Awet (Letekidan Micael) is a young girl, a resident of a Catholic orphanage in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. This is the late 1970s. Eritrea has been occupied by Ethiopia since 1962, and a civil war has broken out between the two groups of Eritrean freedom fighters, the Jebha (Eritrean liberation front) and the Shabia (Eritrean people’s liberation front, a splinter group of the ELF). Awet’s estranged father sends her older sister, Freweyini (Solomie Micael), to fetch her. But their father, Haile (Samuel Semere), an ex-freedom fighter, sells them to the Jebha, several weeks later.
The Jebha cell they join is led by the charismatic and beautiful Ma’aza (Seble Tilahun). Second in command is the more thoughtful Mike’ele (Daniel Seyoum). Awet is too young to fight, but Freweyini is trained how to use an AK-47. While Freweyini and the others go off to fight the Shabia, Awet and the other children remain in the camp and are taught by Mike’ele. But Awet is determined to be like Ma’aza. It is a brutal and deprived life. The children, because they do not fight, are the last to be fed, and so often go hungry.
The battles take their toll, and Ma’aza arms the children. As soon as she has an assault rifle in her hands, Awet’s intentions change. She no longer wants to kill. She wants to be like Mike’ele. After a pitched gunfight with a Shabia group, Ma’aza leads her cell to the Sudanese border, with the intention of preventing more Shabia from leaving the country. But Awet leaves Ma’aza, and leads her sister and an injured boy across the border.
The film is based on the memoir of Eritrean/ German pop star Senait Ghebrehiwet Mehari, which has caused a great deal of controversy. In her book, Feuerhertz (‘Heart of Fire’), Mehari claimed to have fought as a six-year-old child soldier for the ELF, but this has been widely disputed. The film takes care to point out that the characters in it are not based on any in the book – there is no Ma’aza in Mehari’s story, for example. But no matter how fictionalised her memoir, the almost entirely fictional Heart Of Fire (aka: Feuerherz) movie makes excellent use of its source material.
Unfortunately, there’s a slight disconnect in the middle of Heart Of Fire. It’s enough to knock it down from a nine to an eight out of ten. Initially, Awet clearly idolises Ma’aza, and it’s easy to understand why. But Awet’s sudden change of heart comes as a surprise. When the children are sent out to hunt for an antelope with their AK-47s, and stumble across a Shabia patrol, none of the children’s rifles work, because Awet has removed their ammunition. There’s no clue she was planning this, no indication in her character arc that she would contemplate such an act.
Despite this, Heart Of Fire is mostly an excellent film. Letekidan Micael impresses as Awet, and Daniel Seyoum also stands out as Mike’ele. Sadly, the Eritrean occupation and civil war is not something which is widely known in the west. Many people probably have no idea where Eritrea actually is – it’s on the Horn of Africa, with a coastline on the Red Sea. And a story of fractious Marxist guerrillas fighting each other instead of their common enemy is, equally sadly, not uncommon.
Nor are child soldiers unknown – around 300,000 children are currently fighting in armed conflicts worldwide. By personalising these events and facts through presenting them as the story of Awet (the story’s origin as Mehari’s memoir notwithstanding), Heart Of Fire makes for an entertaining, educational, thought-provoking and often heart-breaking film. Some of the best films of recent years have been North African in origin. Heart Of Fire is yet another one.