Turning the camera back home

The women filmmakers in the Ethiopian diaspora who have taken the risk of dedicating their lives to documenting their homeland.

Still from The Fig Tree.

Last year, I wrote an article—“Ethiopian Women Making Movies”—about the central role of women in a remarkably diverse Ethiopian cinema. At the time, I was concerned primarily with those who lived and worked in Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa, and who were instrumental in transforming the local movie and television industry. However, some readers responded to that article by reminding me of the Ethiopian women living and making films in the diaspora, such as the famously iconic Salem Mekuria. Indeed, these past few years, Ethiopian women living outside the country have taken center stage in the making of documentary and dramatic films about their motherland. So, listening to this feedback, I concluded that I needed to follow up with a sequel.

Among the most recently emergent filmmakers of the Ethiopian diaspora is Jessica Beshir, whose poetic documentary Faya Dayi (2021) has been winning awards at festivals and playing in theaters across the world—with rave reviews from Vogue magazine and other periodicals. It was recently announced that the film had made the shortlist for Best Documentary Feature at the American Academy Awards (the Oscars) in March 2022. It is currently available for streaming on Janus Films’ Criterion Channel in North America, and will soon be available for streaming on MUBI in Europe. Last year, another documentary filmmaker, Tamara Mariam Dawit, saw her documentary Finding Sally (2020) screened at international film festivals and broadcast by both Al Jazeera and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. In addition to documentaries, there is a new fictional drama, Fig Tree (2018), a film by Aäläm-Wärqe Davidian which tells the story of Ethiopian Jews (known as Beta Israel) during the Derg regime in the 1980s. Behind the scenes, meanwhile, Ethiopian fashion model Gelila Bekele has begun producing films, including the documentary Anbessa by Mo Scarpelli (2019). Other promising young filmmakers who have more recently come to America and are just beginning their careers further reflect the ethnic diversity of the Horn of Africa, including Sosena Solomon, Eden Daniel, Keyirat Yusef, and Ariam Weldeab.

Before this new generation, the pioneering work of Salem Mekuria and Lucy Gebre-Egzhiaber certainly led the way. What’s more, all of these filmmakers have served as mentors who support upcoming filmmakers both in the diaspora and in Ethiopia. In fact, some of the professionals currently working in Ethiopia’s television industry took Gebre-Egzhiaber’s filmmaking class in Addis Ababa in 2015. Today, Gebre-Egzhiaber teaches at Northern Virginia Community College and has just launched a new Cinema Academy for middle-school-aged youth in Virginia. Meanwhile, Finding Sally’s Tamara Mariam Dawit in addition to making her own movie, has worked with influential Ethiopian film producer Mehret Mandefro and her program Ethiopia Creates to encourage growth in the creative economy. Tamara’s own Gobez Media spearheads the Creative Producers Training Program to empower young men and women in Ethiopia, such as the up-and-coming talent Hiwot Admasu Geteneh. For her leadership in the community, Tamara was recently awarded the DOC Institute’s Vanguard Award.

Still from Finding Sally.

Tamara Mariam Dawit is a Canadian-Ethiopian filmmaker and producer whose first feature film, Finding Sally, premiered in April 2020 at the Canadian HotDocs festival before its television broadcast. It is now available online. It begins with the filmmaker asking herself two questions that are intensely personal but have broad historical resonance: Why didn’t she already know about her Aunt Salamawit (also known as Sally), a revolutionary soldier in the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) who fought against the Derg regime in the 1970s? And what happened to her? Seeking answers to these questions, and wondering about the broader implications, Tamara interviewed her family and other women who have different memories and views of the political conflict. While watching the film, one can appreciate how Tamara managed its multiple target audiences. Considering that much of her funding comes from Canadian public media—which would demand accessibility to a (mostly white) audience—Tamara at the same time addresses multiple generations of Ethiopians living across the world. Two things make her movie unique: first, that it centers the voices of women in the making of this history, and second, that it foregrounds a difficult conversation between the older and younger generations, which are both still recovering from a traumatic history that many still avoid talking about.

In a sense, Finding Sally is the next generation’s film for working through the complexity of Ethiopia’s past. Many readers of Africa Is a Country may already be familiar with Salem Mekuria’s classic documentary Ye Wonz Maibel, which was first broadcast on Britain’s Channel 4 in 1997 and is more commonly known by its English title, Deluge. Salem is a distinguished professor emerita in the art department at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. Before teaching, she worked many years for public television in the US, and then began to establish herself as a unique voice among black filmmakers with several documentaries such As I Remember It (1991), about the Harlem Renaissance novelist Dorothy West, and Sidet: Forced Exile (1991), about Ethiopian refugees in Sudan. In both of these films, Salem focuses on the complexity of black women’s struggles and triumphs.

Deluge is her most personal work. It begins with a dedication to her brother Solomon, her close childhood friend Negist, and the “tens of thousands who lost their lives for their ideals.” The film is an attempt to come to terms with how her brother and best friend came to be on opposing sides and how they died. Solomon was committed to the EPRP, the party which opposed Derg military leadership, while Negist was in the All Ethiopia Socialist Movement, which chose to make a strategic alliance with the Derg. Between 1976 and 1978, at the height of the conflict between these two socialist parties, thousands were assassinated and tortured. Families and friends were suddenly and unexpectedly deeply divided. Salem explores this dark history while also reflecting upon her own geographic distance from the political realities of her homeland, since she was living and working in America as an expatriate at the time. The film concludes with an essay by Salem’s daughter about the significance of her Uncle Solomon, who had disappeared—an essay she wrote for school when she was just eleven years old. Salem remarks that it was her daughter’s essay that gave her the idea to make her film.

In a sense, Tamara’s film Finding Sally is the film we might imagine Salem’s daughter making. Both Tamara and Salem’s uniquely introspective approaches to Ethiopian history offer some insightful reflection that prompt us to engage in ongoing dialogue about the past. One might contrast their work with the dramatic movie Teza (2008), directed by the towering giant of Ethiopian cinema, Haile Gerima. Indeed, the diversity of cinematic, literary, and academic approaches to that singularly traumatic event ought to impress any attentive reader with its complexity. The Ethiopian intellectual Bitania Tadesse, for example, published a scholarly article about how the infamous “Red Terror” has been depicted on screen. Her probing survey of films made inside and outside of Ethiopia raises the question of how we remember the past and to what ends. Likewise, Ethiopian-American novelists such as Dinaw Mengestu and Maaza Mengiste have written critically acclaimed novels about this period. For their part, scholars such as Bahru Zewde and Elleni Centime Zeleke have published works analyzing its political history. Meanwhile, filmmakers continue to offer films that give us surprising perspectives. For example, Israeli-Ethiopian filmmaker Aäläm-Wärqe Davidian made Fig Tree, which tells a love story about a Jewish girl and a Christian boy set in the context of Israel’s offer of asylum to Jews in Ethiopia. The girl is conflicted about who she is and where she wants to be, while the boy considers the possibility of pretending to be Jewish in order to leave the country and avoid being conscripted into the army.

Still from Faya Dayi.

Other filmmakers have tackled subjects of more recent history. Jessica Beshir’s new movie Faya Dayi is an entirely different kind of documentary film experience, kind of like watching a visual poem. To make this film, Jessica spent ten years traveling back to Harar in Ethiopia, patiently getting to know the community and their stories. Although she grew up in Ethiopia as a child, her family (including her Ethiopian father and Mexican mother) left the country during the civil war in the late 1980s—when she was a teenager—to move to Mexico. She now lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Her new film layers many different stories and images on top of each other, almost like a mystical onion that we peel back layer by layer, never finding a center. One story is the story of the industrialization of the khat industry. Khat is a popular narcotic plant whose effect, when one chews the leaves, is simultaneously stimulating and relaxing. Although it was once something consumed as part of the daily work life of a farmer (like afternoon tea) and incorporated into some local Islamic rituals, the industrialization and globalization of Ethiopian society have made khat a popular urban drug that is sometimes abused. A second story in the film is the Sufi Islamic myth of khat’s discovery. Jessica has remarked that her approach to making the film and the patient, intimate connections with the characters were influenced by her conversations with Sufi imams in the ancient Ethiopian city of Harar. Indeed, what is so beautifully remarkable about the film is its patience; the eye of her camera does not dictate the stories in the film but waits for those stories to come to it. A third story of the film is the lives of the young men and women growing up in a rapidly changing society, where they feel politically and economically alienated. One of the central characters is a young boy whose mom has emigrated out of the country and whose dad abuses khat, so he asks himself whether he should emigrate, too. The fourth story is the film’s historical context; it was shot during years when political protests across Ethiopia eventually prompted Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn to resign in 2018. In the film, the young men and women reflect on the meaning of the Oromo Protest Movement in their lives.

In Faya Dayi, all of these stories are blended together but told in a poetic style that asks the audience to enter a dream world with their characters, who dream of a better life. Also significant historically is the fact that Jessica’s movie is the first movie in the Oromo language (the language of one of Ethiopia’s ethnic groups) to win awards at major international film festivals such as Switzerland’s Visions du Réel and to find a home at such prestigious venues as Sundance and FESPCO.

These are only some of the most prominent and successful women in the Ethiopian diaspora who have taken the risk of dedicating their lives to documenting their homeland through filmmaking. They courageously raise complex questions that are difficult to answer. What I believe makes their contribution to Ethiopian cinema so significant is that they are committed not only to their own individual success but also to that of their communities and their fellow artists.

Further Reading

A journey to Harar

In Mexican-Ethiopian filmmaker Jessica Beshir’s Faya Dayi, khat is more than an important export product in a capitalist economy; she captures khat’s roles and meanings in everyday Harari life.