Dir: Luigi Falorni. Germany/Austria. 2008. 94 mins.
Inspired by the memoir of the same name by Senait G Mehari, Luigi Falorni's Heart Of Fire is valuable as a document illustrating the absurdity of using child soldiers in any conflict as well as a glimpse into the specific struggle for liberation in Eritrea.
If Falorni, making his solo feature debut here after co-directing docudrama The Story Of The Weeping Camel in 2003, falls into traps of heavy-handed symbolism and war-is-bad cliche, the film is saved by his naturalistic style and the glorious child performance he gets from Eritrean-born Letekidan Micael in the lead role of Awet.
Heart Of Fire is the sort of portrait of society which might score strong sales around the world on the basis of its child protagonist. Older middle class arthouse audiences in particular prefer to see their hardship portrayed through the innocent eyes of children - think Pan's Labyrinth, Tsotsi, Pixote, The Year My Parents Went On Vacation or Innocent Voices - and this subject is such a passion-stirrer that it could become a draw for publicity and celebrity support. Ham-fisted it may be, but it has all the hallmarks of a crowd-pleaser that might even go all the way to an Oscar nomination.
Awet is a bright young girl being raised lovingly by Italian nuns (Eritrea was formerly an Italian colony) in an orphanage in the Ethiopian-occupied city of Asmara. She gets a Catholic education, but is a spirited girl with fantasies of her freedom fighter father, and rankles at the nuns' suggestion that one should turn the other cheek.
One day, her older sister Freweyni (Solomie Micael) arrives to take her to her father who has finally summoned her. She excitedly leaves the orphanage and travels by bus with her sister into liberated territory, only to find out that her father is a fraud and a drunk. She lives in squalor with her numerous siblings and is forced to perform hard labour while her father sits around and drinks.
Having answered back to her father one too many times - and indeed turned the other cheek when he hits her - Awet is taken with Freweyni to a nearby outpost of one of the liberation armies which is more at war with a rival faction than it is with the Ethiopians.
There she becomes in awe of Ma'aza, a female freedom fighter (Tilahun), whose rousing speeches and striking afro hairstyle inspire Awet. She unties her hair out of its prohibiting cornrows, works hard and makes friend at the camp; she is even angry when her sister is given a gun and she is deemed to young to carry one.
But once she has been exposed to a few dead bodies and wounded comrades, her outlook changes. When she herself is armed, she starts to question the sense of the killing and becomes an outcast when she removes all the bullets from her child comrades' guns.
The title refers to a Virgin Mary icon with a heart of fire which inspires Awet throughout, and although the use of Christian doctrine here is not proselytising, Falorni indulges in a few too many biblical turnings-of-other-cheeks and thou-shalt-not-kills.
Awet's insistent questioning - why do we kill the other faction when they wear the same shoes as us' Why do they want to kill us' - is incongruously obvious in a story which doesn't need to hammer home the point. Bold, brazen and big-haired, Letekidan Micael gives one of those memorable child performances which transcends the familiar material. We can only hope to see her on screen again.
Senator Film Produktion