A Saviour for the Flagging Film Industry

Asked for advice to young struggling filmmakers, the great German master Werner Herzog would reply, “… so long as you are able-bodied head out to where the real world is … work as a bouncer in a sex club or a warden in a lunatic asylum or a machine operator in a slaughterhouse, you would learn more about filmmaking during [a two thousand mile foot] journey than if you spent five years at film school.”

If anyone knows what it takes to become a successful filmmaker, Herzog does. Indeed, acclaimed filmmakers that did not get to go to film school far outnumber those that did. Up until the 1960s, higher learning institutions did not give film courses. Literature, the fine arts and music were art.

The film, on the other hand, was considered entertainment, merely a commercial entity. Its cultural significance may not have been lost on many, but only to the extent that it encouraged certain mores, fashion statements or idioms. Going to college to study film then was just as strange as it would be to go to college to study social media now.

Ethiopia, like most of Africa, came to identify with cinema much later in the game. Unlike other mediums of art, movies do not just require imagination to bring to life. Paper and pen might allow one to write a book, and paint and paintbrush may produce a painting, but to make a movie, at the very least, one needs a camera, motion-picture film, lighting sources, sound recorders, editing equipment, actors, sets and costumes.

On top of all of this, the finished product requires projecting onto a screen. Even now, with the proliferation of digital filmmaking and projection, making a film is no easy task. Converting a story on paper into an audiovisual play of shadows and space requires a good deal of know-how, be it technical or narrative.

There has never been a filmmaker that has been able to make a great movie solely – a cameraman or an actor is at least required. It is a team effort. When Herzog said that one should probably just avoid film schools and instead acquaint oneself with reality, he was right, but the exact statement only applies to a country like Germany, where the film industry has a strong foundation.

Here in Ethiopia, film schools are rather necessary. Addis Ababa University (AAU), the oldest and most prominent university in Ethiopia only started giving film degrees in film production three years ago. According to reports, getting the field into the curriculum took a staggering fifteen years. Even then, the university started offering degrees only for graduate students.

The school was in dire need of resources, finances and expertise. The Ethiopian Film Institute (EFI) has noticed the gap, the fact that film studies are not getting there due, and that there remains a conspicuous absence of commitment from the side of the state. The Institute hopes to fix the problem. Students could never be thought to become artists, but if shown the right path, who knows what could happen?

EFI has “signed a memorandum of understanding” with AAU to greatly expand the school. The phrasing may seem sketchy, but Tadeos Getachew, head of EFI, went out of his way to stress that the deal will not remain on paper. The AAU film school will now be able to offer both undergraduate and graduate degrees in Film and TV Production, Scriptwriting, Animation and Digital Arts, Cinema and Media Studies and Acting for the Screen.

It does not just end there. One of EFI’s main contributions will be in bringing Hollywood expertise and filmmaking equipment to the school. The former is not a typo, EFI does indeed plan to bring four acclaimed filmmakers, an actor and a film scholar from Hollywood every semester.

The experts would interact with students, give courses on various subjects ranging from cinematography to film criticism, and more importantly, work with students to develop a feature film.

The EFI and AAU partnership do not just concentrate on getting students to make films, but to also get various other fields involved in the film industry. The famous auteur theory of cinema may identify the director as the sole author of a film, but the industry itself requires a multitude of different specialists to thrive.

Agents, publicists, distributors and theatres are all important components, especially for the commerciality of movies. The AAU film school will now work with other departments of the university, like Yared Music School, AAU School of Law, Ethiopian Institute of Architecture and AAU College of Business in the areas of film scores, copyright protection, set designs and distribution, respectively.

All of this, if indeed implemented, can do wonders for the Ethiopian film industry. It would be uncharacteristic for such a populous country – one that boasts of dozens of languages and ethnicities, and considers itself diverse and unique – to not have a vigorous cinema scene.

Maybe it will become productive enough for us to call it “Abyssinia wood” (I said it first). And if the school does not succeed in revamping the industry, it would at least be refreshing to see an Antonioni or Mizoguchi homage in an Ethiopian flick.


By Christian Tesfaye
Christian Tesfaye is a writer at large whose interests run amok in both directions of print and celluloid/digital storytelling. He can be reached at christian.tesfaye@yahoo.com.

Published on Jun 03,2017 [ Vol 18 ,No 892]



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