Ethiopian cinema; The Need For A Voice

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A prolific director once said “if you have nothing to say then it’s  better  not to make a movie at all” despite coming off as a dissuading attempt towards future film makers it’s something that holds true. Cinema serves as a catharsis in which society seeks to purge itself of it’s woes and happiness. It’s a medium that carries on  the legacies and values of one generation to  the next. Something that attests  to the presence of it’s subjects. Yes that was our time, our era, things were like these or these are the things that are yet to come.

But all rhetorical talk aside how does one go around achieving such a feat? this is a question  that had been debated since the beginning of cinema.  After recovering from the euphoria of seeing lumier’s moving train on the big screen what followed was only logical . what does the images signify?   The quest for meaning doesn’t exempt the modicum of moving pictures that were just beginning to sprout into existence. Why would people sit by and watch for minutes if you have nothing worth while to say? A plethora of uncoherent moving images were not really that special. Since life itself was comprised of movements.  So a story needed to be told, a tale spun. Hence,  bit by bit artists of the visual medium started to cohere their thoughts and ideas into a  single concept that tells their story. By using montaging sequence styles like the  Eisenstein and kuleshov or by incorporating certain ideologies into their works akin d. w. Griffith. These cineastes of the silent and early sound era cinema sought to express their individuality through cinema in a simple attempt that had managed to spawn the grandeur Hollywood.

Nonetheless , what’s the societal benefits of  cinema? In a quest to tell their relatable stories many has forged their way in through the years. While certainly not being the only ones; the Italian were the first one to who dared to vanguard the way. In a protest to the various restrictions that were imposed upon them by the then Mussolini regime; they opted to do their own projects outside of the government owned studios. Their movement Later dubbed “neo realism” aspired to tell brutal and often nihilistic stories about the post world war era of the Italian society. In an audacious attempt to decrease cost and focus on the anecdotal part of cinema they resorted to casting semi pro or in some case amateur actors and cheap cameras. Despite not being financially profitable and in some cases subject prosecution they managed to inspire their nearby counterparts the  France. The French who After suffering through the Hollywood’esque movies that were idealizing the way of western mentality. Opted to find their own way. In 1951 A group of cinema critiques and aficionados founded the basis for the artistic evaluation of movies through  a magazine “cahiers du cinema”; a platform that produced a creative power house for the likes of andre bazin, francois truffaut and jean Renoir.  their view regarding the subject was straight forward. Movies that tell the tales of their society was in dire need. Since art was rooted in the society it originated from Watching Americans live the good life on the screen  was not. So they set out to tell their own stories in the streets of Paris with ingenious methods of editing and shooting that built up on the foundations of “neo realism”. The “nouevelle vague” or french new wave was born. Nevertheless, In among a list of movements that comprises from the Nigerian Nollywood to the brazil born cinema nuovo upto the dutch “dogme 95” that defined contemporary  world cinema these are the creams of the crop that had left their everlasting imprint.

When we come to the local context cinema isn’t a contemporary concept as everyone might think. disregarding the celluloid based or even “Hollywood” standards that are used to gauge movies and focusing on the video based films that has been around for decades one can see many movies being made every year. Yet the lack of direction and cinematic vision seems abundantly clear. Apart from a handful directors who have a clear view of their creative end game like the professor Haile gerima, most self proclaimed “directors” are happy with churning out… well if you manage to get your hands on a couple of Amharic movies you can get a whole arrays of adjectives for them and you’ll just do fine without my reiterative statements. So once again the question arises; what purpose do these movies serve? We’re not all driving luxurious cars, doesn’t own a splendid abode or are not nearly good looking and confident enough as those on the big screen. Our life is simple and routine. The question that haunts us is not of getting laid but  the uncertainty of the future, the insecurities of our personality, the futility or non futility of existence. Contrary to their belief the issue of love doesn’t keep most people awake , and when it does it never really materializes like it does on the big screen, there’s no third act where everything is resolved for the hero. In life if you’re screwed you’re  screwed, you lick your wounds and move on; in reality determinism and second chance are as rare as the unicorn. Bad guys get away with anything and everything; also if you’re a good guy you might as well take your time to the cross line because buddy, you’re gonna be dead last.  There’s no antagonist or protagonist in our lives. we’re all our demons and angels toeing the ever thinning line between good and evil every day.

This is what spells the need to have a distinct voice in Ethiopian cinema. A person who has risen from a dirt poor origins fighting tooth and nail to get his daily bread cannot make a movie about a wealthy family. He cannot actively and properly depict the story of love and privileged existence of an urban brat while all he knows is the harshness of the slums. An individual cannot positively preach about the wholesomeness of family when he had never knew one. As the famous dictum of the writers goes “you can only write (tell) what you  know”. Apart from being a proponent of the globalism tsunami that sweeps the nooks and crannies of the globe a director who keeps trying to emulate what he saw on a Hollywood screen will only be successful in being a mainstream cheap knock off in the best scenario imaginable. Because at the end of the day the objective of cinema is to see and appreciate the beauty and the ugliness of the life. To feel like our story is being told, to feel empathy and be understood. like   Alejandro González Iñárritu once said  “We need to see ourselves projected in other members of our species to, in turn, understand ourselves. Cinema, is that mirror. It is a bridge between the others and us.”

By Misak Workneh

Misak works as a translator for kana television while his interests lie in the art of photography and cineastes among others.