No Need for Slaughter

Thankfully, Lamb distinguished itself by making it to Cannes and hence, to Fortune. It is a real treat to have an Ethiopian movie reviewed in this space – and so positively too. Director Yared Zeleke ought indeed to be proud of his debut film and the actors are also commended in this review. The story of Ephraim and his pet lamb is not presented through a grand overarching plot, instead, the story unfolds in a subtle and leisurely manner that lets the characters shine through.’ Lamb depicts the slow pace and beauty of rural family life, coping with hardship; and the pending slaughter of the pet lamb becomes a metaphor to young Ephraim’s life and growing up. Fortune’s in-house film critic, Christian Tesfaye, has removed the uncertainty from Cannes’ regard and unequivocally awarded Lamb nine out of 10 stars.

A couple of months ago, I was in a taxi, on my way to a place I cannot quite recall now. Behind me were two grown-ups talking about whatever it is grown-ups talk about, but their conversation drew me in once one of them mentioned a new business he was starting. He was going to open some kind of mobile repair shop, but he also mentioned that it is a risky venture because, nowadays, places like this are in abundance, and very competitive. His friend asked him what he would do if this particular enterprise did not pan out, and the guy – not too seriously – answered, “I don’t know… what everybody is doing I guess, make a movie!” And they both laughed.

That is the fundamental reason I do not review Ethiopian movies. Most Ethiopians do not go into the film business because they have the aptitude for the medium but because they do not have the aptitude for anything else. Unlike Engineering or Medicine (or any type of job that is respected), one does not need a college degree to make movies but a lot of money. And I am not in the business of critiquing someone’s business venture but commenting on films that have a soul and mean something, and are made by people who know what a great movie is supposed to look like.

Yared Zeleke is a man who, for his debut film, radiates Satyajit Ray and makes a simple but purposeful movie about a child that is forced to grow up.  The film is entitled Lamb (and “Dangel” in Amharic) and is the first (but hopefully not the last) art film I have ever seen at Matti Cinema. The film has been screened at this year’s Cannes Film Festival in France (in a section known as the Uncertain Regard), an event some hold in higher regard than the Oscars and the only reason that led me to give the film a shot. Despite my reservations, I did not regret my decision.

Lamb is the story of Ephraim, who lives in a small rural village with his father. He has recently lost his mother to famine and his father has decided to move to a city because there is no one to fulfil the two males’ household needs; which could not be further from the truth. Ephraim is actually a great cook and does not at all mind cleaning. But in his father’s eyes – even though he loves and treats his son respectfully – this is an unorthodox habit that should not be encouraged in men.

While his father goes to the city looking for a better way of life, Ephraim is, in the meanwhile, given to his father’s aunt who graciously takes him in. Also living with the aunt are her son (a stereotypical conservative Amhara farmer that is superbly played by Surafel Teka) and his wife. They have two children of their own. One of them is the rebellious Tsion (played rivetingly by Kidist Siyum) who spends most of her time reading newspapers rather than finding a suitable mate.

It does not take long before they all figure out how eccentric Ephraim is. He cannot farm, he can cook, and he regularly speaks to his lamb as if it were human. He sparks a friendship with Tsion, and for a while she becomes a benchmark for his unique demeanour. Perhaps influenced by her, he starts selling samosas in order to make enough money for a bus fare to where his father is living. This little endeavor becomes more crucial when his uncle vows that Ephraim would be made to slaughter the lamb for an upcoming holiday, so as to make a man out of him.

None of this is presented as a grand overarching plot by which the movie is bound. The story unfolds in a subtle, leisurely manner that lets the characters shine through. And this is where the director’s talent lies, in his ability to not overdo and let the scenic cinematography, the dependable actors and the superb score tell the story.

Haile Gerima’s Teza is without a doubt the greatest Ethiopian movie ever made and Lamb, probably, the second best. But I doubt if the movie will ever be as popular as Teza since it does not have a definitive plot and is too slow-paced for mainstream audiences. There is not as much camera movement, some shots are uninterrupted and long and usually wait for the characters to finally do something without much use of jump-cuts. Sometimes (and these are the film’s best moments), the movie is preoccupied with showing us such spontaneous moments as a bird flying around, people feasting, Ephraim sleeping, his lamb grazing, the wind blowing through the grass on a mountainous green hill and many other sequences most viewers will resent out of impatience.

All of the characters, and their story, belong in older times when it was okay for films to have more traditional plots; in a time when nothing cosmic was supposed to happen in movies. Watching it, I was reminded of Yasujiro Ozu’s films where things transpire under the surface and the theme is not extracted from what the characters feel or do, but from how they carry on life without actually winning or losing but simply surviving.

The film, curiously enough, is entitled Lamb, even though the lamb does not play that much of a part in the plot, like Ozu’s films, where something is not always what it seems to be but only a prop to help us understand something more significant. The lamb – as I understand it – is Ephraim’s childhood innocence. He talks to it, not only because the lamb is his only confidant (which is what it seems like on the exterior) but because it is a metaphorical version of himself. The lamb accurately represents what Ephraim is, someone that needs to be guided and taken care of – like sheep, which are nowhere as smart as goats. His idea of the world is skewed and childish. He thinks he can buy his way to his father by ridiculous means that work only in movies.

Lamb is more realistic. Human beings are more complicated than characters and life more than movies. The film ends when the lamb (like his childhood) forgets Ephraim, when he learns to adapt, when he accepts his circumstances, when he gives up and tragically grows up. The lamb is that part of him that believed in the impossible and took most things for granted. Like the lamb, who probably thinks everyone is like Ephraim (the way Ephraim thought everyone was like his father), when in truth, even though it avoids one slaughter, it will eventually be killed and eaten in the next. Not so much unlike Yared Zeleke’s young protagonist.

By Christian Tesfaye
Special to Fortune

Published on Sep 25,2015 [ Vol 16 ,No 803]



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