AiW Guest: Mike Thomas
Four years after Lindiwe Dovey and Namvula Rennie founded Film Africa in 2011, in association with the Royal African Society (RAS) and SOAS, the 2015 edition of the film festival offered the Ethiopia in Transition strand, consisting of three films – የፍቅር ዋጋው – YäFïqïr Wagäw/Price of Love (dir. Hermon Hailay, 2015), Lamb (dir. Yared Zeleke, 2015) and ዋያይ ዋምቦጦች – Wayay Wambot’och/Red Leaves (dir. Bazi Gete, 2014) – which can broadly be categorised as Amharic-language narrative features.
The word ‘transition’, used to describe Ethiopia in 2015, is usually in reference to the country’s sustained economic growth over the past decade, and the subsequent rapid rate of urbanisation resulting from the government’s ambitious plan to become a middle income nation by 2025. The films presented in the Ethiopia in Transition strand explore the impact of Ethiopia’s economic transition on Ethiopian culture and society, with generational divisions, gendered issues and urban inequalities taking centre stage.
Since Film Africa was established, it too seems to be undergoing a transition, rebranding itself as “Film Africa RAS” in 2013 with RAS assuming sole ownership of the festival. The Film Africa website omits the festival programmes of its first two editions; like the films shown in the Ethiopia in Transition strand, there is a seeming dislocation between past and present.
The urban Israeli setting of Red Leaves, a film which focuses on a Beta Israeli (Ethiopian Jewish) family, touches on themes of social dislocation as experienced in the inequalities of an advanced capitalist
economy. The transitional focus in Red Leaves is predominantly the cultural transition resulting from the mass migration of Ethiopian Jews from Ethiopia to Israel enabled by the Aliyah operations of the 1980s-90s. The narrative tracks closely the life of the elderly Meseganio (played by the legendary Ethiopian actor Debebe Eshetu) as he decides to sell his flat and move in with his children, following the death of his wife. As Meseganio can only speak Amharic and assumes a traditional patriarchal role, he struggles to communicate to his children and grandchildren who are integrated into Israeli culture and society and speak Hebrew at home.
Although set in Israel, Red Leaves also reflects contemporary Ethiopian sociocultural concerns, with generational divides becoming heightened owing to rapid urbanisation, market liberalisation and medical advancements. The film brings into sharp focus the erosion of the traditional family nucleus, with the older generation becoming obsolete and expendable as families grow smaller, more disparate and distant at the hands of self-centred middle income aspirations: the very middle income aspirations at the heart of the growing inequality gap and rapid economic expansion of Ethiopia’s urban centres.
Red Leaves’ examination of the family is executed with a largely mobile camera, able to react with unflinching accuracy in the centre of family meetings as youngsters disrupt proceedings by taking calls on mobile phones, blissfully unaware of the patriarchal hierarchy of the extended family. The camera moves briskly from incident to incident, panning around the members of the family and re-focusing in search of reactions as arguments escalate and spill out of the house, along with the dejected Meseganio. There remain glimpses of respite and impromptu humour, only to be undercut by Meseganio’s ultimate desolation as each of his children severs their relationship with their father – leaving him to drift aimlessly through the unfamiliar Israeli streets. The mobile camera movements intensify the intimacy of the familial scenes, whilst at the same time establishing a subjective point of view, embodying Meseganio’s rejection from his children’s homes.
The New York-based director Yared Zeleke, along with Red Leaves’ director Bazi Gete, represent a new generation of diaspora Ethiopian filmmakers. Compared with Red Leaves’ familial introspection, Yared Zeleke’s first feature Lamb is both the most up-beat and nostalgic of the three films featured in the Ethiopia in Transition strand. The film is largely set in the Simien mountain range in the Ethiopian highlands, revealing a rural world with an altogether alternative perspective and way of life compared to the frantic action of the urban-set Price of Love. The nostalgic setting of the mountain-top gojo (traditional thatch-roofed house with mud walls), at times seemingly perched on top of the clouds and framed in beautiful panoramic shots of rolling canyons and bulging mountains, is perhaps the director’s homage to the country of his birth.
Lamb follows the story of young Ephraim who is forced to live with his uncle’s family after he and his father are left in dire straits following the famine-related death of his mother. Ephraim builds a relationship with his mother’s barren sheep, seeking solace in the sheep’s company and defending the sheep as though it symbolises his last living link with his mother. This relationship poses many difficulties for Ephraim as his uncle insists on slaughtering the sheep for the upcoming feast in celebration of Meskel (Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross).
Gender roles in Ethiopian society are challenged in Lamb; Ephraim’s cousin Tsion proves to be an ambitious and liberal female character at odds with the conservative rural world, as she openly quarrels with her step-mother and shuns domestic duties in her quest for education and female emancipation. Moreover, Ephraim’s inability to drive the ox and plough is seen by his uncle to be unmanly; his aunt and great-aunt, however, support his gift for cooking despite the uncle taking a strong position against the boy doing perceived female work. Ephraim’s great-aunt and matriarch figure, Emama Belinesh (literally meaning “mother you are on top” in Amharic) is admired by the close-knit community, unlike the elderly Meseganio in Red Leaves. Emama Belinesh is judicious as she holds the family together, providing unparalleled wisdom, kindness and understanding. As the materfamilias, she is respected as the elder and takes up a central position in the static frame, almost revered by the other characters surrounding her. Slow zoom-outs and long shots capture a slower and more traditional rural way of living.
Whilst Tsion escapes the slow-paced life of rural Ethiopia by running away to the city, Ephraim stays and is seen to be accepted by the community. Ephraim becomes self-assured after he is universally praised for his cooking in the film’s dénouement, whilst in her absence, Tsion’s future in the city is less assured, highlighting the sociocultural barriers that remain in place for young Ethiopian women.
The gendered barriers faced by young women also resonate within the third film in the Ethiopia in Transition strand: Price of Love. This film similarly takes a particularly gendered perspective in light of the character Fere, a woman trapped between poverty, prostitution and men who want to claim ownership over her. Viewing Lamb and Price of Love in relation to each other casts a pessimistic light on the treatment of young women in contemporary Ethiopia. Like Tsion, Fere also dreams of emancipation, but she believes economic self-reliance can only be attained abroad. Like many would-be migrants, Fere is unaware of the truth behind the crime-fuelled trafficking networks. One cannot help but inscribe the fate of Fere onto Tsion’s narrative as both men and economic poverty remain inescapable in both films.
Price of Love’s narrative follows the protagonist Tewodros (Teddy), an unassuming taxi driver struggling to make ends meet in the hustle and bustle of Addis Ababa. Teddy’s Lada taxi is central to the narrative thrust of the film, as well as offering a mobile platform to frame the urban streets of Addis. Low-angled tracking shots and dashboard shots are used in the opening sequence offering a perspective of urban Addis, alternative to the plush interiors of glass-clad office buildings or modern real estate favoured as the settings in many local Ethiopian productions. Images of the urban outdoors, contrasting the modern ring-roads with cobbled side-streets and 4×4 Toyotas with Soviet-era Ladas, create a binary image of contemporary urban Addis: of economic winners and losers and growing inequalities.
The urban and modernising images of contemporary Ethiopia in Price of Love are also reflected in the most ancient of Ethiopian institutions: the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church. The ancient mysticism often associated with the church is updated as the hybrid architecture of the central church in the film includes both a modern glass façade and traditional domed towers associated with more classical designs. Both the modern and grand architecture of the church’s exterior and the colourful and light interior offer respite from the bustling city streets. The mentorship of the priest, acting as Teddy’s guardian, provides a moral spine throughout the film with the church space and teachings depicting an alternative peace and stability to the hectic insecurities of life on the streets. In a country of high youth unemployment in which neither Teddy nor Fere have a family to fall back on, it is their love for each other and the moral guidance of the church that promises a glimmer of hope and the social security deeply needed by the orphaned Teddy.
The director of Price of Love, Hermon Hailay, is one of the most prominent rising female filmmakers operating in Ethiopia, with Price of Love emblematic of the transition occurring within the rapidly growing film industry in Ethiopia, resulting from Ethiopia’s economic growth. Films are commercially orientated and suited to the desires and anxieties of the growing urban population, with film production and exhibition predominantly situated in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, where locally produced films in the Amharic language dominate the bustling local cinemas. After Hermon’s first two films, ባላገሩ – Balagäru/The Countryman (2012) and ያልታሰበው – Yaltasäbäw/The Unexpected (2013) received both commercial and critical acclaim in Ethiopia, Price of Love marks the director’s first attempt at making a film aimed at both local and global audiences. This ambition follows on from the success of another Ethiopian based filmmaker, Yidnekatchew Shumete, with his film ኒሻን – Nishan (2013) proving a great success in Ethiopia whilst managing to tour African film festivals in Europe and the Americas. These films, which reach out to a broader audience, are of a technically high standard and mark a new wave of aesthetically accomplished filmmaking emerging from the country.
In a time of economic transition in Ethiopia, these three films from directors based in America (Yared Zeleke), Israel (Bazi Gete) and Ethiopia (Hermon Hailay) offer different perspectives on the sociocultural changes Ethiopia is facing and may face in the future. These films come together in the Ethiopia in Transition strand to examine the Ethiopian diaspora, rural/urban dichotomies, gender inequalities and generational divisions, which are central to any contemporary debates regarding Ethiopia’s present situation. All three films engage with and pose social critiques born from alternative settings whilst also embodying not only Ethiopian, but universal ideals exonerating the importance of family and love in the face of adversity.
Mike Thomas is a PhD candidate in the Centre for Film Studies at SOAS. His research focuses on cinema in Ethiopia, with his thesis investigating genre in Amharic language fictional feature films (both digital, video and celluloid films). He served as the Ethiopian film adviser for the 2012 edition of Film Africa, and has been involved various ways in this year’s edition of the Cambridge African Film Festival. Mike has presented papers in conferences in Ethiopia and Europe as well as having scholarly work published in the Journal of African Cultural Studies, Black Camera: an International Film Journal and he has also contributed to the anthology, Africa’s Lost Classics: New Histories of African Cinema (Legenda, 2014), with a chapter discussing Haile Gerima’s 1976 film, Harvest 300 Years.
Film Africa is the Royal African Society’s annual London film festival celebrating the best African cinema from across the continent and diaspora. Established in 2011, every year Film Africa brings diverse London audiences a high quality and wide-ranging film programme accompanied by a vibrant series of events, including director Q&As, talks and discussions; professional workshops and master classes; school screenings and family activities; The Industry Forum; and Film Africa LIVE! music nights. Film Africa also recognises and supports new filmmaking talent through The Baobab Award for Best Short Film.
Africa in Words has been blogging Film Africa since 2013.