Ethiopian Women Making Movies

The presence of successful female writers, directors, and producers set Ethiopia's film industry apart from Hollywood, Bollywood, and the rest of world cinema.

by GRIOT - Published on 10/05/2021
Still from Difret (2014), by Zeresenay Berhane Mehari

Among the many stories about Ethiopia’s long, multifaceted past and politically complicated present, an extraordinary transformation that has received less media attention is the dramatic leap forward in its movie industry. Before 2004, Ethiopia was producing only a few movies from time to time. But by 2015, almost 100 new, locally produced features were hitting theaters in its capital city, Addis Ababa, each year. Local television has also grown and diversified.

Behind the rise of Ethiopian cinema is an even more remarkable tale of the women who—as writers, directors, producers, and scholars—have been leaders in this transformation.

The prominent role of women in the industry may set Ethiopia apart from most other countries. Across the globe, from Hollywood to Bollywood, film and TV industries have been dominated by men. In the United States, the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University and the website Women and Hollywood have shown that only 12 percent of directors, 20 percent of writers, and 26 percent of producers are women, even though 51 percent of audiences are.

In Africa, the 1960s-era founding manifestos of cinema institutions such as the famous Festival Panafricain du Cinéma et de la télévision de Ouagadougou (the Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou, or FESPACO) in Burkina Faso demonstrate a clear commitment to decolonization, racial equality, and women’s empowerment—so, in principle, they are more progressive than their counterparts in the United States. Nevertheless, the history of African cinema is generally recounted as a succession of male directors, like kings inheriting the FESPACO throne: Ousmane Sembene, Souleymane Cissé, Idrissa Ouédraogo, Abderrahmane Sissako. The pattern has stuck despite proactive efforts beginning in the 1990s by festival organizers and institutions such as the Centre for the Study and Research of African Women in Cinema to empower African women to make movies.

So what is different in Ethiopia?

On frequent visits in recent years, I’ve met with some of Ethiopia’s prominent filmmakers as well as professors of film and theater history at Addis Ababa University. They’re well aware of what the movie industries are like in other parts of the world and point out that Ethiopia, too, is no paradise for women. Sexism and gender disparities in financing and lending to entrepreneurs remain pervasive, despite the nation’s constitution prohibiting discrimination. And while no agency in Ethiopia has analyzed the issue of gender in the media industry, my own informal survey of the lists of films licensed by the Addis Ababa Bureau of Culture and Tourism indicates that the gender ratios are similar to the United States.

What’s different in Ethiopia is women’s influence and success in the movie business. In a highly competitive industry where many people never make more than one movie, women have consistently enjoyed more enduring success as writers, directors, and producers. Films made by women have tended to do better at the box office and have won many trophies at the nation’s annual Gumma film awards.

Quite a few of the “firsts” in Ethiopia’s cinema history were accomplished by innovative women. After the nation transitioned away from the Derg regime, under which film and television were financed and controlled by the government, the first person to risk privately financing an independent movie was Rukiya Ahmed, creating the 1993 film Tsetzet (directed by Tesfaye Senke on U-matic) about a detective solving a murder case.

Later, one of the first movies to make the switch from celluloid to video was Yeberedo Zemen (translated as Ice Age) by Helen Tadesse. She originally intended the movie as a situation comedy for Ethiopian TV, but, after a contract dispute, she decided to re-edit the episodes into a single movie. In 2002, it was the first Ethiopian movie shot on VHS to be exhibited in a theater, and it sparked a revolution in the nation’s movie industry.

With the switch from celluloid to VHS, and subsequently to digital filmmaking, local cinema culture blew up, with films growing in number and diversity. Many women seized on the new opportunities to follow Tadesse’s lead, and a number quickly became industry leaders.

One such leader is Arsema Worku, a member of the executive board for Ethiopia’s Film Producers Association, which lobbies on behalf of filmmakers. In addition to being an actress, Worku has written, directed, and produced movies for theater release. Her most recent feature is Emnet (2016), a film about a married woman who, feeling trapped managing the home and caring for her baby all day, dreams of an exciting career of her own.

One of Ethiopia’s most prolific and successful directors is Kidist Yilma. Her popular movie Rebuni (2015) won Ethiopia’s most prestigious award, the Gumma. It is about a young woman, Adey, who fights to protect her grandfather’s small farm from being taken over by a corporation. Despite all the success of Rebuni, when I met with her and her husband, actor Amanuel Habtamu, she told me that the film that means the most to her is Meba (2015), a movie that takes the audience inside the head of a schizophrenic patient in a mental hospital.

These films are local productions, with budgets that are relatively small compared to the international films that Americans and Europeans often watch in art-house theaters. But Ethiopia also has some multinational co-productions, the most internationally successful of which was Difret (2014), whose executive producer was American actress Angelina Jolie.

Based on a true story, Difret dramatizes the kidnapping of child brides in rural areas by focusing on the court case of a young girl who shot her would-be husband in self defense. Four years after the film’s release, the real-life lawyer and women’s rights activist Meaza Ashenafi, who inspired the movie’s heroine, became the first woman to be appointed president of the Federal Supreme Court of Ethiopia.

The fame of both Jolie and Ashenafi may have overshadowed the fact that one of the producers and visionaries for the film was Dr. Mehret Mandefro, whose first movie, the documentary All of Us (2008), recounts her experience as a medical doctor treating HIV/AIDS both in New York and in Ethiopia. In that film, she comes to the important conclusion that, in New York City as in rural Ethiopia, poverty and the disempowerment of women have exacerbated the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

In a highly competitive industry where many people never make more than one movie, women have consistently enjoyed more enduring success as writers, directors, and producers. Films made by women have tended to do better at the box office and have won many trophies at the nation’s annual Gumma film awards.

Men and women in the film and media industry have often worked together to tackle difficult and important subjects such as disease, domestic abuse, mental illness, and conflict between the rich and the poor. For example, a movie that won awards at international festivals was The Price of Love (2015), the third movie written and directed by Hermon Hailay. This brutally honest portrait of the life of a prostitute explores human trafficking and the dark underbelly of urban life. Before writing the script, Hermon researched her subject, spending weeks getting to know some of these women, which is perhaps why the movie feels so real.

Another major film, on the plight of migrant female workers from Ethiopia, is Sewnetwa (2019), written and produced by Eskedar Girmay with financial support from the International Labor Organization and the Ethiopian Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. At its debut, the first woman to be president of Ethiopia, H.E. Sahle-Work Zewde, delivered the opening speech.

Ethiopia is a diverse country of more than 80 ethnic groups. Most filmmakers, whatever their mother tongue may be, make their movies in Amharic, the national language taught in schools across the country. However, some also choose to make movies in their own languages, such as Tigrinya, Afan Oromo, or Somali.

The Oromo, who are one of the largest ethnic groups in Ethiopia, have experienced a cultural renaissance in recent years, revitalizing their indigenous form of democracy known as the “Gada system” that in 2016 was recognized by UNESCO as an intangible world heritage. Oromo filmmakers often draw upon Gada principles for their movie production, distribution, and consumption. A common theme in Oromo scripts by both male and female writers is how the indigenous traditions that empower women in their communities can be modernized and adapted to 21st-century life.

Some of the up-and-coming Oromo women making movies today are Seble Wada, producer of the movie Wada; Seenaa Solomon, director of Xiqii; and Hawi Hailu, director of Lafaaf Lafee. The most well-known is Keyirat Yusuf. She got her start as an actress in Dire Dawa before moving to Addis Ababa to join the first Oromo-language show on Ethiopian television, Dhanga. She eventually emigrated to Chicago, where she made her first movie, Asaantii (2015), about adapting to life in America. Her second movie, Siifan (2017), reflects upon the experience of refugee women who have endured sexual and physical abuse. Like many Ethiopian filmmakers, Keyirat is not only an actor and director, but also a writer and producer. In our conversations, she told me that one of the most important skills she learned was editing.

Women have shaped the industry in other ways as well. Until 2014, Ethiopia’s television stations tended to produce their own content—mostly news and a few serial dramas—and there was little connection between the movie industry and television. But an entrepreneur named Feven Tadesse envisioned a different way of doing things. She created the first show on Ethiopian television to not only broadcast new, locally made movies but also discuss them. Viewers can vote on their favorite movies via text message. Tadesse’s company, Maverick Films, has also produced two movies, including the Gumma award-winning Lomi Shita (2011), which is a complex, multifaceted reflection upon Ethiopia’s history and its identity.

All of these filmmakers have had different experiences and offer different views on the position of women in the industry. Some consider themselves feminists, some do not. Some have had mostly positive experiences in the industry, but others feel unsupported. And some hail from unique, international backgrounds, such as New York-based Mexican-Ethiopian filmmaker Jessica Beshir, whose documentary shorts offer poetic portraits of life. The reality on the ground is complicated, and it is changing.

Ethiopia’s various civic and academic venues contribute positively to the changes by fostering discussion of gender representation. For example, the Alatinos Filmmakers Association has provided a forum where aspiring filmmakers can meet, debate, and share work. Another organization called Sandscribe has hosted free film classes for the public. Addis Ababa University, which famously occupies the grounds of one of the former palaces of Ethiopia’s last emperor, Haile Selassie, started a new master’s degree film program in 2014.

A leading expert on the Ethiopian motion picture industry is Eyerusalem Kassahun, a theater arts professor at Addis Ababa University. In addition to teaching classes on stage directing and film history, she has also written, produced, and directed her own movie that was quite successful in theaters: Traffic Cop (2013), a romantic comedy about a female officer who falls in love with a taxi driver.

Kassahun also wrote the first scholarly article on women’s contributions to Ethiopia’s movie industry for a book called Cine-Ethiopia: the History and Politics of Film in the Horn of Africa, published by Michigan State University Press in 2018. Her chapter in that book was a breakthrough. Before she set the record straight, virtually every account of Ethiopia’s movie industry, from scholarly journals to local newspapers in Addis Ababa, had focused exclusively on a handful of prominent men such as Haile Gerima, Michel Papatakis, Solomon Bekele Weya, Birhanu Shibiru, Theodros Teshome, and Henok Ayele. Since her groundbreaking work, perception has begun to catch up with reality.

That book sets the record straight in other ways. Before its publication, the only Ethiopian filmmakers whom Americans knew much about were the two who lived in America: Gerima and Salem Mekuria. The book also shows that Ethiopia’s film industry has a complicated relationship to the various ancient traditions and religious practices of its many different ethnic groups. The artistic work of Ethiopian women, in other words, does not fit neatly into any singular category.

International acknowledgments of women’s leadership role in Ethiopian film and TV remain rare. That’s everyone’s loss, because Ethiopian cinema challenges the stereotypes, common among Americans and Europeans, that Ethiopia is less progressive than they are and that Ethiopian women would find better opportunities if they left. Indeed, women’s success in Ethiopia turns the stereotype on its head, and suggests that it is Hollywood that may need to try harder to keep up.

The women of Ethiopia’s growing movie industry are inspiring. In my conversations with them, they express a love for making movies and a deep appreciation for their colleagues in the industry, both male and female. They also represent a diversity of perspectives. Some make movies foregrounding the value of tradition, family, and community while others champion the aspiration of the individual in a changing world. Some feel quite connected to the centers of power in the movie industry, while others feel marginalized from it or even live in a state of exile from their homeland. Whatever their position, their multicultural contribution to our world is vital.

– Words, Steven W. Thomas

Steven W. Thomas is associate professor of English at Wagner College in New York and a 2016 Fulbright Scholar at Addis Ababa University.

This article originally appeared on Africa is a country.

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