ART: Film and the Ethiopian Culture RECAP

Every September, AWiB’s monthly event focuses on ‘Art.’  Film and the Ethiopian Culture was explored Sept. 3, 2020.  Filmmaking in Ethiopia has had its start, its pause, and is being reignited.  While the technical aspect has seen major improvement, the plots are in need of major development.  Still, many movie theatres around the capital offer Ethiopian films that people flock to watch.

AWiB invited four panelists—Aida Ashenafi, Hiwot Admassu, Ermias Woldeamlak and Zelalem Woldemariam—to discuss the topic.  Before the program, the event’s sponsor Dashen Brewery had representatives promote their new product.  Brand Manager Mahder Lakew introduced Lucy Malt, a non-alcoholic drink with no added sugar.  It is 100% natural with ingredients such as minerals and vitamins.  Since it is non-alcoholic, it has no age limit or religious restrictions.  Mahder mentioned this product hasn’t been launched yet but will be announced soon.

Moderator Felekech Zewde, AWiB’s 2020 President, introduced the panelists and asked them to give short overviews of themselves including their work.

Ermias is a professional filmmaker specialized in script writing, producing, and directing both for documentary and feature films.  He has over 23 years of experience.  Ermias graduated from Addis Ababa University in English language and literature.  He worked for the Ethiopian Film Corporation for five years as a documentary script and narration writer.  Even though he hadn’t planned on joining the film industry, Ermias ended up loving the art form.

When Ermias first started, he couldn’t find proper film equipment needed for broadcasting.  Equipment was scarce and not located in one area, so it was very difficult to produce films.  Nigeria and South Africa contribute millions every year to their country from their film revenue.  Our film industry is practically nonexistent including financial contributions.  To be its own “industry” it has to have an enterprise network.  What we have now is fragmented and individualistic.  We have to focus and work hard to have a formidable industry.  Still, our film industry has created numerous of job opportunities for young people.

Aida is a filmmaker with over 15 years’ experience in the media business in both the United States and Ethiopia.  The film industry became her passion ever since she was in college.  Even though the Ethiopian film quality wasn’t as great as in the US, she was dedicated to produce excellent quality movies.  Aida has worked in Ethiopia producing music videos, shooting documentaries and corporate videos for a variety of local and international clients.  Her most known project in Ethiopia is with Yegna (Girl Effect/Nike Foundation).  Yegna project is a successful brand set up by several specialists and contains talented people in each department (sound mixer, make-up artist, costume designer, etc). According to Aida, Yegna succeeded because it was made up of the most creative people in Ethiopia.

Aida agreed with Ermias with regard to the lack of “industry” and added that we need distribution of responsibility.  Specialists are necessary, not just one person with knowledge of a variety of positions; it isn’t impossible juggling the work, but experts ease the job load and complete it well.  It was fascinating to Aida that in Ethiopia someone can go directly to a producer or management position without any experience.  In New York, to be a cinematographer one needs to have at least 10 years of experience, starting from the bottom and working up.  She mentioned a saying, “You can’t build a house without knowing how to place a brick,” which indicates you have to know the “how” before beginning.  Aida acknowledged that films are technically better now than when she started, but there is still a long way to go.

Hiwot Admasu studied electrical and computer engineering before joining the Blue Nile Film Academy.  She has directed short films and documentaries.  Hiwot was fascinated with film ever since she was a little girl.  She used to perform in church theatres and fell in love with it.  Hiwot was very good in physics and math and decided to major in engineering.  One day, she went to a film scene and was more interested in what was happening behind the camera instead of up front.  That’s when she decided she would rather be in the film industry.

Having worked on different projects, Hiwot’s biggest one was Yegna.  She said film is the most advanced and expensive art form since it encompasses image, sound, personnel, and more.  Hiwot mentioned film in Ethiopia is censored to only show the positive side.  This is problematic since films aren’t showing the reality of our situation. But filmmakers have to risk undesirable responses from the society and include the negative side as well.

To have a good understanding of what a quality movie would look like, Hiwot suggested watching a variety of movies.  Her perception of film changed when she started watching movies in black and white.  She also enjoyed watching Iranian and African movies because they were more relatable than films from Hollywood.  Hiwot said to be a great storyteller, one has to be able to write well; write over and over until there’s a great story to present to the audience.

Hiwot had different mentors guide her in her journey, two of which were on the panel:  Zelalem and Aida.  Up-and-coming filmmakers need people like her and the panelists in their corners.  Hiwot stressed on the need for mentorship because there aren’t proper film schools in Ethiopia.  Hiwot herself has sent interested youth to film festivals and introduced them to international filmmakers.  In February 2020, she took three filmmakers to Berlin.  She told the audience to get in touch with her if they’re interested in taking a similar path and urged everyone to use their connections.

Zelalem Woldemariam is CEO and Chief Creative Director of Zeleman Communications, Advertising and Production PLC.He has participated in countless world-renowned film festivals including Cannes.  Ever since he was in elementary school, Zelalem has always loved storytelling.  He even recalled being eager to tell a story to his whole class.  Despite his love for the art, he graduated in management and worked with different companies until he saved enough money to present a feature film at the Cannes Film Festival.  This festival opened his eyes and showed him the film industry is vast.

Zelalem agreed with Hiwot, stating since there aren’t film schools, he had to get information from people, online and any sources he could find.  When one is interested in this field, one has to work tirelessly to be the best not only on one’s own, but clearly communicating the vision with a team to make it reality.  Working in film is very draining, Zelalem stated.  He recalled a time when he worked 16 hours a day for a month straight.  His interest then shifted to commercials, which he described as short versions of storytelling.  To make his advertisements stand out from the rest, he first studied human interaction.  He uses this knowledge to produce unique commercials that keep viewers entertained.

Zelalem has produced movies that have had international recognition and produced case studies for film schools.  He stated that even though Ethiopia is not ready to produce a Hollywood-style movie – technical aspects like lighting, location, and the like— it can produce an Oscar worthy story.

  1. What’s the revival for the Ethiopian Film industry?

Ermias stated the way stories are told these days are worrying to him because there are repetitions.  The producers will cast a famous person in their movie no matter how horrible the script, and cinemas fill up.  The managers of cinemas only care about filling the seats, not the quality of the movie.  He gave an example by sharing with the audience that the movie “Teza / ጤዛ” was shown in several cinemas all over the world.  When he wanted to show it in Ethiopian cinemas, however, the managers didn’t believe the movie would bring in enough people, so they scheduled it at inconvenient times (Eg. Tuesday during work hours)

Ermias believes Hiwot’s movies will inspire younger generations because she cares about quality.  It is important to find young people interested in film and help them.  In order for the film industry to grow, passionate people who only produce unique and interesting movies are needed.  Ermais said in Ethiopia, people don’t know what it takes to be a professional.

Aida added being professional starts by setting rules in your own circle and having discipline.  Focus on the parts instead of the whole all at once.

Zelalem said filmmaking needs discipline.  He gave an example of how an athlete needs to have discipline in order to practice and win the race.  People need to learn that they need to compete with themselves to keep improving.  You get discipline from family, friends and your environment.  If you don’t experiment, exercise and execute, you will not succeed.  He noted Ethiopia’s education system should include film classes so that Ethiopia has talented people joining the industry.  He mentioned that we are going backward with film.  We need to start from scratch and reconstruct this industry.  We have to take time and work hard to be the best.  He added that he has a lot of foreigners working for his company because of the lack of talent from locals.

  1. What is the economic impact of the film industry to the nation?

Ermias: In Ethiopia, we have to look for alternative source of finance.  Corporations and organizations should be involved, too.  They can be sponsors.  For the industry to grow the government has to be involved and create policy with regard to the quality of filmmaking.

Aida agreed adding if companies, organizations, and government entities are in it for the profit, they won’t get it—at least not immediately.  She suggests they sponsor films for the journey.

  1. Is specialization important? What are your comments on the way women are being represented in film?

Ermias: Unless there is specialization, the industry cannot grow.  Women in film have a bad representation.  He gave an example of a teeth cleaning commercial that, to him, clearly shows the man harassing the woman; but this commercial has been shown for years.  He stated women really need to fight to be represented the right way.

Zelalem: Film is a representation of the filmmaker’s point of view.  People produce a film as a reflection of their reality to some extent.  This might be what is actually happening but could also be an exaggeration.  He emphasized the need for specialization.  Yes, it’s good to be knowledgeable but it is necessary to specialize and become the best at what you do.  That’s how quality work is produced. Zelalem added the way films are made is changing nowadays. In the past, producers cared about the look of the actors; now they’re shifting to the personality of the characters.

  1. We do not see strong women in films. What can people do to change that?

Hiwot: First, we need to have enough women filmmakers, story writers who portray women in every aspect of life.  We need to nurture and train women storytellers.  In the past, our culture portrayed women as weak and incapable.  But culture keeps changing.  Hiwot said she makes films that represent her point of view not what culture has limited filmmakers to produce.

Aida added that the only way to represent women in all shapes and forms is to have more voices.

  1. Have you converted books to movies? Are your movies publicly available?

Aida:  It has always been her dream to adapt some Amharic books into movies, but it is very difficult to get the copyrights.  The law is you have to wait for the author’s death plus 70 years after that before the script is available for the public.

Ermias: It’s tricky to adapt a book into a movie because you have to cut out several parts and convert into movie style.  There’s so much cutting sometimes that the writers won’t feel it’s their work anymore.  They won’t appreciate the finished movie.  Regarding movie availability, Ermias said he can share his short film, “The father,” which has won several awards internationally.  He also has documentaries online.  He is currently working on a movie called “Red terror/White terror,” based on personal experience.

Zelalem: You can find a few of my films that have been in festivals online.

  1. Is it possible to have movie critics? What can we do when we see women in films being misrepresented?

Hiwot: We can have critics but they have to know the craft.  Critics should be trained to be unbiased.  They have to be watching a lot of movies to know what to criticize and become film experts.

Zelalem: To stop misrepresentation of women, the public has to comment on different platforms to create awareness.  Zelalem mentioned he doesn’t hire women to belittle them.  He looks at talent, not gender.  This is how we begin to change the narrative around women.  His company, Zeleman Productions, has about 75% women employees and almost all head of departments are women.  Since he focuses on quality, his work is of good quality.

In her closing speech our moderator asked the panelists if “Ethiowood” was a possibility.  She quickly answered her own question by stating that from this discussion, Ethiopia is nowhere close.  We can be on our way with everyone’s support because filmmaking is a team effort.  It requires specialization, attention to detail, and discipline to do the work right.  We all need to have a higher expectation and standard for the work.  Filmmakers should compare themselves locally and internationally.  That is when you find out what you’re truly capable of.  Most importantly, our culture and women are regularly misrepresented.  To create change, there have to be people who speak out on injustice.  We can voice our opinions not by bashing the producers or movies but by giving them a very critical briefing.  If the major players in the film industry can come together and train a few people to be expert movie reviewers, the audience can pick a movie to invest their time in and watch.  We all have to aim higher and demand an evolution of the film industry—not only the audience but the directors, producers and other players in the business.  Our moderator thanked the speakers, audience and our sponsors for attending the event and presented the speakers with gift bags to thank them for imparting their journey.

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