If we take a nostalgic trip down motion picture’s memory lane, we find that it was the French that came up with what we now call a movie.
Two brothers, Auguste and Louis Lumiere, were the first to hold film screenings in theatres. What they showed were documentaries – only they weren’t called documentaries back then. This was simply because nobody had yet had the brilliant idea to make a fictional movie.
Like most great innovations, cinema quickly became popular. Some of us, with our high and mighty digital gadgets, may not believe this, but in the late 19th century, the ability to capture life as it was happening was a pretty exciting discovery. Cinema was so unique, so astonishing, it is said, during a screening by the Lumieres, that the audience were petrified by an approaching train on screen. Indeed, many tried to duck out of the way.
After a while though, recorded events on their own stopped being impressive. Audiences approached films with a general sense of – “so what?”
Luckily for Cinema, one man came to the rescue. Georges Méliès, also French, and a magician by day, got the very novel idea of telling stories through movies. He saw cinema not only as a platform for reality, but for fiction too – and boy was he right! After his short film, A Trip to the Moon, the world was hooked and cinema began to serve its greatest purpose – not only to entertain and delight, but to transcend and to examine what it means to be human.
To the French, cinema has great meaning. I say this because, to this day, no other country in the world has more admiration and enthusiasm for movies. As of now, there are about a thousand art house cinemas in the country, making it clear that the French are not scared of black and white, subtitled or slow-paced movies.
In 1896, as the French were labouring to give birth to cinema, we Ethiopians too were doing something relatively important. We were fighting to maintain our independence from a European superpower that came to colonise. It was a historical battle, known as the Battle of Adwa, and the aggressor was Italy.
The large scale battle was only one of two Ethiopia would face against Italy. And the Italians would have their way the second time around; Ethiopia was invaded and occupied for five years.
It was not all gloom and darkness though; Ethiopia’s infrastructure boomed in those years, and chief among these undertakings were film theatres.
Italy, as per a discussion held at the Italian Cultural Institute between certain representatives of the local film industry and an Italian delegation, is still very interested in the future of Ethiopian films. Granted, the first time they showed this type of enthusiasm for our industry, it was politically inspired, but on this occasion it is genuinely heartfelt. And it couldn’t possibly come at a better time.
The delegation proposes a co-production between the two countries. All a filmmaker has to do is to write his or her treatment, and get an okay from a known institution in Ethiopia. This will guarantee the legitimacy of the filmmaker or producer. Then, an institution in Italy will contribute a reasonable amount of funding. The co-production will then be eligible for some very high profile film festivals and competitions – chiefly, Italy’s very own, Rome Film Festival.
I concur I have made the whole situation seem too easy. In fact, the first lesson all filmmakers get is that it is next to impossible to get financing, especially here in Ethiopia. Investors just do not consider the movie business profitable. And the support movies get from the government or the public is at best minimal, and at worst, non-existent. This is a sad phenomenon that also plagues a lot of underdeveloped countries.
The Ministry of Culture and Tourism in Ethiopia seems to me to lack the forbearance, or worse, the desire, to institute anything that may help filmmakers to achieve their goals. So, help from Italy isn’t just welcome, it is a matter of survival.
International co-productions aren’t entirely a nonentity for the country; there have been certain occurrences, although very rare, even by the standards of other African countries. Lamb, Teza and Price of Love are some of the very few and recent exceptions.
Of course, when we talk about financing, we also have to address what our filmmakers are willing to do with the money, god willing, when given to them. I believe there are a lot of gifted individuals, who could do great things if they could get their hands on cameras, a film crew and shooting locations.
On the other hand, a lot of the people that do get the financing and do make movies are embarrassingly underqualified. And I am not talking about production values or even aesthetics for that matter, but storytelling and characterisation. I usually get the sense that many of our filmmakers are not well read; they have no sense of narrative structure or character depth. This is another thing the Italians, the same people who gave the world Neorealism and Fellini, could teach us.
Another field within the film industry that needs to grow is film critique. This is very important both for the future and past of Ethiopian movies. A country’s film industry can be shaped by the sharp-eyed theories and analysis of a strong and influential film culture that encourages criticism and competition.
And, if we had more ardent film historians, we would know a little bit more about some of the earliest movies ever made.
Critics tend to be more enthusiastic about movies than the filmmakers themselves. So, when films that have been thought to have been lost are discovered, or when an old movie that was shunned in its time is ‘discovered’ in a new way, it is usually thanks to a film critic. Movies such as Guma (the first 35mm film) and Hirut Abatwa Man New? (the first ever Ethiopian feature film), like the fossils of Lucy or the monoliths of Aksum, are parts of our national heritage and should be given the recognition they deserve.
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