Earth to Society: Women Scientists Exist!!!
Raising an Infant Industry
AWiB is illuminating on art and culture in Ethiopia this month, and as part of this focus a panel discussion was organized last week on September 3rd; the topic: “Film and the Ethiopian Culture.” The panel featured prominent figures in the Ethiopian film scene and talented filmmakers for an in-depth discussion ranging from the origins of Ethiopian cinematography, its current state, and most importantly the nature of its existence. While the discussion revolved around various aspects of the Ethiopian film scene, the most notable discourse was dominated by the looming question, “Is there an Ethiopian film industry?”
Cinema was introduced to Ethiopia only three years after the world’s first film was projected in Paris on December 28, 1895 by the Louis Lumière brothers. After its introduction, it began to grow exponentially, the first documentary shot in 1917 and the first cinemas opening in the late 1920s. The Ethiopian film scene continued its growth throughout the Italian occupation and saw rapid growth during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie only to shrink during the Derg regime. Film production started soon after the fall of the Derg regime and witnessed staggering growth when young filmmakers began to produce documentary and fiction films with the help of digital film making technologies. Currently, Ethiopia is one of the largest film producers in Africa in terms of quantity. It is estimated that, between 2005 and 2015, 600 films were produced in Ethiopia, with 57 feature films also produced in 2018 alone.
Despite robust growth and improvement in recent decades, Ethiopia’s motion picture industry has typically been viewed as poor. Cinematography, while being one of the highest art forms as it consists audiovisual depictions with a detailed approach to storytelling, the mere quantity of its production falls short to be called successful. This takes us to an exploration of the actual quality of Ethiopian films and the factors affecting them.
The reality for many film lovers, including me, is the presiding perception that most Ethiopian films are devoid of sufficient artistic value to deserve attention and ticket prices. Many cinematography enthusiasts see Ethiopian films as something beneath them. While the actual artistic value of Ethiopian films is difficult to comment on, it would be unfair to declare its failures without seeing the whole picture of Ethiopian cinematography.
The situation on the ground is not black and white. Film production and distribution in Ethiopia are hurdled by many problems. There are numerous barriers such as lack of production faculties, poor market organization, and limited government intervention. Filmmakers often cite the lack of government support, a nurturing society, and incentives to invest in productions as problems. The government basically sees cinematography as a luxury and even imposes high VAT and income tax. The relevant government authorities lack both the capacity and commitment to support the struggling industry. While Ethiopia ratified its film policy in 2017— with a special focus on job creation for the youth and gender equality—policy implementation has not started due to a lack of framework to carry out the envisaged measures.
The Ethiopian society in general also lacks the understanding and commitment to nurture the infant industry. Most films face the threat of being stolen and distributed to the public even before they receive a spotlight in cinemas. The same digital technology which gave rise to young filmmakers is presenting problems to the industry. With the fear of theft, filmmakers consciously minimize their costs and maximize commercial appeal, all the while subconsciously forgetting that an interesting story needs to be told.
As with most African countries, Ethiopia has practically no educational or governmental support for the film productions. Despite our country’s rich history in arts, our schools hardly have any film programs. Most Ethiopian films are made by enthusiastic, young people who unfortunately lack the real training and professional contacts needed to succeed in shooting professional films and advancing Ethiopian cinematography. The industry is basically based on talent rather than approached as a professional job. The unprofessional filmmaking structure remains a recurring hurdle for the lack of quality film productions.
In consideration of these and many other circumstances, the answer to the question: “Is there an Ethiopian film industry?” is difficult to answer. Technically speaking, for a given sector to be called an “industry” there needs to be existence of vital constituents, a formal organization between these constituents, a professional code of conduct for carrying out activities, and a recognized structure of production. In light of formal parameters, the Ethiopian film scene does not seem to fulfill the criteria to be referred as an industry.
As highlighted by the panel, the potential for an Ethiopian film industry is huge. There is a large demand for local content and the global audience seeks the untold stories. There are also many existing and rising filmmakers pushing the boundaries. One clear fact is sustained collaboration from different stakeholders is vital for the infant industry to grow. The government needs to positively intervene in form of tax breaks, subsidizing film productions and copyright enforcement. The most important approach in this regard is designing a structural and institutional framework by laying the ground for the creation of a national film commission to oversee the development of the Ethiopian film industry—an institute that ensures our stories are told by us as they deserve. If we give half of the time and commitment we give to our love to watching movies, its only a matter of time until the golden envelope opens and an Ethiopian film is announced in front the world for its cinematic marvel.