Nibret Gelaw, a rising film star currently performing in a weekly televised sitcom - “Betoch” - believes that art should inform and lead the audience, rather than the other way round. He is against what he calls monopolistic tendencies among some famous film artists, which he says have become an impediment for young and aspiring artists. Qualification, rather than connections to those higher up on the ladder should matter more in one’s chances of being recruited to act in a film, he argues.The young film star started venturing into theatre during his early teens. While growing up in a family with relatives from the countryside, Nibret was drawn more into the rural dialects and accents, often mimicking whenever he was alone. Winning admiration from family members, neighbours and friends, he went on mimicking and eventually acting before a small audience of family members and friends. His passion for drama landed him at the top of a school art club where he organised enthusiastic students for drama. Nibret’s first public performance was in a radio drama series, which used to be aired every Saturday afternoon some 18 years back. He performed with the late Abreham Asmelash, both acting as individuals who only came to Addis Abeba recently and were trying to catch up with the urban way of life. In this interview with BINYAM ALEMAYEHU, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, Nibret discusses issues relating to the character ‘Ekke Dekke’, a guard in the family sitcom Betoch, produced by the acting and advertising mogul, Tilahun Gugsa, which has endeared him to the public, to the point of being a household name.
FORTUNE: It is only recently that the public has come to know long television drama series, with Gemena and Sew-Le-Sew being pioneers. However, these dramas were promoted through suspense. The relatively new Betoch is, however, a comedy series with no real continuations between each series. What variables were considered by the producers before venturing into the first long comedy drama series?
Nibret Gelaw: It was believed, and rightly so, that the audience needs a respite from oft repeated storylines and suspense-based films. A comedic drama based on a family storyline would win the admiration of many, the producers judged. It is educational, but people learn while being entertained and watching characters they are acquainted with and know in advance how they would respond and behave in situations.
Another important consideration is that the sitcom easily attracts teens and kids. It could also be attractive to the youth and adults progressively. Hence, the drama could easily penetrate the audience to the extent of becoming a household item, awaited every Saturday right after dinner.
Q: A curiosity of sorts has arisen among some of the audience, more used to the non-comedy dramas. They are wondering when the Betoch sitcom series could end, because, unlike in the case of the non-comedy, it does not have a conspiracy nor a climax.
The sitcom is situational and comes with a new topic in each episode. That makes it different. Hence, following the international practice, the producers plan to continue with the series indefinitely. This means staying on air for as long as they can. It, then, passes on to the next generation to continue.
As far as I am concerned, I would do anything to make sure that Ekke continues to entertain the audience. It only needs my being here in Ethiopia in good health.
Add to that sustaining the mutual understanding, respect and family-like relationship of the crew members. I have never felt more proud of any crew as I have for this one.
They are so easy to work with. If we, the crew members, sustain this feeling, I see no reason to stop us from continuing with Betoch.
Q: Without exaggeration, Ekke has become the main driving force behind the popularity Betoch is gaining from its audience. The audience expects more entertainment and fun from Ekke than from other characters in the drama. How was it possible for you to come out on top, although joining the group after 11 episodes?
To be honest, credit also goes to the other characters, some of whom, I would say, are even funnier. They made me into what I currently am. I know the bumpy road at the beginning when I started casting. This time, however, I act at ease, thanks to them. They are so superb and conscientious with what they do, all of them.
But finding a suitable actor for the character Ekke proved difficult for the producer – Tilahun Gugsa – who, by the way, spent three years in preparation before starting the sitcom. Tilahun spent a considerable amount of time looking for a suitable guy.
What never ceases to amaze me is that it was only a single casting that persuaded Tilahun that he could finally settle for me. I am lucky in a way because producers and directors could reject you even after a series of tiresome castings.
What helped me easily fit into the Ekke character was my long years of experience in parodying countrymen and my profound love for that kind of character. But, of all the things that helped me, what stands out is God’s help.
I have watched with my own eyes as able and competent actors were cast for the Ekke character. Thus, it would be rather reprehensible for me to say that I stood out because I am more able, which I am not. God decided that Betoch is the gateway to my deeper voyage into the audience.
Q: Does Ekke resemble your personality in any way?
We are different for the most part. An incident several years ago epitomises one of our major differences.
I happened to sit in a restaurant next to someone watching me on television while playing as a countryman. He then turned his face to me, completely unaware that he was talking to the same person and told me that he likes the countryman, except being a little confused with why his face is so chubby and mine with fine features just like a boy born and raised in a wealthy urbanite family. Thus, we do not look alike even in appearance.
Another is our accent. Ekke, as you know, is heavily-accented. I, on the other hand, speak like urbanites, with nothing thick in my pronunciation.
My resemblance with Ekke is in being upfront. Ekke speaks his mind, whatever the reaction of those around him may be. I behave more or less like that, saying what I feel is right, with no worries about whether what I say might disappoint people.
Q: What trend has the Betoch sitcom set now that it has passed 50 episodes?
I would say that instead of the audience serving as a trendsetter or agenda setter, it must be the other way round. Art must set the trends.
As far as Betoch is concerned, it is sitcom that is creeping into the menu of films. You want to pass on a message and educate people, but in an entertaining way. People have to laugh most of the time, so that the message sinks in easily. It is another way of keeping people glued to their television sets.
I believe credit should go to those who set foot in something; I mean people who daringly venture into something in the hope of getting the best out of it. That is exactly what the producers of Betoch did, to their credit.
While visiting friends or going about my business, I sometimes come across people I knew before. Some of them proudly tell me that they have just finished casting a feature film and that the crew is beginning the editing process. I cannot help being impressed.
That is part of the outcome of what trendsetters toiled for, I would say; quality and standards aside, of course.
Q: But how is it possible to deliver strong messages, intended to reach mature people as well as the youth, through characters more liked and frequented by teens and children?
It is possible to deliver strong and appealing messages to these groups of people, because they prefer to hear messages through entertaining pieces. Take power cuts, for example.
It is an issue still rife in the nation and one about which everyone likes to hear. When Betoch took it up, everyone viewed and commented on it.
People already saw the trend in the drama, which is situational and picks up on hot issues in every episode, teaching people and delivering messages so powerfully. This, I believe, remains appealing to even older people. As the series continues being aired, the passage of time will bring older people into it, which then makes it even more interesting.
Q: It is understandable that playing a countryman is nothing new to you and that you can easily fit into it given your familiarity with it and profound interest to grow into it. What about playing comedy, which, according to my glance at most of your products, is a newer territory you are trekking into? How come you fit so well?
When Ekke was first conceived in the minds of the procurers, it was slightly different from what he now appears to be. I think I made Ekke into what he is known to be among the audience, because I often come up with new flavours, which are accepted by the director and producers.
Hence, Ekke is already a funny guy, who appears to be rather different, with a bizarre name, heavy accent and occasional bragging. With entertainment being the reaction of other members, I grew fond of it and began coming up with creative expressions, which makes members of the crew laugh as if they are tickled.
But it must be clear that what I am venturing into through Betoch is far from other forms of comedy, such as stand-up. Now I have never been into stand-up comedy and I remain the same on this issue, despite some unnecessary prodding by some.
Offers are streaming in from different corners to perform stand-up comedy. However, I keep telling them that I am the wrong guy for it. The reason is that I am not gifted and do not think I have enough talent to do it.
Q: Some people, themselves countrymen, do not like the characters depicted in the dramas you play, including Betoch. These people argue that these characters depict only people who find it hard to mingle with urbanites, try only to fail and become laughing stocks. Many intelligent, wise and sly people have come out of the countryside, thus showing that people from those areas are progressive. What is your take on this one?
I would like to express my sincere appreciation for those who forwarded these comments, whoever they might be. I and others, including the late Abreham Asmelash, were among the pioneers of parodying countrymen in comedy-like situations.
Thus, it is no surprise that some stand to criticise us. I respect the opinions, opting to differ, however.
These characters, I argue, are not feebleminded nor airheaded. No! A thousand times no!
Take Ekke, for example. In one of the recent episodes of Betoch, the sly-looking college student, Yibekal, brags with certain English idioms, making it look like he has more than a slight mastery of spoken English to back him up for an expected foreign visitor. But when Ekke saw that Yibekal looked like he wasn’t so capable, he quipped, saying that Yibekal uttered his first ever word in life in Amharic and now finds himself stuttering in Amharic. Apart from that, Ekke has openly spoken his feelings confidently.
I do not know what the critics mean by saying that the characters overemphasise the weaknesses of countrymen. What I would like to say is that it is the collision between these characters and the urbanites that sparkles fun.
It does not necessarily mean that the countrymen are deliberately designed to be too slow to learn. Another example is a recent commercial produced by Ambassel Trading Plc, still on air, where I play a countryman driving a motorbike. The countrymen are, indeed, progressive.
Q: How about roles being assigned to guards and housemaids in most Ethiopian films? In almost all films I have watched involving housemaids and guards, romantic affairs seem unavoidable between the two. Betoch is no exception. Why have producers been unable to think of something different?
If we are referring to most other Ethiopian feature films, dramas or theatrical works, your concern is legitimate. But not in Betoch, I would argue. At the outset, it looked like Terfe – the foodie – cast her eyes on Ekke and went further to lure him to her side. Shashe – the other maid – is still her rival, harbouring intentions to have Ekke as her beau.
But as it stands now, nothing is certain. Ekke has so far established no romantic affair with any of the maids. He vacillated between them, without actually being committed to anyone.
There is, nevertheless, something that draws me into this type of character building. Both the maid and the guard are limited in the house. They are equals. Neither can rise above their levels and establish affairs with their superiors, I mean in most situations. Thus, there is reality in it. Although not necessarily in every house, it happens in most homes.
Q: Ekke is intended to show the contrast between a typical countryman, who is still trying to cope with the urban way of life, and urbanites. But since he is the guard in the house, he is rather limited to scenes in the house. The audience, thus, don’t see Ekke’s behaviour in other urban situations. What is your take on this limitation?
I must say I share this with you. I think the writers are simply following the first character building and the situations surrounding it. It would, indeed, have been thrilling to see how Ekke would have reacted in other urban situations and settings. This is a shortcoming we need to address as a crew.
Q: What first endeared Ekke to the audience was his rather long name (Ekke Dekken Man Chilot Be Biltetim Hone Begulbet Hulem Kewened Hullu Belay Abejje). You are familiar with the rural way of living and how people give themselves such lengthy names. Any reflection?
The Ethiopian society has long known people who have the tendency of explaining things in a roundabout way. Some of them have even dared to name their restaurants and hotels in lengthy phrases. It is really funny and a little odd, I would say.
Ekke’s name goes much further than the one mentioned in the story at the beginning. If you remember, there is a part where Ekke, together with the other members of the family, are called by the police for questioning. While being questioned by the police detective, Ekke took the names further, up to the 14th generation, the last name being Banjaw.
Q: Any unforgettable incidents during filming?
At some point in the story, there used to be a Tessema, if you remember. Tessema is a gardener, who does not live in the house. He already had a romantic affair with Terfe.
Thus, he was green with envy looking at Ekke. Likewise, Ekke also did not like Tessema. There is an episode where the two rub shoulders.
One day, in front of the whole crew, him and I had to play a part where I slap him. It is an act and hence I was not expected to actually smack him. But I usually have this tendency to play Ekke in full when in cast. Everyone knows this.
So, I told the director – Yitagessu Gesete Techane – that I was going to slap Tessema and not feign hitting him. They warned me that Tessema might be provoked and we might have an actual fight.
I said I did not care. It is a film and you have to do some of the things for real. Tessema knows that I mean what I say. Everyone held their breath when the director said, “Action!” I remember moving my hand towards Tessema’s face with real force only to hit the air.
I was so stunned. Tessema knew better than giving me his face. Everyone cackled in laughter at the scene.
Q: How has the character Ekke affected you personally?
I used to be relatively free and didn’t care too much about what people said about me prior to playing Ekke. This is because I was not too famous. Many did not recognise me and hence I was free to roam around the street and behave rather freely.
It does not mean I was carefree. But I used to entertain myself a lot.
Now all that is rather limited, because the character Ekke elevated me up the ladder of fame rather unexpectedly. The transmission of the first episode via television was enough for people to easily recognise me.
Hence, children call me “Ekke!” while walking on the street. I behave rather carefully while talking to people. I used to be irritable and publicly said what I felt. Now I do not fight with people. I swallow things hard and go away silently. This is because the public has given me an image, which I need to respectfully and wisely guard against all temptations.
Be that as it may, I am thankful that I am still not too famous, because Ekke’s costumes and his appearance are quite different from what I usually look like. Thus, many still do not know me automatically. I would say I am lucky.
Q: Any last words?
Young and promising artists are finding it hard to thrive and grow in the film industry infested with connections and monopolistic tendencies. Those higher up in the ladder must allow these young artists to fully realise their potential. Qualification and talent must guide recruitment, rather than connections.
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