The momentousness of the latter half of the 20th century in Ethiopia is stark in the popular imagination, especially to non-Ethiopians. It was attended by the fall of one of the oldest monarchies in the world, the transition from capitalism, the violent marriage to communism and, most importantly, the 1980s famine.

It is no wonder then that two years in a row, two relatively big Hollywood productions were released that dealt in some ways with the political instability of the country during that time. Both - Sweetness in the Belly and The Red Sea Diving Resort - deal with migration due to political hardships during the Dergueand take place in the background of real events. Idiosyncratically, both also tell the story of white people’s brush up with what was going on in Ethiopia at the time.

Diving Resort, starring Chris Evans, was about an Israeli agent’s effort to help Jewish-Ethiopians into Israel. It was like Ocean’s Eleven, but if instead of money, the protagonists were smuggling out refugees and some screen time was dedicated to humanising the Ethiopians instead of treating them just as props.

Sweetness in the Belly, on the other hand, is more well-intentioned. It actively attempts to celebrate the protagonist’s cultural and religious lifestyle and beliefs, spends a great time with the people whose story is told through the eyes of the main character and repeatedly calls out the double standards afforded to Dakota Fanning’s character in the movie.

“Sweetness in the Belly plays like a film made by good, well-intentioned people who … still feel no closer to knowing how to balance commercial appeal, quality control and political correctness any better than the rest of us,” wrote Leslie Felprin in her review of the movie for the Hollywood Reporter. “So they just went ahead and made a movie that's laudably empathic, illuminating about a conflict barely discussed in the Western media, and which features some strong performances.”

Too true. If we decide to immerse ourselves in the politics of it all, we will be getting ourselves into a mess that we may never get out of. Let us then move on and ask the less complex question.

Does Fanning's vehicle live up to its potential as an interesting film about a white woman that is abandoned by her parents in Morocco, emigrates to Ethiopia, and falls in love only to find herself having to escape political violence and migrate once again to England?

It is actually a mediocre enough movie that is heavily emotionally invested in the life of its protagonist. Based upon the book of the same name by Camilla Gibb, it relies on flashbacks to tell the story of a white British woman, Lilly (played by Fanning), that not only inexplicably is a refugee to England but seems particularly out of place in her own country.

It is because, as a child, she is abandoned by her parents in Morocco. She is taken in and raised by a Muslim cleric and becomes religious. For a reason that is unexplained in the movie, she immigrates to Ethiopia, specifically to the walled city of Harer, without much cash and attempts to settle in with the locals.

Things seem to be fine in Imperial Ethiopia until the revolution begins, knocking on every door as Emperor Haileselassie loses his grip over the country. None of this would have mattered much to Lilly had it not been for her involvement with a doctor, Aziz (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), whose revolutionary sentiments get him into trouble with the new military junta, the Dergue.

Aziz helps Lilly escape when it becomes evident that their lives are at risk. He remains in Ethiopia. She emigrates to England. They lose touch. Fortunately, the immigration process proves easy for her.

A long lost kin still finds it easy to get passage by the powers that be.

“Must be nice to have this place all to yourself,” a black Ethiopian refugee that arrived in England at the same time with Lilly says to her after seeing the type of accommodation she has been given.

“I didn’t ask for it,” replies Lily. “You didn’t have to,” retorts the Ethiopian refugee.

That Ethiopian refugee, Amina, is played by Wunmi Mosaku in what is the film’s best performance. She brings to the character a sorrow and an exuberance that is measured and sincere. There is generally an inclination to play characters from the global south, especially in Africa, with dejection, as if they are overburdened with gloom all of the time and are incapable of looking at the world with a sense of humour. This is much of what Michael K. Williams did in the Red Sea Diving Resort.

This is not what Wunmi does. The credit of the development of the character goes to the filmmakers, Zeresenay Berhane Mehari and Laura Philips, director and writer, respectively.

In fact, in a fairer world, where name and face recognition was not central to deciding on whether or not movies get made, and most of the recognisable performers are not white, the main character would be Amina.

Her character arc in this movie is mostly going from misjudging Lilly to accepting her as a friend. But also featured in the movie is her incredible story.

A refugee that attempts to find her place in a new country, sexually abused on her trek out of Africa, plodding along with a kid and a newborn, her story is far more interesting - one of struggle, perseverance and hope.

For that at least, Sweetness in the Belly is a passing movie.

PUBLISHED ON Sep 06,2020 [ VOL 21 , NO 1062]

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