How a child deals with loss

For the first time, an Ethiopian film, "Lamb," was selected for the Cannes Film Festival. We interviewed director Yared Zeleke.

Images: Stills from Yared Zeleke's film, 'Lamb.'

Lamb” is the first feature film for 37-year old Yared Zeleke, who studied at New York University’s film school. The world premiere was held on Thursday night in Ethiopia’s National Theatre in capital city Addis Ababa. “Lamb” – both written and directed by Yared – is also the first Ethiopian film to have ever been selected for the Cannes Film Festival.  It will eventually be released in 15 countries, including Turkey, Germany, France, Switzerland, Taiwan, the UAE, Mexico, and Norway.

The story is about a 9-year-old boy who loses his mother due to a drought. His father decides to find work in the city and leaves him with relatives. The Guardian has described the film as an “ethnographic film made entirely from the inside out.” The film draws on Zeleke’s childhood living under the Derg, the military regime under the leadership of Mengistu Hailemariam who overthrew emperor Haile Selassie in 1976. The Derg is considered Ethiopia’s most brutal regime in history.

We caught up with Zeleke in Addis Ababa after the film’s premiere.

How do you relate to the main character?

I relate to the main character, as far as I also had a childhood full of love and color but I was separated from my childhood-home age nine, right before I turned ten. It was during the time of the Derg and my father had already escaped to the U.S. It was natural for my family to want to send me to join my father because of better education, better opportunity. But for me it was a nightmare. Because I left behind everybody I loved, and everybody I knew. I left my home. And that little kid in me is heartbroken. That’s some of the main themes in the story, about how a child deals with loss.

Drought and hunger play a central theme in your movie. Why would you choose subjects that have stereotyped Ethiopia for decades?

When I went to the U.S., a lot of times people would think I’m from the desert and I was starving and things like that. I grew up having to defend who I was as a child. I play with this cliché in this film. Because the majority of the images you’ll see is green beautifully lush green landscape, and a lot of the narrative is driven by food.

Another important topic to the livelihoods of the characters seems to be rainfall, or the lack thereof.

Ethiopia is experiencing a changing climate. There is a debate in some parts of the United States, but here in Ethiopia it’s a reality. 85% are still farmers. So it’s not even a debate, it’s a reality. Our country was once very forested, very green. Today it’s mostly deforested, but outside of that, the pollution from wealthier countries is causing havoc on the lives of farmers here.

Never before has en Ethiopian movie been officially selected for the Cannes Film Festival. How was it to receive the news of your selection?

It was one of these really exhilarating rare moments in your life. It’s like natural sort of high, and a real honor and real blessing to be selected and at the same time to represent Ethiopia. In Cannes, when a film is selected it’s like the Olympics, you represent the country.

How would you describe Ethiopia’s film industry?

Ethiopia’s film industry is developing and I’ve seen much improvement actually in the past seven years that I’ve been coming back and forth. Of course there is room for improvement and I hope to contribute. In the future I would like to teach and also screen films from around the world. We have 3000 years of incredible extraordinary history, beautiful culture and landscape, beautiful people. That should be shared with the world, they should know that Ethiopia is worth looking into.

Will all your movies be about Ethiopia?

I think so, even I made a film in the US which I think I will at one point, it will have some Ethiopian elements. At least, Muleken Melesse’s music or something.

You used the music of different Ethiopian musicians for the movie Lamb.

I really go out of my way to discover and rediscover Ethiopian music. Some people prefer the old, some youth are listening to contemporary but I listen to everything. A lot of times people give credit to the old ones but there is some incredible new stuff out there. There are ten songs, contemporary mostly, in my film now and there will be more to come in the future. I want to make Ethiopia cool, because it is. This country is a dream for an artist because it still has so much soul.

What will be your next project?

My next film is all about youth because Ethiopia is a very youthful nation. I also want to do something really cool so that the youth don’t loose that sense of identify because Ethiopia is one of the places on earth where identity is still strong and its beautiful. We don’t have McDonalds or anything like that. I want to maintain our cultural diversity, our religious diversity and our sense of beautiful identity.

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