Ethiopian Cinema today

Olivier Barlet speaks with Ethiopian Filmmakers : Yamrot Nigussie, Hiwot Admasu Getaneh, Hermon Hailay, Adanech Admasu and Debebe Daniel Negatu

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Encounter at the 67th Cannes Film Festival with Ethiopian Filmmakers (project « Adis to Cannes »).

O.B. : What brings you together in Cannes?
Organisation : A program brought by two associations called EFI (Ethiopian Film Initiative) and IEFTA (International Emerging Film Talent Association). It gives the opportunity to Ethiopian filmmakers to come here in Cannes, in order to connect with filmmakers, producers, and to get distribution. It is an initiative to get the Ethiopian films to reach the international market and to raise the awareness towards Ethiopian filmmakers.
O.B. : To raise international awareness to the fact that there is an Ethiopian cinema?
Organisation : Absolutely.
O.B. : This is the third edition of the program.
Organisation : Yes, but this year is special. It’s the first time that a girl comes to the Cannes Film Festival. We have four girls here this year, and that’s good.
O.B. : There were only men before?
Organisation : Yes, there were six men, this year is different. This was very exciting for us. So many women applied, we actually got more women than men this year. That had never happened before. So far they have had amazing feedback concerning their projects. Hermon has made three films, she’s working on her short film and she’s also preparing another feature, preparing her transition from documentary to narrative. There’s a great variety of filmmakers. So it is great for them to see how distribution and financing works. It’s been very eye-opening for them, I think.
O.B. : Do you think that Ethiopian filmmaking has the possibility to reach the international market? Would you say it’s a local production or rather an international production?
Organisation : I think it’s both. You have to have local support in order to grow internationally. And they worked really hard to get that, and the next step is to grow internationally. It’s a natural outgrowth of where they’re going as filmmakers.
O.B. : Yamrot Nigussie, you made documentaries, television dramas and you are working on a film about a 22 years old Ethiopian housemaid returning from a harsh working environment in Saudi Arabia. Why that topic?
Y.N. : It is a role model for our country, because most girls go to Saudi Arabia, experience and then come back to their country.
O.B. : Is it a big problem in your country ?
Y. N. : Yes.
O.B. : Your film seems deeply rooted into reality. Is it a documentary, docu-drama or a fiction?
Y.N. : It is a docu-drama.
O.B. : You made documentaries and dramas for the television. What is your style, and what is your favourite subject?
Y.N. : I did documentaries on several organisations and their activities. And I also directed and produced television dramas focusing on social problems, such as corruption, HIV, AIDS. All of these were produced by our production company.
O.B. : Is it possible to direct movies in Ethiopia today about corruption? It’s not a problem to show corruption on TV?
Y.N. : No, it’s not a problem. I produced these dramas jointly with the government organisation.
O.B. : There is no censorship?
Y.N. : No, there isn’t.
O.B. : Hiwot Admasu Getaneh, you have an « experimental approach ». What does that mean?
H.A.G. : I teach myself the art of filmmaking, I experiment when I shoot films, and I try to learn things in the process. The short film project that I brought here is going to be my next project.
O.B. : It is about Selam, a 13 years old girl who’s discovering her sexuality against the backdrop of a very conservative society.
H.A.G. : This short movie is a tale of coming of age, and is mostly about Selam. She’s 13 and she lives in a rural area. One morning she discovers her sexuality and she has to understand what it is she is feeling. In the community, no one helps her. As a consequence, she has to fight, because she is expected to be a nice and reserved girl. The film shows her struggle in the process of accepting her femininity.
O.B. : It is a really intimate subject, but really social as well.
H.A.G. : Exactly. It is daring, and it is very personal for me, because it is inspired from my own experience: in Ethiopia you are not allowed to show any sign of sexuality at the age of 13, or at any age at all. So I want to celebrate this beautiful change in a woman’s life. That is why I’m making this film.
O.B. : Hermon Hailay, your are one of Ethiopia leading female filmmakers and writers. Can you tell us a little more about that? About your background?
H.H. : You know, I’m a filmmaker. This is my dreamwork, I love filmmaking, and I spent the last 10 years doing that. I filmed two feature films, which have been released in the local market, and I am working on the third now.
O.B. : For a filmmaker, it is already a career. You began filming a long time ago?
H.H. : Yes, when I was a teenager. After high school I went to a theatre school and I had some training in camera filming and movie editing in Addis Ababa. Then I made short dramas for Ethiopian television. And eventually I made feature films.
O.B. : So your third project is a feature film which tells us the story of a young Addis Ababa taxi driver who gets caught up in the dark side of love, causing his taxi to be stolen. What is the « dark side of love »?
H.H. : It means that sometimes love mixes with your life, with your background. The main character is born from a prostitute mother. Because of that he was in the dark side of love. He has grown up with that image of prostitution life. He has not the brightest image of love. And more, he’s struggling to survive since his mother’s death. He’s driving a taxi for a living, the small kind of taxi that you can find in the city. To him, his taxi is his life. During his work, he meets a beautiful prostitute and he falls in love with her. But because of her his taxi is stolen. So they are stuck together in the quest for his taxi.
O.B. : So « the dark side » means that you are no longer in control?
H.H. : Yes. He has to save her if he wants her to be his wife, or even girlfriend. That’s the dark side of love.
O.B. : Adanech Admasu, you are known as one of the most experienced female documentary film directors. Can you tell more about that?
A.A. : Yes, I come from a documentary background. I focus on social issues since 7 or 8 years now. My teacher was from BBC Yorkshire TV. I am really interested by woman issues because of my background. I made movies about mutilation, early marriage, health issues, HIV and more. I am more interested in documentaries and docu-drama. My new project is based on a true story as well. I am looking for money to develop. I want to work with professionals from cinema this time. I went to Nairobi and in the Maasai Mara, where I met a Maasai woman named Helen Nukrea. It is based on her story. When she was 9 she has been genitally mutilated. When she was 10, her family forced her into marriage. She ran away and sought shelter in the catholic church. She begged because she didn’t want to be married, let alone to be a mother. The European catholic church helped her. The church even gave her family, who was expecting money from the man Helen married, a cow to compensate the « loss ». Catholic church sent her in a boarding school, and when she finished her boarding school, she went back to her village. This story inspired me a lot. I tried to dramatise it, and I was successful, even though I worked on it by myself. This woman has been a sort of woman ambassador all over the world, she is not selfish. She has started from scratch to help her community. She works as a teacher, she built a kindergarten and a primary school. She is very aware of girls and women issues and she fights to help them. Now, even the government supports her. She is important not only for me or for Ethiopia, but globally. She is a very passionate woman. She does not have any children, she does not even own a house. She is just happy to live, and she is really proud about her Maasai culture. So I am looking for a good screenwriter to work on her story.
O.B. : Daniel Negatu, you are an experimental award-winning filmmaker. Your project is about a young Ethiopian man who is forced to come back in his home country. Could you first tell us which award you won ?
D.N. : I started filming 4 or 5 years ago. Originally I am the co-founder and participatory project manager for a project called Sudden Flowers. It basically was made to help HIV orphans from 8 to 18. The kids were traumatised by the loss of their parents to the HIV virus. So the main idea of the Sudden Flowers project was to use photography and video as a psychosocial therapy to help them, and encourage them to share their stories through these two medias. As a result, I produced three documentaries. One was called Fighting With Father, which received a Harvard fellowship, called the Bridge Builder’s fellowship. So I had to go to the Harvard university and present my films. The Harvard film archive also bought a copy of the film, and it then went on a tour in various universities. Then I received another award in a film festival for a short that I made, called I Witness. Some of my films were also screened at the Rotterdam International Film Festival, at the 3 Continents Film Festival or at Paradiso, here in France.
O.B. : And what is your project connected with this program?
D.N. : I am pitching a feature length drama here in Cannes. I call it Autofocus. It is a story that begins and ends in 24 hours and it tells the story of Sinichaw, an Ethiopian man in his late twenties who is forced to come back to Ethiopia after living abroad for more than 20 years. He steps outside of Addis Ababa airport with just his backpack and 500 dollars in his pocket and he tries to make it to the city he hasn’t seen for more than 20 years. I plan to explore the developing state in which Addis Ababa is right now, but it is also a story about confronting and accepting your past, identity and the need to belong.
O.B. : Thank your very much. Changing subject, do young Ethiopian filmmakers have the opportunity to connect, to work together, not only for this project, but more generally?
D.N. : We connect as much as we can, but I think it is not as much as we would like to. I knew Hermon before this program, I also had the opportunity to work with Adanech on a couple of documentaries, but that’s about it. We do not collaborate as much as we want to, but every now and then we meet up on projects.
O.B. : There is no special organisation?
Y.N. : There are some initiatives. New filmmakers who discuss weekly, there are some schools as well. We can also mention the Ethiopian Film Association, producers association. But it is a new industry in Ethiopia, it is nothing like here. We still have to do a lot of work: we need to have connections with international filmmakers, film festivals. We are doing things on a local scale, but we need the international exposure.
O.B. : I remember when I was a jury at the Nairobi Film Festival about 10 years ago. There were Ethiopian interesting feature films. Cinema is not that new in Ethiopia.
Y.N. : Yes, it started more than 50 years ago, but everything had stopped because of the political issues in the country. Cinema didn’t grew step by step, we have to catch up.
O.B. : So you are the New wave?
D.N. : Yes, we are the New wave (laugh). It is a new generation of filmmakers. There is no celluloid, there is no film laboratory in Ethiopia, no 35mm camera, so we use mostly digital cameras to produce our films.
O.B. : Do you have many possibilities to show your films in Ethiopia? I mean are there cinema theatres, if yes, are they interested in Ethiopian films?
H.H. : We have a big audience in Ethiopia: 80 million people, and they love their language and figures. There is also a lot of diaspora, so we have the possibility to show our films to Ethiopian people living abroad, there clearly is a market, yes.
O.B. : And what about the cinema theatres? Because there are many African countries in which there are no theatre anymore.
H.H. : We have theatres, and they prefer to screen local films, rather than international productions. It is very good for us.
A.A. : Two or three years ago, only the government was helping us. But now, investors as well are interested in the cinema industry, and they opened four or five cinema halls, so we get the chance to screen our films there.
O.B. : You have a quite important film festival now in Addis Ababa, is it an opportunity for you to meet and have workshops, or is it just to show the films?
H.A.G. : Everything is new in Ethiopia, we are just at the beginning. There still are a lot of limitations, even in terms of movie quality. So we still have a lot of work.
O.B. : There also is a film school called Blue Nile, run by Abraham Haile Biru. You graduated from there. How was it?
H.A.G. : It was very interesting. What we do there is not really study, rather experimentation. We make short films, starting from 30 seconds to 8 minutes. It is more about practical learning. Abraham Haile is a very good cinematographer from whom I learned a lot. The school brings filmmakers from abroad and they give short terms courses. The course is only one-year-long, and we have to learn everything during that time, so it is mostly practical. It is a very good school. It gives courses for directors, screenwriters, cinematographers and editors. There are 30 people maximum in that school in one year, including each department. I can say that I am here today because of Blue Nile. I knew nothing about filmmaking before that.
O.B. : Does Abraham still work there? Is he still engaged in the process?
H.A.G. : Yes, he also organises a film festival called Colour of the Nile, which is a good platform.
O.B. : I did an interview with him in 2010 here in Cannes (cf. [entretien n°9604]), he was the cinematographer of Mahamat-Saleh Haroun. Would you say that there is something in common between your works? Some trend in your way of filming and in the thematics that you choose?
Organisation : Here, we are focusing on the program: Daniel’s film is about immigration, the girls focus rather on women problems. There are things in common, but it is not really similar.
A.A. : You can’t ignore your country’s problems. We are born there, we have grown up with those problems. So now that we are filmmakers, we tend to address those problems. That is our duty. We find inspiration from our lives, maybe you can call that a trend.
D.N. : All of us come from different backgrounds, all of us handle filming differently. So each one of us defines his own way. Our common goal here, but also with other filmmakers in Ethiopia, is that we want to give positive stories. Ethiopia is not just about droughts and bad news. It is up to Ethiopian filmmakers to balance that image and to show what is good and what is positive about Ethiopia.
Organisation : Each filmmaker here has a very distinct eye and a very distinct way of telling stories. None of them are the same, they might deal with similar subjects, but the way they tell the stories and the way they film is very different from one another. It is beautiful to see that not everybody is doing the same kind of shots, or using the same kind of camera. They have a different way of approaching filmmaking, and each of them is developing his very own unique style.
O.B. : Your projects, even though you said you have to address the problems of your country, seem to carry hope. This might be at least part of the role, of the function of cinema in Ethiopia. Daniel, what is it that you want to do next in your filmmaker’s career?
D.N. : I want to continue along the path of becoming a positive voice for Ethiopia and the rest of Africa. We grew up with a lot of positiv stories that our grandparents told us. And I think cinema is a natural extension of that. We want to bring light on those positive stories. That is my biggest inspiration and also my biggest challenge as an African filmmaker.
A.A. : I have a personal responsibility to change my community. I am the one that can tell the world about my country. I am the only one able to tell my story. No one can tell it. This is a great opportunity. Especially as an African women, we have responsibilities, we are the one to tell these stories, we can make things change.
H.A.G. : I am more a personal filmmaker. So in the future, I would like to tell my own stories, and maybe in those stories people will find things to learn from and to understand. I want to show how I see the world.

///Article N° : 12287


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