Aida Ashenafi’s critically acclaimed film Guzo
(The Journey) will become the first Ethiopian
movie to be shown on Ethiopian Airlines. It is the
same company that provided a sponsorship grant of
It will be one of the venues for the 90-minute
documentary with English subtitles to have its high
profile debut. It was screened in New York City on
August 8, 2009, at the Hellen Mills Theatre and
previously played at the Listener Auditorium at
George Washington University on May 23 and 24, 2009,
in Washington DC.
Directed by a filmmaker trained in the United
States, Aida’s film fascinatingly explores the
disparity of lives in urban and rural Ethiopia. It
was not surprising when it won first place at the
2009 Addis International Film Festival.
The documentary is un-scripted using
non-professional actors. It depicts the hardship of
rural life, taking two young middle class urbanites
from Addis Abeba and having them spend a month in
rural households in the countryside. The result is a
funny and daunting contrast between the “comforts,”
of city life in Addis and the challenges of rural
living only a short distance away.
“It is the Ethiopian version of sticking Paris
Hilton in an Iowa farm,” Samson Mulugeta, a
Johannesburg-based journalist, wrote about the film.
Aida wants her film to show that one can be poor and
at the same time live graciously and dignified.
Yet the documentary has lost money in Ethiopia.
Guzo cost 45,000 Br to produce and lost money
each of the eight times it played at the Ambassador
To Taferi Wessen, one of the founders of the now
defunct Ethiopian Film Corporation, the struggles
local filmmakers go through in Addis hinders serious
filmmakers from getting a chance to have their
productions seen. They simply crowd out what little
venue is available for films to be shown.
“When Aida made her movie she had to show it every
other Thursday because there are not enough
theatres,” Taferi said. “It is very difficult to
find a place to show.”
A private venue at Endna Mall declined to show it in
the Multiplex Theatre, after managers claimed that
it was not the kind of film that attracts an
audience. Later on, they were proven right.
“It has been received fabulously, it just did not
have much attendance,” Aida admitted. The show at
the 1,500-seat Ambassador theatre averaged
attendance of 200 to 300 per viewing. Many who
entered the Theatre were reportedly disturbed by the
screening; some walked out, while others demanded
refund of tickets.
“We actually had to stand in front of the audience
before the movie and announce that it is a
documentary,” Aida told Fortune.
In the United States documentary films like Guzo
will not be on as many screens as high budget
movies but at least they are shown consistently
which gives them a fighting chance to gain
popularity, Taferi commented.
Aida hopes the film will do well in the festival
circuit but she doubts the film will reach a mass
audience. Another way documentaries or low budget
movies have been successful in the US is through
video rentals. Here they have a second chance to
become popular through word of mouth.
However, people here are more reluctant to purchase
or rent DVDs of Ethiopian films preferring to go to
the theatre. When there are not enough quality
theatres or people do not have enough money to go
see a movie it makes it more challenging to have a
film shown, according to Aida. When people do get to
see her documentary she has found the responses to
be overwhelmingly positive.
“If people made it through the first 20 minutes,
they were hooked,” she said.
This is despite the tendency for many Ethiopian
moviegoers unfamiliarity with documentaries and
their tendency to just pick a random movie to go to
when they feel like going out.
For veterans like Taferi, the film industry in
Ethiopia has a long way to go.
Aida’s film was shot on 35mm as opposed to most
Ethiopian films, which are shot on video. This
difference in quality is something that Taferi says
Ethiopian films must do if they want to be taken
“The film industry in Ethiopia is no industry to
speak of,” Taferi said. “Most of the films, shot on
video, look amateur. In addition, the lighting,
sound, make-up and scripts are not professional. . .
I believe there is a great future for Ethiopian
films but it needs to be taken more seriously.”
Henok Ayele, director of the local hit film
Yewondoch Guday, observed Most of the film
makers get experience from working not from
To make the film, Aida brought in a cinematographer
from Los Angeles, because she has had difficulty
finding the skilled workforce to produce quality
filmmaking in Ethiopia. She, Taferi and Henok point
to the lack of movie education facilities to develop
talent as a challenge to the film industry in
“At the Addis Abeba University, they only give two
classes on film production and formats but not on
more advanced stuff,” Henok said. “We need more
knowledgeable and skilled people. We need more and
better film schools.”
Aida remembers during her college years they used to
spend time watching and critiquing movies.
“They do not do that in Ethiopia,” Aida said. “Here
people are trained to be camera people which really
[is not the most vital skill required in
Taferi says Ethiopia has a long way to go before it
can ever hope to produce a film with the
international appeal of the popular Indian films.
“Indian cinematographers are skilled professionals,”
Taferi said. “They have been working for 60 to 70
years developing skilled filmmakers and funding
their film industry . . . most of our films are
third rate versions of soap operas.”
Henok disagrees. He says it is not hard to find good
talent here. Though 90pct of the cast were new
actors, he still feels that a good producer can find
quality actors and filmmakers in Addis. The rather
glaring problem to him comes as a result of many
producers simply picking from the same pool of
actors and fail to really search for new talent that
exists in Addis.
His own film, Yewondoch Guday, suffers from
shortcomings such as entire sentences in the film
that were unable to be heard because of the muffled
Despite issues with quality, he feels that a good
story can still attract mass audiences.
It could be a good story that attracted people to
his movie reports on SHEGER FM claim is the sequel
is the most popular movie currently showing in
Addis. A recent trip to the Edna Mall, one of the
three theatres the movie has been playing at since
March, seems to bear that out. Seeing the crowd
almost six months after the movie opened it is easy
to believe anecdotal reports of shoving matches for
Endale Dante is one of these viewers who told
Fortune he saw the movie three times.
“The Yewondoch Guday films are successful
because they speak to people across class and age,
children and adults,” Henok said.
However, he admits that there must be improvement to
the film industry here to assist in the crossover.
Ethiopian films need subtitles; there are not
sufficient numbers of distribution agencies; and it
is difficult financially to obtain the camera and
format (program) qualities necessary for Hollywood
standard films, according to Henok.
Currently, filmmakers in Addis are working with DV
format, though some companies which can afford it
have HD and HDV.
“Almost no one has the money for Hollywood standard
camera and films,” he said.
Yet, Ethiopia was blessed with another critically
acclaimed movie this year. Last March, Haile
Gerima’s Teza won best film at the 21st Festival of
Cinema and Television of Ouagadougou (FESPACO),
affectionately known as the African Oscar. It won
Special Jury and Best Screenplay awards at the
Venice Film Festival. In the best screenplay
category, Slumdog Millionaire placed second.
also won a Goldan Tanit for best film at the
Carthage film festival and has won awards in 13
other film festivals. However, Slumdog won Best Film
at the American Oscars and became highly successful,
while very few people outside of Ethiopia have heard
It has yet to open in the US, despite the fact that
the director lives and teaches there.
Perhaps it is in response to this that Halie Gerima
is developing an institution to support African
films in Addis. He and four other people, including
his sister Selome have formed Gebbette Entertainment
Information Technology Plc, and are in the process
of constructing a new film production centre. The
four-storey building will house four cinema halls, a
convention centre, and support services for film
production with the goal of attracting Ethiopian and
other African filmmakers to create films which focus
While this investment is a positive first step it
will take financial investment in order to bring
more professionalism to Ethiopian film.
“The government needs to give stronger support,”
Henok agrees here. He wants to see the government
assist the process by developing a film policy and
helping with licensing and copyrights since many
people simply copy films when they go to video.
Taferi argues that the government should give tax
breaks for serious films. Currently the
entertainment tax is about 15pc.
“There is not enough capital to encourage serious
films,” Taferi told Fortune. “People don’t
seem to realize that film can be a lucrative
business but it is very difficult to raise the 100
million Br you need to produce international
standard films . . . currently, most investors are
He may be referring to people like Aida. Smoking a
cigarette on her porch Aida looked pensive. She
talked hopefully about potential filmmaking in
“If we were in the US right now, we would be talking
about what a great shooting environment this is,”