Lights, Camera, AIDA!
Born and bred in the Flamingo area in Addis Ababa, Aida Ashenafi is the middle-child from three and the only girl. Naturally, she was “daddy’s little girl”. Growing up during Derge, it really made a difference to have positive, understanding, supportive, “awesome parents,” Aida said. They were divorced for as long as she can remember, and they were very loving, co-parenting as friends.
The father, a Giorgis soccer player who was also part of the National Football Team, later worked with Ethiopian Airlines, Al Italia, and was an entrepreneur. A “work hard, play hard” type, Aida feels she genetically inherited that character from him, building a very social house hold. Growing up, many people were always in the house; lots of parties with interesting individuals and entertainers such as Mohammed Ahmed, Tilahun Gessesse, and Kuku Sebsebe. Aida’s mother came from a more conservative family background. Their mother in leadership with British Airways, the family visited different countries every summer. They had stimulating exercises such as each child sitting alone at a restaurant and ordering items on their own while considering their given budget.
Aida went to boarding school at 8 years old in Iowa, U.S., and attended high school at boarding school in Massachusetts. After Ithaca College., Aida worked in New York City from 1993 to 1998. Following her first big movie, she bought a house in and moved to Costa Rica for a year.
It is clear to Aida what drew her attention to film and when it happened. In high school, she was part of the team creating videos of the seniors. It was the first time she actually made a film and loved it. A guidance counselor shared if she was serious about it as much as she enjoyed it, it could become her career. At that point, Aida changed her college applications’ focus to film schools. While she loves the arts and received a triple major—Film, Photography, and Art History—Aida said she is “very much a math person…I love numbers…a producer does a lot of math.”
Cultural confines do exist, however, and not all immediately saw the value of Aida studying any artistic subject. Because her choices were limitlessly supported by her parents, she had no idea her focuses were unique, daring, and frowned upon. She remembers her Great Aunt Zenebwork Birru, a petite lady, asking Aida’s father, a big man, what Aida was studying. When he answered PHOTOGRAPHY, a huge slap came across his face. It was a learning moment for Aida as not once did anyone ever mention it is a big deal (and thought of as waste of money) to study where she and what she evolved—THE ARTS.
Aida is generally recognized as one of the leading figures in developing the capabilities of the Ethiopian film industry, bringing expertise and professionalism to her projects. Her films have been screened at numerous festivals worldwide and she has produced music videos, shot documentaries and corporate videos. The filmmaker with over 20 years’ experience in the media business in both the United States and Ethiopia started her professional career in NYC working in the music business at Jive Records. In 1995, Aida co-founded Sauce Entertainment, a New York-based production and post-production company. Upon her return to Ethiopia around 1999, Aida joined Cactus Advertising & Marketing. After Cactus, she established Mango Production, a media company that created media strategies and managed corporate communications. She served as Mango’s Managing Director. She is currently an independent creative director.
Aida strongly believes one’s philosophy of life changes with time and age. It is fluid while values are consistent. INTEGRITY, HONOR, BEING YOURSELF being her values, Aida’s philosophy of life today is life is short and every day matters. “If you don’t put yourself in what you do, it does not work. Complete passion and complete dedication is necessary. If you are lucky enough to know what your passion is…and very few people know…your purpose on this Earth…that is not enough. Put in the time and work.”
While difficult to define, success is balance. If one can work eight hours a day and achieve what they want, that is success. Aida feels she has yet to accomplish that. She is proud of YEGNA and the films she created with teams. “I’m good at what I do,” she asserts. A few highlights include her film Guzo and working on a film with Ethan Coen of the legendary Coen Brothers (right after their 1997 Oscar for Fargo). Yes, success with career is something to be proud of, but it has come at the cost of everything. While she feels proud of her commitment to her friends, giving great value to people in her life, Aida reflects on 110-hour weeks for 20 years. “My achievement comes at the loss of a lot of other parts of life.” She took off the last year and half from work.
And then came the baking. “I don’t even like sweets. I’m not a baker,” said Aida. But she recently opened a small business at the International Tennis Club next to Laphto Mall—a dessert shop called ISABELLA’S SWEET TREAT. Isabella is Aida’s 12-year-old daughter. The sweets shop is a result of Aida’s philosophy of working with her (duties such as cooking or caretaking at home) and creating a win-win situation. Stick with her for three years and she assists in establishing a business. She helped open a “Besso bait” business for a past employee. Division of labor is very important and Aida wants all to stick to what they are best at whether at her home or starting and growing a business.
In continuing to give back to the community, Aida has a specific philosophy: focus on the immediate community. She reaches out to her Kebele every so often to see if any women need assistance. She has helped youth go to college. It makes it manageable to give back when we look at our closest surroundings, and it doesn’t take much to make a positive difference in someone’s life. Every September for New Year, she connects with the women who carry wood at Entoto Mountain and gives monetary support to make the celebration more vibrant.
For her success and strength of character, Aida looks to her parents and family as well as inspiring teachers and mentors. Her parents are her role models—her father in social interactions and her mother in having gratitude in being…and taking action…valuing the life that we are given and giving back. Career role models and mentors include Ben Barenholtz, a legendary producer, and Ann Carly, then the senior vice president of artists’ development at Jive Records. Throughout life, having countless “teachers” and mentors—too many to list—Aida said she listens to people and values good advice; many people have given her that.
Leisure time activities for Aida naturally include socializing. She plays tennis and is an avid scuba diver. Diving being her passion, it is the most peaceful activity she is involved in. She said her daughter, Isabella, is the youngest certified scuba diver instructor (at age 10)! Aida loves all things about being in the water…but not the beach.
Aida is most grateful for her daughter. Thankful for many things in life, the fundamental part is having a lovely family. “I feel like one of the luckiest people on Earth! …I never asked God for anything …always stay in gratitude. …I have a lot of love in my life. …A lot of good energy!”
You can inspire or you can make people fear, Aida said about leadership. In her younger days she was harsher, but over the years feels she has become a better, much calmer leader. Partnership with Solome Tadesse (YEGNA) taught her a lot about being a leader. “I don’t have to be a leader if I have a great leader.” A solid leader is OPEN, they HAVE A PLAN, CONFIDENT, INCLUSIVE, and DELEGATES. Identify the right people for specific tasks. In film there are many moving parts; leadership harnesses the different sections to make it cohesive and reach the collective goal. “YOU ARE AS GOOD AS YOUR TEAM.”
To the younger generation, Aida directs: “This notion of when you get older things suck is wrong. You get wiser and you get to filter what is not important. You can have a passion for one thing in life at some point…and it can shift. Change is actually a positive thing. Having kids is really fun.”
Aida was a speaker at AWiB’s monthly program in September 2020 for ART: Film and the Ethiopian Culture. She said the movement is like a hidden gem and should be more visible. There are various media platforms to appear on, and maybe doing a couple commercials could help. Find “supporters” (to pay the membership fee) without the commitment of membership and attending events. How can one not join the movement? This opens it up to men who see the value and want to take action. A report of the activities at every quarter can be shared with supporters.
To all, Aida’s message is not to be so rigid and be open to possibilities. It is important to listen to the Universe. She repeats it takes little to impact another life. “YOU HAVE THE POWER TO CHANGE SOMEONE’S LIFE!”
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