than half the average wage. Enough failed education, enough police racism and discrimination against us.”

She says that in film, too, parity for Ethiopians is a distant dream: “The number of Ethiopian-origin filmmakers in Israel is still tiny, and Ethiopians are largely unrepresented on the television screen. The number of features created by members of the Ethiopian community can be counted on one hand: Shmuel Bru directed “Zerubbabel” in 2008, a film that was only 70 minutes long, not exactly a feature; Bazi Gete directed “Red Leaves” in 2015; and Esti Almo directed “Lady Titi [Singing Blues]” last year. That’s it.”

The reason filmmakers are so rare within the Ethiopian community in Israel, Davidian says, is financial. “Look, for me this has been a struggle,” she says. “Filmmaking is a privilege, to be an artist is a privilege for people with economic support. It’s not the most practical life in the world. It’s really important for people to do it because it’s a kind of communication that can build bridges and create understanding, but we must remember that it’s an expensive profession and it doesn’t pay well. And for me as well, I still find it hard to say I’m a filmmaker. Because wait – I’m just getting started. I have a long way to go before I can say I have succeeded in developing my own voice.”