Tax Adds Insult to Injury for Local Filmmakers

My grandmother used to tell me, that in her youthful days, which I imagine to be the early 1960’s, that prices were so low that a chicken and all the spices that go into making Doro Wet (a traditional Ethiopian festive stew), could be bought for a mere 25 cents. Now, I cannot independently corroborate this statement, but it serves to show the value ascribed to money in that time.

So imagine my surprise, at finding out that the first Ethiopian movie ever made was Hirut Abatwa Manew? costing a staggering 200,000 Br to make. The film was released in 1964, shot probably on 16mm film (based on its budget, it could have been a 35mm film but sources say the first such movie was Michael Papatakis’s Guma). It was financed through a loan by the Development Bank of Ethiopia.

As one would imagine, during such a relatively crude time, it was not patriotic or didactic in theme, but about a woman who descends into the precarious world of prostitution. It was a movie that criticized society, a film that wanted to show to the public what the collective does to the individual.

Contrast Hirut Abatwa Manew? with contemporary movies, which love to stress why a family man, or a people’s person, is far better than a loner or a bachelor. They are concerned more with what makes us a society than with what makes us human. When I first started to get interested in movies, I only had eyes for the likes of Kubrick, Kurasawa or Fritz Lang. I didn’t even believe local movies can legitimately be called films.

In more candid words, I considered them beneath me. Reality on the other hand is rarely so black and white. As I become more acquainted with the film industry – more privy to how a movie is made in Ethiopia and under what circumstances – I am left to contemplate a harsh truth.

The local industry does not lack a Hitchcock or a Scorsese (there are lots of talented people right here), but it does lack a nurturing society, government policies and (to a certain extent) and an economy that can boost creativity. Filmmakers did not fail us, we failed them. One great factor filmmakers have to grapple with is audiences’ refusal to pay for the films they watch. I had a friend who used to tell me that Ethiopian movies are too incompetent to justify ticket prices.

Of course, we would never say the same thing to a grocer – which his vegetables are too substandard for us to pay for them, only because technology has not made it easy to steal vegetables. Digital technology should have been a great friend to filmmakers. They no longer have to cope with the annoying expenses of having to shoot with celluloid.

But the ease with which digital information could be stolen has very negatively affected filmmakers – forcing them to consciously minimize their costs and maximize commercial appeal, all the while subconsciously forgetting that an interesting story needs to be told. The way our culture operates also shackles filmmakers to moralize overtly.

Most local pundits, over the radio or TV, love to emphasis that films should not just be entertaining but also informative. There is the long held conviction that films should teach us, show us the right footing, and illuminate our lives. But why should they? Who is a filmmaker to tell us how to lead our lives? Why not try to understand or at least echo society, instead of trying to mold it? That is what Hirut Abatwa Manew? does and what contemporary movies need to be doing too. For this to happen, the public needs to show that it is ready for tough psychological and sociopolitical subjects.

But none of these issues I have just raised hurt movies anywhere as much as the current government policies regarding the film industry in Ethiopia. Films, like all other commercial entities, are subjected to VAT (value-added tax) and income-tax. Some countries do not actually consider this fair. For instance, the likes of France and Israel offer massive tax incentives to local filmmakers, because they don’t consider films just a commercial object but an integral part of their culture, history and heritage. These countries are dead right on this issue.

A Wikipedia page or a piece of historical data could tell us what happened in Ethiopia at a certain time, but only a movie (and a book) will tell us what it was like to be an Ethiopian in that time. Movies preserve our unique individual sense of being; they should not be punished by taxes. Not all that long ago, though, I found out about what is known as an entertainment tax, a very novel term to me. In Ethiopia, in addition to VAT and income tax, movies are (for lack of a better word) penalized with an additional tax.

For the unenlightened observer, it may sound as if the film industry is such a booming business it could afford an added tax strain. In truth, the entertainment tax is actually a levy introduced by Emperor Haile Selassie’s government to discourage movies (and other “evil” institutions like nightclubs) from thriving. Why this extremely retro law still applies today is beyond me, but the effect it has on filmmakers is very negative. It tells an already weary producer that the primary concern of the developing country is not movies, that there are better avenues for investing money.

It also tells an interested public that movies – like cigarettes to health or plastic bags to the environment – are unconstructive to society. So, in other words, we should actually be quite impressed that there are people who still dare to make films in Ethiopia under such bleak and hostile conditions. God bless!

By Christian Tesfaye
Christian Tesfaye is a Film Critic whose interests run amok in both directions of print and celluloid/digital storytelling. He can be reached at

Published on Dec 27,2016 [ Vol 17 ,No 869]



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