Not Quite Above the Clouds

The darling of the judges of the Ethiopian International Film Festival (EthioIFF) held two weeks ago was K'demena Belay, taking home the three most important prizes, best writer, director and producer. A film with a hard-hitting plot-twist, and expressive visuals, it was one that nonetheless slightly disappointed Christian Tesfaye, who awards 5 out of 10 stars.

I am warming up to Ethiopian movies, or perhaps they are warming up to me. In any measure, there is maturity and depth, notwithstanding the sophomoric comedy genre that is still the most commercial. In appreciating the output of the industry, I am not referring to the likes of Lamb, the 2015 drama that was chosen in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival, or Lambadina, a film produced both locally and in the United States.

I am referring to the movies that are made by homegrown filmmakers. Despite the lack of support for technical know-how, financial access and insignificant market penetration (relative to the 100 million audience pool), they are doing far better than can be expected of them.

But the devil is in the detail. Much of what ails the film industry when it comes to making the types of subtle and insightful films is best encapsulated in K’demena Belay, winner of the best picture, script and directing awards at the 12th edition of the Ethiopian International Film Festival (EthioIFF).

The film is not new. In fact, it is not being screened in theatres – it is available to the public on YouTube. It is the brainchild of Biruk Molla, who wrote and directed with the sort of enthusiasm and cinematic understanding that could mature to gear the Ethiopian film industry on the right path.

The concept of the film is not that novel. It is about a man that loses his fiancé only to find her again. But that is not all, not quite.

Daniel (Enigedasew Habte) is living the dream, with a successful job, a lovely house and his beautiful girlfriend, Helen (Kalkidan Tibebu). Only that Helen is too ambitious an author that she decides to take a similar path migrants across the Mediterranean and the Red Sea are currently taking. The seriousness of the issue is not lost on either of them, but they are relatively optimistic about her prospects of returning. Evidently, neither have seen the slave auction in Libya, which is for the worst, since she is reported missing soon afterwards.

Daniel, in grief, retreats to a tea farm. Working there, one day, he witnesses the impossible. It is Helen, but without the makeup, the kempt hair or the skinny outfit. Closer, he realises she is also shy. She is going by the name of Saba, leaves with an over-protective brother and does not have much clue about her past. And as they grow even closer, they fall in love, all over again.

The film has a plot twist – which I will not reveal – that I am two hearts about. I loved the exposition scene, with everyone awe-struck over the issue – jaws all over the floor over the revelation. It was a fulfilment of one of those wonderful moments in cinema. But then came the next scene, and the next, all of which tried to explain away the moment as a multiplier consequence of several unfortunate events. Had the reason for that part remained a mystery, it would have been an unforgettable movie.

I did not care for the acting, even if the actors had gained accolades at the EthioIFF, where Kalkidan was chosen as the year’s best actress. She is ambitious, if not a great actress yet, or was undercut by the cliché that demands that all lead female characters meet modern standards of beauty.

But cinematography and the score were light years ahead. Biruk and Hermon Eshetu, his cinematographer, consistently chose picturesque landscapes and the right frames for their characters, both of which are features that most Ethiopian films lack. The score is rightly complimentary to the visuals, especially when it scenes that are not meant to be thrilling. Of course, where both are concerned, there is great room to grow. There is a tendency to impress in both instances when what is most impressive would have been a more grounded filmic approach, more harmonious to the film’s clam narrative technique.

The title of the film roughly translates to “Above the Clouds” – a state the filmmakers try to symbolise in the movie. Biruk told me that getting the fogs in the film, to illustrate a cloud, was the hardest part. And for all the compliant that lack of technology is hampering film production, dealing with the physical factors is what will get the actors into character (far more than a green and blue screen will) and makes the crew in charge of visuals most innovative.

It is great that the movie can be found for free on YouTube. It is a platform that has likewise come to fill a significant gap in the music industry. Through advertisement revenues, the artists can make a living, without digging into audience pockets too deep. More importantly, it is critical that such movies are always out there, for they will get more attention on the strength of their storytelling quality through time.

Still, we should remember not to shy away from theatres. Both can co-exist. YouTube and similar sites such as DireTube can cater to our entertainment needs, while the big screen will fulfil our artistic cravings. It is not for nought that film screens were born to be bigger than life, and there is no reason they should not continue to be if more of the likes of K’demena Belay are made.

Published on Jan 13,2018 [ Vol 18 ,No 924]



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