The Ethiopian film industry may not be as celebrated as Hollywood, but that has not held it back from getting recognition in the world of cinema, with many films screened at international film festivals. One such event to honour Ethiopia's filmmakers and actors is the Ethiopian International Film Festival (EthioIFF) celebrating its 12th edition since its launch in 2006. The most recognised film was Kedemena Belay, scooping most of the awards. But behind all the glamour there is an ailing industry that suffers from many problems preventing it from flourishing, writes CHRISTIAN TESFAYE, FORTUNE STAFF WRITER.
The who’s who of the film industry gathered for an awards ceremony at the famed National Theatre on a Monday in the Christmas festive season. At the occasion that was the 12th edition of the Ethiopian International Film Festival (EthioIFF) were officials and regular audiences lucky enough to obtain an entrance ticket.
One of the latter was Soliyan Michael, 18, tall and perky, and a fan of local movies.
The most recent good movie she watched was Kedemena Belay, which was directed by Biruk Molla, and would go on to win the best writer, director and film awards at the ceremony. A signal of its endearing quality, it was the film that inspired the loudest applause when nominees were being called out.
“It is complicated,” says Soliyan about Kedemena Belay, who nonetheless finds some trends in the industry monotonous. “It is always someone’s mother having a kidney problem; why aren’t there horror movies or films like the Fast and the Furious?”
Indeed, there are no horror movies in the Best Film shortlist or action movies for that matter. Romance and drama figure the highest, which is a category Kedemena Belay falls under.
Like it, 16 others films competed for awards in 12 categories, six of which have particular names, such as “Black Lion”, “Rainbow”, “Ethiopian Eye”, “Geeze”, “Lucy”, and ”Denkeneh”, to represent best Film, Cinematography, Director, Script, Actress and Actor, respectively.
But the ceremony was just the tip of the iceberg. The festival started a week before the ceremony, where movie screenings and panel discussions were held. Alliance Ethio-Francaise, Vamdas Theatre and Russian Centre for Science & Culture were some that played host to the screenings. Over 50 films where shown, including movies from India, Russia and African countries, comprising documentaries, short films and fiction movies.
By the time it closed last Monday, it had cost around a million Birr in promotion and theatre rentals.
The festival started a week before the ceremony, where movie screenings and panel discussions were held. Alliance Ethio-Francaise, Vamdas Theatre and Russian Centre for Science & Culture were some that played host to the screenings.
“There is not much profit there,” is all Yirgashewa Teshome, the festival’s director, could say, which is unfortunate since such festivals help filmmakers network, get encouraged and compete with one another, at least according to Nebiyu Baye, an assistant professor of theater and film at Addis Abeba University (AAU).
“Filmmakers are becoming discouraged, they are desperate,” speaking to Fortune about the festival’s relevance a short time before he would be called to the stage to present the Best Director award. But he is concerned in that, “too many awards can create fatigue for the audience.”
Guma, Leza, Abyssinia awards are just some of the ceremonies that have popped up in recent years to honour artistic merit in the past decade. They also have similar categories for awarding films.
Unlike the awards ceremonies though, the film industry has had a long history, if not entirely a humbling one. The first ever screening in Ethiopia was during the reign of the Emperor Menelik II, which was a movie about Jesus Christ, according to a research journal for the University of Liege by Alessandro Jedlowski, who has published several essays on the film industries of Ethiopia, Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire.
Notwithstanding documentary films, the first Ethiopian feature film was Hirut, Abatwa Manewn?, released in 1964 and produced and written by Ilala Ibsa, a businessman. A movie about a woman that succumbs to prostitution, it was not popular with audiences and did not make its money back.
In between that time and the 2000s, where film production would increase, there were movies like Guma, directed by Michael Papatakis, the first 35mm colour film. And by the time of the early 2010s, the average budget of an Ethiopian movie was 300,000 Br, with the Theodros Teshome directed movies such as Abay vs Vegas and Sost Maezen costing millions.
With the success of films such as Yewendoch Guday, released in 2007, the comedy genre has been the most popular, inundating the nominees’ list of awards ceremonies such as EthioIFF. Of course, even those movies are losing their charm, according to several of the industry’s insiders who see a sluggish growth.
“Copyright, taxes, lack of government engagement and the popularity of TV soap-operas that have stolen audiences’ attention,” are just some of the bottlenecks the industry is facing for Yirgashewa.
Fekerte Desalegn was one of the winners at the EthioIFF, for best supporting actress for her performance in the movie Atse Mandela.
And the recent wave of political unrests has not helped either. The organiser of EthioIFF, Linkage Arts, had to cancel the awards ceremony for the 11th edition of last year, themed “The Peace Maker”, for this reason.
Lack of government support is another critical factor recurrently singled out. Film equipment, such as cameras, have to be imported from overseas and incur duties. Film producers face what is known as an entertainment tax, aside from value-added tax (VAT) and income tax.
“If there were fewer taxes imposed on equipment, audiences would inevitably get films with better production value,” is Biruk’s, Kedemena Belay’s director and writer, take on the type of support the government can give to the flailing industry.
”Filmmakers for their part have to work hard on promotion,” he said, adding that audiences could be brought back to the theatres if more columns in newspapers and magazines, radio airtime and TV shows were dedicated to the industry.
The Ministry of Culture & Tourism (MoCT) is trying to fill some of these gaps. Back in November, a film policy was approved by the cabinet, which Desta Kassa, cultural industry development and cooperation director, whose Ministry was responsible for the draft, considers is a significant step forward. Similarly, the Ministry is collaborating with its Education counterpart to include 11 occupational standards in film profession in the Technical & Vocational Education & Training (TVET) curricula and organise panel discussions.
“We are also working with the Investment Commission on taxes and duties,” said Desta, adding that there is goodwill on the side of the government.
As of now, the industry is recognised through ceremonies such as EthioIFF, whose award ceremony was broadcasted live on Fana satellite TV channel. The seats at the theatre were not full, but the applause and the enthusiasm of the crowd made up for it.
Audiences had their favourites, best indicated in the level of applause they would give to movies when their trailers were shown. Kedemena Belay received the loudest cheer, with Taza (starring Ethiopian pop-star Zeritu Kebede), Yameral Hagere and Red Leaves (starring veteran actor Debebe Eshetu) lagging not far behind.
Hirut Woldemariam (PhD), minister of Culture & Tourism, opened the ceremony, which was followed by short films, one of which was an excellent example of one of the festival’s themes – social responsibility. It showed an individual who litters his way from home to office, only to be revealed as an official working for the city’s Waste Management office.
The main theme was Sankofa, an Akan (Ghanaian native language) term that means to “go back and get it”. A bird picking an egg from its back was used as an illustration of the term, having decorated most of the promotional materials for the event, not to mention the halls of the National Theatre.
Although the ceremony went on without much ado, smooth would not be the right term to describe it. There were inconveniences when it came to syncing lighting with projection, and in playing the nominees list on the big screen. None of that stopped the winners from giddily accepting their awards though.
“The people’s warmth has made me a millionaire,” said Fekerte Desalegn after the applause subsided, statuette in hand for her performance as supporting actress in the film Atse Mandela.
Best Actor went to Kassahun Fesseha, a.k.a Mandela, for his performance in Maya, while the Best Actress award, for Kalkidan Tebebu, was yet another addition to the trophy case of Kedemena Belay. The film had cost 750,000 Br, according to Biruk, with over 200 people participating in a production that took 15 months. The Jury Prize, which is different from Best Film, was awarded to the Israeli-Ethiopian film, Red Leaves.
“The jury prize is for those movies that are too exceptional to fit with the other nominees,” says Yirgashewa, adding that it would have been unfair for the other movies.
Starring mostly Ethiopians, and produced in Israel, the movie about a family within the Bete Israel community was the pick of the five-member jury that comprised industry professionals from the AAU, MoCT and the Ethiopian Writers Association.
A week-long festival thus concluded, most are looking forward with a, by and large, similar hope that more of the film industry output is better promoted.
“EthioIFF alone [without the necessary marketing] is not important,” is Biruk’s view, while Nebiyu of AAU believes that filmmakers have to utilise new mediums such as broadcasting satellite channels, as opposed to seeing them as the enemy.
Soliyan’s take on the film industry though is grim and succinct.