In search of Ethiopia’s past and present

The film "Finding Sally" grapples with Ethiopia's past, but may romanticize its present.

Still from Finding Sally film.

The camera gazes upon a neighborhood in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, with all its colors and sounds. A young woman adjusts her headscarf as she herds a flock of sheep across a bridge; a small boy wearing a worn-out Ethiopia national jersey plays with a stick; an older woman sits on a stool in front of her home as she chats with someone out of view. An elderly woman emerges out of a parked black Corolla, while another waits for her outside of her rusted, corrugated iron gate; they embrace and kiss each other’s cheeks, asking repeatedly between pleasantries: “sint amet? How many years?” They embrace again and sob. “We should go in,” the first woman urges as they make their way toward the front door. “The past is the past. It’s over.”

One wonders if filmmaker Tamara Mariam Dawit takes this statement as a provocation for her 2020 documentary Finding Sally, an exploration of Ethiopian history, collective trauma, and memory through the lens of her family’s grief and the unanswered questions surrounding her late aunt Selamawit (Sally) Dawit. For Dawit the filmmaker, the past is never over, but central to her very understanding of the country of her estranged father, its contemporary challenges, and her search for meaning and identity in the present. We soon learn that the two elderly women in the documentary’s opening scene are Tsehai Tesfamichael, Sally’s mother and Tamara’s grandmother, and Abrehet Asefa, the mother of Sally’s late husband, Tselote Hizkias. The two mothers are forever bound through love and loss, their children among the millions who lost their lives to liberate Ethiopia from the military dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam.

A protest in Ethiopia. Photo courtesy of the Dawit family.

That Sally died during Ethiopia’s civil war―during which she was a guerilla fighter in the northern Ethiopian highlands with the leftist Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP)―is well known to the Dawit family, which makes the documentary’s framing somewhat disingenuous. “How could there be a close relative that I knew nothing about?” asks Tamara as she narrates her film, describing Sally as the aunt “that no one had ever mentioned,” one she only learned about as an adult. The documentary portrays Sally’s story as one shrouded in mystery―an angle even more pronounced in its trailer and promotional materials―with Dawit taking on the project of unraveling the “collective silence” of her family through film. Yet when she asks her aunt Menbere why she did not know that Sally existed until she was 30, Menbere is stunned and reminds her that Sally is in all the family albums. “I mean, there was a lot of time that we didn’t spend together,” Menbere suggests as a possible explanation.

Dawit tells us that she was raised by her Canadian mother and that her late father disappeared from her life after remarrying; her relationship with his sisters is one that she mainly develops independently in her 30swhen she moves to Ethiopia. She admits that anything she learned about his family as she grew up was through her “own persistence to connect;” one can deduce that the reason she did not know about her aunt Sally was because of her father. We learn much about Sally and the lives of her sisters, who are interviewed throughout the documentary, but nothing about Tamara’s father, their only brother. His name is not mentioned in the film but shown once, inscribed in Amharic on his gravestone: Solomon Dawit. I found myself wondering more about the film’s silences surrounding Solomon than Sally.

Dawit family portrait, courtesy the Dawit family.

Finding Sally weaves together the story of the Dawit family with that of Ethiopia, particularly during the revolution that ousted the imperial government of Emperor Haile Selassie and the military regime―the Derg―that seized power in 1974. The patriarch of the family, Dawit Abdou, was a noted diplomat and adopted son of the emperor; the Dawit children―Solomon and daughters Brutawit, Selamawit, Menbere, Tsion, and Kibre―spent their lives primarily abroad as a result, staying in Canada to continue their educations after their father, then Ethiopian ambassador to Canada, left for a new assignment. Meanwhile, the Ethiopia they left behind is one in the midst of widespread famine, social upheaval, and revolt, as a popular revolution called into question the continued existence of the imperial regime, its archaic feudal land system, and the hierarchies of class and ethnicity that structured it. The Dawits belonged to and were privileged by this system, revealed in moments in the film such as Kibre finding Haile Selassie’s explanation that “the famine was concealed” from him plausible, or Tsion’s outrage that his removal was undignified because he was escorted away in a broken-down Volkswagen.

To her credit, Tamara Dawit treats the revolution with sensitivity and incorporates a wide array of archival images and film, including footage of members of the student movement. This use of archival imagery is generally effective at giving the viewer a sense of the historical events shaping the lives of the Dawit family, but there are a number of times where the images are disconnected from the narrative and lack important context, making it difficult for those unfamiliar with Ethiopian history to interpret.

Still from Finding Sally film.

It is returning to an Ethiopia in revolution that changes the trajectory of Sally’s life. Intending to only stay for the summer holidays with her siblings, she falls in love with the country and Tselote, who is a teacher, political activist, and member of the EPRP’s leadership. After Mengistu Haile Mariam emerged as leader of the Derg, he embarked on a violent campaign of repression known as the Red Terror to consolidate his control and eliminate the EPRP and other opposition and dissident groups. Sally and Tselote, who quietly marry with only their families present, are forced to go underground as they become targets for their political affiliation and activities.

It is fascinating to see the difference between the sisters’ account of Sally’s politics and that of the one EPRP member and friend interviewed in the documentary, Ferkete Gebremariam. To Ferkete, Sally was a comrade and radical, someone deeply concerned with the plight of women and children in particular and committed to remaking Ethiopia. She was an intellectual and an activist. To her sisters, on the other hand, we are left with the impression of a young woman easily influenced by the men in her life, beginning in her teenage years in Ottawa where she would throw herself completely into her relationships and take on the interests of her boyfriends; her decision to join the insurgency against the Derg, they imply, was more a reflection of Tselote. How the sisters felt about Sally’s political activity is unclear beyond their fear and concern for her wellbeing. It is her mother, Tsehai, who speaks of Sally’s heart and her kindness; who reminds us that her daughter’s name was Selamawit, meaning “she is peaceful;” of how she “didn’t want to see the starving and suffering of her people;” and how she witnessed her quietly tell a sick child “it will be better in your time.”

Still from Finding Sally film.

Among the most powerful scenes in Finding Sally is when Kibre returns to a detention site where she spent ten days after being removed from her grandmother’s home by military personnel searching for Sally. Standing in one of the rooms used to confine and torture, she cries and describes how she was shown the blood-covered walls in an attempt to terrorize her, and how she survived through meditation and repeating to herself that no one would touch her. Another memorable scene is Tamara Dawit’s wedding, paralleling her aunt Sally’s wedding, both diaspora women choosing intimate gatherings at home in Addis to celebrate their unions to the men who helped them see Ethiopia in new ways and anchored them to the country they hardly knew.

In 1984, the family learns that Sally died from illness, possibly several years earlier, and that Tselote died shortly after from a gunshot wound. Closure takes the form of a family road trip organized by Tamara to the northern highlands of Tigray, the sisters looking at the rugged terrain and imagining how Sally must have survived it. They arrive at the village of Alitena, which was an EPRP training site, and meet with a local woman named Brur Gebrai who tells them about Sally’s final days and burial. They commemorate the site with a plaque at the local Orthodox church in honor of Sally and Tselote and their sacrifice for Ethiopia. In perhaps the most moving scene of the documentary, the sisters gaze out at the landscape as Kibre calls out to the mountains: “woooh! Selamawit!”

Still from Finding Sally film.

Finding Sally should have ended there. One can overlook its minor hiccups prior to its final scenes: the way Sally’s narrative is occasionally lost and overpowered by that of her sisters at the expense of the story, including a strange detour into Kibre’s involvement with the Transcendental Meditation movement and her encounter with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi; how Tsehai’s death, clearly during the making of the documentary, is unexplained; an awkward scene that juxtaposes Fekerte’s voice speaking of the hardships she and Sally endured in the countryside, such as their hands peeling from a lack of nutrition, with an unbothered Kibre painting at her home; the film’s overemphasis on silence and forgetting, both familial and national, regarding the violence and trauma of the Derg years, when there is no evidence that Ethiopians believe that it is “safer to forget than to remember” because “there’s too much trauma attached to their memories.” In fact, an entire scene―again, unexplained to the unfamiliar viewer―shows Tamara Dawit walking through Addis Ababa’s Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum, which commemorates this period,, and looking at the framed images of thousands of the Derg’s victims.

What one cannot overlook, however, is the film’s failure at what it set out to do; that is, to connect Sally’s story to Ethiopia’s historical past and its political present. Following the scene at the church at Alitena, Tamara Dawit describes Sally as a “gateway into understanding the complicated history of Ethiopia […] as well as the contemporary landscape” and asks if Sally would fit into today’s Ethiopia or whether she would still be fighting. She then catches the viewer up to the present with an extremely sectarian narrative of the post-Derg years, describing the successor regime of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF)―which instituted a system of ethnic federalism as a way of grappling with the ethnic diversity of the Ethiopian state―as one that “ignited a dangerous ethnic divide among the people.” She describes how “it took 25 years for Ethiopians to feel brave again and to demand change,” referring to the mass protests that first began in Ethiopia in 2014 without acknowledging the fact that these protests were led by the historically marginalized Oromo people, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group. This grassroots movement led to a significant realignment within the EPRDF, resulting in a change in leadership that saw Abiy Ahmed of the Oromo Democratic Party―one of the EPRDF’s four coalition political parties―become Prime Minister in 2018. It was, in effect, a co-optation of the popular protest and grievances of the periphery, and it did not take long for Abiy to crack down on opposition, undermine ethnic federalism, and embark on a new project of Ethiopian unity that harkened back to the centralizing regimes of Emperor Haile Selassie and Mengistu Haile Mariam.

Still from Finding Sally film.

It is in the name of “Ethiopian unity” that the state is currently engaged in a brutal war against Tigray, backed by Eritrean troops and ethnic Amhara militias; one where harrowing accounts and evidence of sexual violence, ethnic cleansing, and hunger as an instrument of war emerge by the day. That Dawit chooses to end her documentary with her and her aunts’ elation over Abiy was inappropriate in 2020 when the film first came out; it is morally indefensible today. The documentary ends with a montage showing the faces of people walking around Arat Kilo square in Addis Ababa to the words of an Abiy speech. Dawit tells us that while “the questions raised by Sally and her comrades may be different from those of young people today,” the “values she risked her life for are just as important.”

So what were the values that Sally fought for, the Ethiopia she fought for? And are the questions that Sally and her comrades raised really that different? As Dawit closes Finding Sally with her hope that “a new generation of leaders can inspire the unity that Sally dreamed of,” I could not help thinking that Sally certainly wouldn’t have wanted this. Alitena, where she rests, is, like the rest of Tigray, under siege. I wondered about the elderly woman, Brur, who described Sally’s death to the Dawit family, and where she could be today, if she is even alive.

Still from Finding Sally film.

In its erasure of ethnicity, Finding Sally presents the radicalism of the Ethiopian Left―Sally’s politics―as strictly concerned with questions of class, when the reality is that “the nationalities question” was vigorously debated and theorized throughout this period as it would be impossible to understand capitalism in Ethiopia without it. Some research would have shown Dawit that the EPRP―he party that Sally committed her life to―held a position quite similar to that of the EPRDF in that they advocated for national autonomy for Ethiopia’s ethnicities, what she had referred to in the film as “igniting dangerous ethnic divisions.” The fall of the Derg and the advent of a new state in which sovereignty, according to its 1994 constitution, “resides in the nations, nationalities, and peoples of Ethiopia” was what Sally fought for.

While Sally remains an enigma, subjected to the various projections of her family members, what Finding Sally ultimately succeeds at is illuminating a particular Ethiopian experience―that of the Addis Ababa elite―and telling the story of the Dawit family and their grief through Ethiopia’s difficult history.

Finding Sally by Tamara Mariam Dawit will air on WORLD Channel as part of “AfroPoP: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange” season 13 on Monday, April 12 at 8 pm ET/PT. The film will begin streaming for free at the same time on and viewers can check local listings for TV re-airings.

About the Author

Safia Aidid is a historian specializing in the Horn of Africa and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto.

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