Yenegen Alweldem

Film Review |By Christian Tesfaye - special to Fortune

Yenegen Aleweldem is a welcome new addition to the list of films that deal with life in Ethiopia under the Derg regime. Though brutal in parts, it is the honesty in the portrayal of a rather cowardly protagonist that makes it stand out. A mainstream audience may, however, miss the presence of a hero - 6 out of 10 stars

There are way too many stories that demand to be told, but for the most part, it is not easy, or, should I say, safe to tell them. Not easy, as in society, religious institutions or governments may consider them subversive. However, none of these things are permanent, while stories can always be told and retold, given how tolerant the environment is.

The oppressive Derg regime ruled Ethiopia from the mid 1970s all the way to the early 1990s. During its reign, it ran a programme called the “Red Terror”, which as its name suggests was terrifying and terrible. Its aim was to excise all forms of dissidence. Of course, in that time, it was permitted, even encouraged, to make movies about the ills of the Solomonic Dynasty’s feudalistic rule. Just as today, it is considered a cornerstone of freedom of speech, to say to our minds, about the long dissolved Derg regime. And so on and so forth.

Within this frame of mind, a number of movies have been made to highlight the communist junta’s atrocities. Some of these movies include the horror-thriller Sïryät (2007), Teza (2008), Yä’ÏgïrÏt’a (2010) and many others. Abraham Gezahagne’s Yenegen Aleweldem is another, rather welcome, addition.

Most may find the title strange – roughly it translates to “I will not bare children tomorrow”. It is part of a larger Ethiopian phrase invented and popularised during the Derg era. The sorrowful couplet was spoken by mothers who would plead with regime enforcers for the lives of their adolescent children. Spare them today, the mothers would lament, and we will no longer give birth to the youth the Derg hates, imprisons and kills so much. The film opens on this very dismal note.

We are introduced to Adugna, coach to his neighborhood’s soccer club, AbriKokeboch. He describes his job as a refuge against several conflicting forces, as he wants everything to pass without anyone ever finding out he exists.

Of course, his job would have been easier if soccer players were old ladies. But they are not; his soccer team is composed of a number of boisterous, pessimistic, rebellious teens.These teens have heard of that little thing that Westerners call democracy, from the radio and books, and want a piece of it. This is where Adugna’s problem starts.

Adugna’s team informs him that a famous, highly professional player wants to join AbriKokeboch. The naïve Adugna jumps on the opportunity, and goes to all kinds of troubles to make the player a part of his team, before other bigger clubs snap him up. What Adugna doesn’t know is that the player is actually in a whole lot of trouble, as a member of an opposition political party, and is actively wanted by the government. When this fact is revealed, Adugna, in a rather comical manner, tries to destroy all evidence that may hint that the two ever knew each other. The film culminates in a symbolical soccer match between military soccer players and AbriKokeboch.

There are a lot of violent, uncompromising scenes in the movie, but more than all the torture and bloody assassinations, only one scene puts into perspective what it was like to live under the Derg regime.

It takes place about halfway into the film, as Adugna is waiting outside the office of a close friend, very early in the morning. The friend arrives a little later, but sees that Adugna has his hands behind his back. Suspecting something was up, the friend reaches for what we can only assume to be a gun. But Adugna releases his hands, which are empty, and his friend witnessing this, relaxes and greets Adugna.

This is what it was like to live under a dictatorship, under constant censorship. Friends, families and relatives were suspicious of each other. Fear and paranoia spreads and human decency is swept aside. This is the great secret of authoritarian governments – to divide (and conquer) society, as one that stands together is far harder to bring to a heel.

Yenegen Alweldem is shot in diffused sepia – laying somewhere between color and black and white; it resembles the colour compositions of older photos. The colours red (and sometimes green and yellow) are emphasised, probably to echo the Derg’s brutal and world infamous opposition cleansing campaign, the Red Terror.

The film, a loose adaptation of the autobiographical book EHAPA Ena Sport, must have presented its director, Abraham Gezahagne, with some technical problems. The setting was late 1970’s (G.C.) Addis Abeba, so finding the right types of sets and costumes, and passable audiovisual effects for the soccer stadium scene, with the type of financing local films are usually expected to grapple with, must have been daunting. But Abraham, whose previous credits include Mizewochu and the acclaimed Lomi Shita, and his crew were able to find an acceptable compromise.

What I loved most about Yenegen Alweldem was the honesty, true to real life depiction of the protagonist Adugna. In the hands of most other filmmakers, the character would have by the end of the movie transformed into a great hero that stands up for injustice. Not here. Adugna, from beginning to end, persists as a coward and he explains that this is because of family obligations. But, I know why it really is – it is because he is a real human being faced with daunting odds and circumstances.

The fact that he can’t stand up for his own, or others, rights maybe understandable, but a mainstream audience used to heroics from a protagonist may lose patience. Contrasting his sense of resolve with that of the youngsters he coaches, I have a feeling this movie is less about life under the old regime, and more a case made for the youth of Ethiopia. This to me is a movie that says – under such circumstances, it is always the youth that pays the ultimate price.

By Christian Tesfaye
special to Fortune

Published on Dec 06,2016 [ Vol 17 ,No 866]



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