Director of photography and filmmaker, Abraham Haile Biru is since 2007 the head of the Blue Nile Academy, the only cinema school in East Africa.
Here we are at the 63rd Cannes Film Festival. It’s your second time in Cannes; what was the first occasion?
The first occasion was as part of the crew of a film entitled Abouna directed by Mahmat-Saleh Haroun, screened at the Director’s Fortnight. I was invited by ARTE.
How does it feel to be in Cannes, and what brought you here this year?
It feels so wealthy. Everything is so nice, people are relaxed and the lighting is so good. In Ethiopia we have power cuts everyday, so when I see so many lights, I think, can’t we share the light? We don’t have enough power. It’s interesting to be here. I was invited by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs to talk about my school. It’s an opportunity to see if I can get backing from people here.
Is it a good opportunity to make international contacts for the work you are doing in Ethiopia?
Yes. It’s an opportunity to meet people you don’t normally run into. When I’m in Ethiopia, it’s very hard for me to contact them. It’s an opportunity to explain what we need, what we have. I attended a workshop on education. My main point is that rather than having two or three students coming here to France or to Europe, it’s better to send a trainer to Ethiopia. They agreed that it was a good point. They don’t know anything about East Africa, so it’s good that someone was here to explain the situation and to inform them.
In addition to having set up this school, your main activity is that of cinematographer. What’s your experience of being a cinematographer in Africa? What difficulties do you face when shooting? What opportunities are there to work in East Africa, or do you have to go elsewhere to work as a cinematographer?
Most of the time there is no work in East Africa. Ten years ago, we made a very short 35 mm movie backed by South Africa. That was the only one. Normally, I travel to South Africa, to Zimbabwe or to West Africa, which has ties with France – there are a lot of directors living in France, in Paris, which makes it a little bit easier for them to get funding – so I work in Burkina Faso, in Chad, in Niger. I have to leave my region and go south or west and occasionally to central Africa.
But there are occasionally Ethiopian films?
No, there is nothing there. It’s a void. A void in the sense that there’s a lack of knowledge. There are young people who want to make films, who are really talented, but who have no film background. I felt that I first needed to get experience as a director of photography, a DOP, and I have been lucky to work with the very big African directors. I learnt a lot and then I thought that it was maybe time for me to do something to help the youth. In Ethiopia, people criticize the youth a lot, but nobody tells them how to make a film. There are no schools at all, not just in Ethiopia, but throughout East Africa. So I thought, ok, I now have to start a school, for my region, because I don’t want to be old with everyone complaining « he never did anything for the youth ». It’s not good for my morale. So I decided it was time to start a school, which is not easy because cinema, and visual art in general, are very difficult in Ethiopia because the government has other priorities. Also, they suspect that we are up to something against them. It’s not easy, but I have set up a film school called the Blue Nile Film and Television Academy.
Are there inscriptions fees for the students? Is it expensive for them?
They have to pay a fee, otherwise they wouldn’t take it seriously. The courses last ten months, with classes every day. We have scriptwriting and directing, camera and lighting, and editing and sound. They pay approximately 20 to 22 euros a month. Most of them are already in the business, making wedding ceremony films and other such reportages, but they want to become filmmakers. They have an income, they can pay, and it’s not really very expensive.
They graduate after ten months? Can they continue after ten months, because it’s quite short?
You’re right, ten months isn’t enough. It gives them a very basic knowledge, but it’s better than nothing. We couldn’t make it any longer because our place is very small; it’s a private structure. In fact I split my home into the school and the part I live in. It’s a private initiative and I don’t have a big space. But the group is big; we have 23 students for the three subjects. As there’s no space, they have to leave to let the next group come. We don’t have space for one or two-year courses.
Are the teaching staff recruited from abroad, or are they from Ethiopia?
It’s very difficult to find staff in Ethiopia because people don’t have the experience. I found two or three people aged between 55 and 60, who, at the time of the socialist regime, studied in Eastern Europe. When they returned to Ethiopia, they didn’t continue because there was no work in film, so the government placed them in its TV institute, in charge of various sorts of training, but they didn’t work at all in cinema. So they lack practical experience, but they know the theory. So I use them for the theory and I take over for the practical teaching. At times we have been lucky to have people who are working on documentaries or short movies in Ethiopia who I’ve asked to come and give one or two-day workshops. I try to make use of every opportunity there is!
Abderrahmane Sissako’s wife, Maji-Da Abdi, has set up a film festival in Ethiopia. Do you have any connection with this, because film festivals are important for film students?
That’s true. It’s good to have a film festival in Ethiopia because Addis Ababa is the centre of Africa; it is the capital city of Africa because we have the most radios, the most universities, a lot of major organizations, so it’s crazy that we didn’t had a festival till now, but we don’t have that culture. We don’t have a film culture; that’s why. But to my mind, what we need most is to educate young people, rather than have a festival. A festival is a good thing, but the money spent on that festival could be spent on education for the coming three to five years. Once Ethiopian cinema emerges, then a festival would be very good. We don’t have an Ethiopian cinema, but we have a film festival. But it’s good all the same.
Is there no movement, like one finds in some of the surrounding countries where young people take cameras and make their own films?
They do, but the quality is poor because they don’t have the film knowledge, the film background. They are trying, but they haven’t had any training or any film education. They are trying and a lot of people think that it’s good to try, but I don’t agree because trying doesn’t suffice to lead you to the best if you don’t have the knowledge. Not just in Ethiopia, but throughout East Africa, we didn’t grow up with images. There is only one Ethiopian television channel, compared to how many channels in Europe? Youth there are already trained to think visually, to think in pictures. So our problem is that we don’t have that opportunity to see a lot of TV or films. We are very limited in terms of images.
Do any of your students try to make films in this way?
Yes, because in Ethiopia it’s different to other countries; we have movie theatres. There are six or seven big movie theatres in Addis Ababa. That’s not so, for example in Chad, or Niger. So, in the beginning, when young people started making their movies, a lot of Ethiopians were delighted to see them; they were willing to pay to go to see them because they love to see their locations, hear the language, the music, etc. But now they’re like, hello, the quality’s no good, I can’t hear the sound. So there is a market, and we are trying to support these young people who want to make films. They are in the business, so it’s better to support them so they can learn quality and how they can improve their work. We offer training for two types of student: those who are already in the business, and for young people who haven’t had the opportunity yet to produce a movie, but who are talented. We have a selection committee – I’m not a member of it, otherwise I’d get everyone calling me saying « Abraham, I want », or « Abraham, I have a son who wants to come to your school » – a committee who selects the students. When we advertised in the newspaper, in two days we had 550 applications. There’s great demand but we only have places for 23 students.
What job possibilities are there for the students afterwards? Are there openings in television, or do they want to make their own films independently, or to continue to film weddings, etc. but only better?
Those who already filmed the weddings are ready to progress on to making movies. They may continue filming weddings, but at the same time want to move onto movie-making. That’s very important. Hopefully, in the next couple of years, the Ethiopian government will open up television and allow one or two new TV stations. As manpower is lacking in this field in Ethiopia, our students could fill these jobs. Hopefully, they will be private TV channels. Our school isn’t just about film, it’s a film and television academy, so we also prepare students to work in television. Hopefully, they will be able to do both.
Do you have any contacts with people like Haile Gerima, who are living in the United States, but who are still very connected with their country?
Well, the diaspora think that if they are not in the country, nothing will happen. But that’s wrong. You know it’s easier to complain from far away and to say unnecessary things than to do something practical. Rather than complain from abroad, I set up this school because I want to be a part of it, and doing it. I’m trying to change things from within, not from the outside; that doesn’t work. You have to be on the ground, if you are willing, and if you want to change things. You need to be on the inside. And I don’t see that movement from the diaspora, those who have film background. They complain that the quality is bad, but I don’t see them doing anything.
Have the prizes that Gerima’s film Teza won at the Fespaco and other places had any influence on cinema in Ethiopia, on the government’s attitude to film?
It wasn’t a source of pride?
It was. But it’s very difficult. If you want to make something, you need to do a lot of fund-seeking. Your name alone isn’t enough. There are initiatives; there were a lot of young people wanting to make movies before Teza, but as I’ve said, the major problem is knowledge. Young people are very keen, but they don’t know how to go about making a film. So, as filmmakers, we need to support them, and sometimes guide them. It’s good to give them constructive criticism, but not to destroy them.
How did you get your training? How did you get to be one of the best-known cinematographers in Africa?
I studied in the Netherlands, at the Netherlands Film and Television Academy for four years. It’s a good school. I chose camera and lighting. I had no idea when I was in Ethiopia whether I’d be any good at that, but I chose that option because we need technical expertise, like camera and lighting. There are already enough directors! What we lack in Africa isn’t ideas, but technique. So I studied camera and lighting techniques, thinking that I could always evolve on to directing later. I realized that I preferred that aspect, and to support African directors, because most African directors – with the exception of Idrissa Ouedraogo who I also worked with, and who has a very good sense of vision and image – most of them don’t have that knowledge. They have a good sense of storytelling, but not of the visual aspect. So that leaves me quite a free rein to do what I want to do. I’m the one who decides what to do with the light.
How do you see the future? Do you think your school will help talented filmmakers emerge who can represent the country?
I hope so. I’m not expecting to have 23 talent young people, but hopefully in the next three to five years, the world will hear more about Ethiopian cinema than before. If in the next three to five years I have two to three students who manage to make movies and show them in festivals, then I will be the happiest guy in Ethiopia.
You started by talking about the wealth of Cannes. There is a huge gap between the North and the South, which I feel is getting bigger every day. Do you think that the work you are doing can help overcome that gap one day?
Oh, that will be very difficult. Sometimes you realize that having a lot of material things is not what’s really necessary in your life. In Ethiopia we complain because there is not enough food for everyone. People don’t eat three times a day. Sometimes people don’t have shoes. We don’t need to have the big things like you do in the North – that’s too much – just to solve these basic problems. If we can feed our people three times a day, with the efforts the government is making, within twenty years Ethiopia will become a middle class-country. We are working on that. Eating three times a day, everyone having access to electricity, to communications, to radio, these are very simple things, but for us they are major.
Cannes, May 2010///Article N° : 9604