Ethiopia: women blow up Ethiopian film industry


Among the many stories about Ethiopia’s long and multifaceted past and present, one extraordinary transformation that has received less media attention is the leap forward of its film industry. Prior to 2004 Ethiopia only produced a few films every now and then. But in 2015, nearly 100 new locally produced feature films were released each year in theaters in its capital, Addis Ababa.

Behind the rise of Ethiopian cinema lies an even more remarkable story of women who – as writers, directors, producers and academics – have been at the forefront of this transformation. The prominent role of women in the industry can set Ethiopia apart from most other countries. All over the world, from Hollywood to Bollywood, the film and television industries have been dominated by men.

During frequent visits in recent years, I have met some of Ethiopia’s greatest filmmakers as well as professors of film and theater history at Addis Ababa University. They are well aware of what the film industries are like in other parts of the world and point out that Ethiopia, too, is not a paradise for women. Sexism and gender disparities in financing and lending to entrepreneurs remain pervasive, despite the country’s constitution banning discrimination. And although no agency in Ethiopia has analyzed the issue of gender in the media industry, my own informal survey of the lists of licensed films from the Addis Ababa Culture and Tourism Bureau indicates that gender ratios are similar to those in the United States.

What is different in Ethiopia is the influence and success of women in the world of cinema. In a highly competitive industry where many people never make more than one movie, women have always enjoyed more lasting success as screenwriters, directors and producers. Films directed by women have tended to do better at the box office and have won numerous trophies at the country’s annual Gumma Film Awards.

Many of the “premieres” in Ethiopian cinema history have been made by innovative women. After the nation moved away from the Derg regime, under which film and television were funded and controlled by the government, the first person to risk privately funding an independent film was Rukiya Ahmed, starring Tsetzet (directed by Tesfaye Senke on U-matic in 1993) about a detective solving a murder case.

Later, one of the first films to switch from celluloid to video was Helen Tadesse’s Yeberedo Zemen. She had originally conceived the film as a sitcom for Ethiopian television, but, after a contract dispute, decided to re-edit the episodes as one film. In 2002, it was the first Ethiopian film shot on VHS to be shown in a movie theater, and it sparked a revolution in the country’s film industry.

With the switch from celluloid to VHS, then to digital cinema, local film culture has exploded, with more and more numerous and diverse films. Many women seized the new opportunities to follow Tadesse’s example, and a number quickly became industry leaders.

One of those leaders is Arsema Worku, a board member of the Ethiopian Film Producers Association, which lobbies on behalf of the filmmakers. In addition to being an actress, Arsema Worku has written, directed and produced films for theatrical release. Her most recent feature film is Emnet (2016), about a married woman who feels trapped in running the house and looking after her baby all day and dreams of an exciting career.

One of Ethiopia’s most prolific and successful directors is Kidist Yilma. His popular film Rebuni (2015) won Ethiopia’s most prestigious award, Gumma. It is about a young woman, Adey, who is fighting to protect her grandfather’s small farm from being taken over by a company. Despite all the success of Rebuni, she told me, when I met her with her husband, actor Amanuel Habtamu, that the film that matters most to her is Meba, a film that plunges the audience into their heads. of a schizophrenic patient in a psychiatric hospital.

Based on a true story, Diffret dramatizes the kidnapping of child brides in rural areas by focusing on the trial of a young girl who shot her future husband in self-defense. Four years after the film’s release, lawyer and women’s rights activist Meaza Ashenafi, who inspired the film’s heroine, became the first woman to be appointed president of Ethiopia’s Federal Supreme Court.

In a highly competitive industry where many people never make more than one movie, women have always enjoyed more lasting success as screenwriters, directors and producers. Films directed by women have tended to do better at the box office and have won numerous trophies at the country’s annual Gumma Film Awards.

Men and women in the film and media industries have often worked together to tackle difficult and important topics such as illness, domestic violence, mental illness, and conflict between rich and poor. For example, one film that has won awards at international festivals is The Price of Love (2015), the third film written and directed by Hermon Hailay. This brutally honest portrayal of the life of a prostitute explores human trafficking and the darkness of city life. Before writing the screenplay, Hermon researched her topic, spending weeks getting to know some of these women, which may be why the movie looks so shocking in reality.

Ethiopia is a diverse country of more than 80 ethnic groups. Most filmmakers, regardless of their mother tongue, make their films in Amharic, the national language taught in schools across the country. However, some also choose to make films in their own language such as Tigrinya, Afan Oromo or Somali.

Women have shaped the industry in other ways as well. Until 2014, Ethiopian TV stations tended to produce their own content – mostly news and some drama series – and there was little connection between the film industry and television. But an entrepreneur named Feven Tadesse envisioned a different way of doing things. She created the first Ethiopian TV show to not only broadcast new locally produced movies, but also to discuss them. Viewers can vote for their favorite movies via SMS. Tadesse’s company, Maverick Films, has also produced two films, including Gumma Award-winning Lomi Shita, which is a complex and multifaceted reflection on Ethiopia’s history and identity.

All of these filmmakers have had different experiences and offer different perspectives on the position of women in the industry. Some consider themselves feminists, others not. Some have had mostly positive experiences in the industry, but others do not feel supported. And some heralds from diverse international backgrounds, such as New York-based Mexican Ethiopian filmmaker Jessica Beshir, whose short documentaries offer poetic portraits of life. The reality on the ground is complicated and it is changing.

Ethiopia’s diverse civic and academic venues are positively contributing to change by fostering debate on gender representation. For example, the Alatinos Filmmakers Association has provided a forum where aspiring filmmakers can meet, debate and share their work. Another organization called Sandscribe has organized free film classes for the public. The University of Addis Ababa, which occupies the grounds of one of the former palaces of Ethiopia’s last emperor, Haile Selassie, launched a new master’s program in filmmaking in 2014.

Eyerusalem Kassahun, professor of theatrical arts at the University of Addis Ababa, is a leading specialist in the Ethiopian film industry. In addition to teaching directing and film history classes, she has also written, produced and directed her own very successful theatrical film, Traffic Cop (2013), a romantic comedy about a female officer who falls in love with taxi driver.

Kassahun also wrote the first scientific article on women’s contributions to the Ethiopian film industry for a book called Cine-Ethiopia: the History and Politics of Film in the Horn of Africa published by Michigan State University Press in 2018. Her chapter in this book was a breakthrough. . Before she set the record straight, virtually all accounts of Ethiopia’s film industry, from scholarly journals to local Addis Ababa newspapers, had focused exclusively on a handful of eminent men such as as Haile Gerima, Michel Papatakis, Solomon Bekele Weya, Birhanu Shibiru, Theodros Teshome and Henok Ayele. Since its pioneering work, perception has started to catch up with reality.

The women of Ethiopia’s growing film industry are inspiring. In my conversations with them, they express their love for filmmaking and a deep appreciation for their fellow industry men and women. They also represent a diversity of points of view. Some make films highlighting the value of tradition, family and community while others promote the aspiration of the individual in a changing world. Some feel quite connected to the power centers of the film industry, while others feel marginalized or even live in exile from their homeland. Whatever their position, their multicultural contribution to our world is vital.


About Monty S. Maynard

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