Heart of Fire

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Berlin International Film Festival

BERLIN -- In his revelatory "The Story of the Weeping Camel," Luigi Falorni, who co-directed that film, established himself as an artist who can beautifully smudge the line between documentary and feature filmmaking. He continues in this vein with the no less impressive "Heart of Fire," a story about children turned into soldiers during Eritrea's long, turbulent war of independence from Ethiopia. The drama recently screened in competition at the Berlin International Film Festival.

The film certainly has a script by Falorni and Gabriele Kister, based on a memoir by Senait G. Mehari, but it never loses the feel and sensibility of a fine documentary: Falorni's camera searches relentlessly for the truth about his characters, especially the little girl with a "big mouth" who is the fiery heart of his film.

"Heart of Fire" is a cinch for most festival play but could do business in art house venues around the world. It even has its own controversy to help with the publicity. Mehari has been sued by fellow child soldiers who accuse her of fictionalizing much of her account. Meanwhile, the Eritrean government has steadfastly -- and falsely -- maintained that no children took up arms in the war. A few protesters even stood outside the Palast before its first press screening here, holding signs denouncing the film's "distortions."

The intimidation of his original cast by Eritrean government supporters forced Falorni to recast his film five days before shooting, and what a stroke of good fortune that turned out to be. He found actors in an Eritrean refugee camp in northern Kenya whose own sad reality gives his film all the authenticity it needs.

Ten-year-old Letekidan Micael plays his heroine, Awet. Her instincts are not that of a trained actor, and that's to the film's benefit. Micael is always in the moment, spontaneously reacting to what is happening around her. She cannot hide her inquisitive look and restless mind. When guns go off, the terror in her face is palpable. When she demands answers to her questions, her youthful intelligence catches you off-guard.

Awet's journey takes her from a Catholic orphanage run by Italian nuns in Asmara to a rural village in "liberated" Eritrea, where she must labor for a lazy father who clams to have been a freedom fighter. He eventually gives her and her sister away to a liberation army as "daughters of Eritrea."

Here too she must labor, but there is an interesting equality in the camp where one commander is an Amazonian warrior who can stand up to any man. When the group's leader is killed in combat, the woman takes over and decides to put guns in the hands of even the youngest children, including Awet. The rifle is almost as tall as she is, and the weapon could not be more alien to her.

From the classroom to the guerrilla camp, Awet is a child who questions everything. This big mouth gets her into trouble, but she insists upon questioning the wisdom of Jesus to the nuns and demanding to know why people who look and dress exactly as they do are the enemy. One fellow soldier thinks she should be executed.

Another soldier disapproves of the children being trained for war and plots their escape even as the group flees a relentless enemy. But he is killed, which leaves Awet to seize an opportunity to get her and her sister away into Sudan.

Falorni, Italian-born but based in Germany, clearly developed amazing rapport with his young Eritrean performers, all nonactors working in their own language, Tigrinya. Everyone has a firm grasp on his or her role. Even the smallest parts come across as clear, distinct personalities. And there is never a sentimental moment or an overreach for emotions from anyone.

Along with Micael's wonderful instincts, Seble Tilahun has a striking presence as the female warrior, and Daniel Seyoum is sympathetic as a youth who wants to spirit the children away from the war.

Production values on this shoot in Kenya are not the catch-as-catch-can affair one would expect working with children in a country with no filmmaking infrastructure. Judith Kaufmann's cinematography is crisp, Vittoria Sogno's sets convey the haphazard nature of a guerilla unit on the run, and the stunts all go off without a hitch.

HEART OF FIRE
Beta Cinema presents a BurkertBareiss production of a TV60Film
Credits:
Director: Luigi Falorni
Writers: Luigi Falorni, Gabriele Kister
Based on the book by: Senait G. Mehari
Producers: Andreas Bareiss, Sven Burgemeister, Gloria Burkert, Bernd Burgemeister
Director of photography: Judith Kaufmann
Production designer: Vittoria Sogno
Music: Andrea Guerra
Costume designer: Birgitta Lohrer-Horres
Editor: Anja Pohl
Cast:
Awet: Letekidan Micael
Freweyni: Solomie Micael
Ma'aza: Seble Tilahun
Mike'ele: Daniel Seyoum
Amrit: Mekdes Wegene
Haile: Samuel Semere
Running time -- 98 minutes
No MPAA rating
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