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Can Ethiopian Films Take Off?

 
 

 

 
 

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 250,000 Br.
 

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 Theatre.
 

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 seriously, internationally. 

 

“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 training.
 

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 Ethiopia.
 

“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 moviemaking].”
 

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 sound recording. 
 

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 seats.
 

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.
 

Teza 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 of Teza.
 

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 on Africa.
 

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,” Taferi said.
 

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 small businesspeople.”
 

He may be referring to people like Aida. Smoking a cigarette on her porch Aida looked pensive. She talked hopefully about potential filmmaking in Addis. 

“If we were in the US right now, we would be talking about what a great shooting environment this is,” she said.

 

 
 

By Eric Epp - Special to Fortune

 
 
 
 
 
 
   
   
   
 
 
 

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