A Rising Star on The Horizon
Behailu Wase is one of the popular stars in the Ethiopian television and film industry. As a writer, director and producer, Behailu is the mind behind one of the most popular sitcoms on Ethiopian television: Min Litazez. The young writer has also produced some of the country’s most well received films, such as Ayrak and YeLidete Qen. Having been involved in the film and television industry for almost a decade, Behailu has seen all the ins and outs of the business. He sat down with EBR’s Menna Asrat to discuss the challenges facing the creative and dramatic arts in Ethiopia, as well the inspirations behind his own work.
The setting of one of Ethiopia’s most popular sitcoms, Min Litazez, is a café in the centre of the capital. As a place for an eclectic and diverse cast of funny waiters and customers to discuss the issues of the day, the show has become one of the most popular in the country, capturing the imaginations of young urbanites and retired people alike. The show itself is a reflection of one of the most well-known aspects of life in Addis Ababa: sitting in a café and talking politics with friends and strangers.
The show’s faithfulness is a result of a purposeful effort by the show’s writer, Behailu Wase. “I myself am a fan of the café culture,” he explains. “Up until a few years ago, I was a regular at my favourite cafes. They give people a chance to get together with their friends over a cup of coffee and talk about the issues that they hear about on the news. When we were thinking about possible settings for the show, this was one of the things that attracted. It’s a stage for people to talk about things they might not normally talk about. Using a café gave us a platform to talk about things that may be limited in real life.”
In a television landscape that doesn’t usually produce well-structured or long running sitcoms, Behailu seems to have perfected the formula. But he is not overly confident about what exactly that might be. “The success of the show is a combination of many things. There are a lot of people and things that go into producing each episode,” he says. “But I think the biggest thing is that we are doing work that we believe in. We want to genuinely express something to the audience, and we care about delivering the audience’s expectations.”
Becoming a filmmaker wasn’t Behailu’s first vision. Instead, he studied crop science at Mekelle University and then started a now-defunct small farm, growing tomatoes and onions. “Being a filmmaker wasn’t a childhood dream for me,” recalls Behailu. “When I was working on my farm, a friend of mine, Ashenafi Fantaye came to visit me. He is a writer and filmmaker as well, and when I was showing him around, he mentioned that I should consider writing. I tried it out, and that was when I produced my first script.”
After his farm closed, Behailu, who describes himself as hating idleness, decided that maybe film would be a viable career path. “I like to experiment, and I like finding new ways to express myself. This was a good avenue to self-expression.”
It is this self-expression that informs much of Behailu’s work to this day. An avid reader, he tends towards books about history, philosophy and theology that tend to shape the messages that he wants to communicate to his audience. In addition, it seems to be this that makes many of his films well received by audiences. “I think that because I try to get a lot of different perspectives from books, I am able to bring a fresh point of view to my work. People like seeing things from different viewpoints,” he says. “I believe that the basic key to success is to respect the art as much as possible, and understand what you’re doing. Understand what you’re trying to say, and the most effective way to say it.”
To this end, Behailu started taking different courses and classes, studying under film experts from Ethiopia, and Europe, to bolster his command of the art of film. Over his career he has produced some popular films, such as Ayrak (Don’t Go Far), Ye-Lidete Ken (The Day of My Birthday), Ene ena Anchi (Me and You), and Utopia.
Like many artists, Behailu says that, even though he tries to communicate a certain message with his work, seeing the meaning the audience draws from it is one of the best aspects. “Once an artist releases their work, the meaning that they wanted to communicate is not necessarily the most important thing. Instead, it is the meaning that the audience gets from the work that matters.”
He points to the story of a young man who, after seeing the film Utopia, got in touch with him to ask permission to show the film in some high schools around Addis Ababa. “I think it speaks to how important is it for filmmakers to understand not only what they want to say, but how they can best communicate it. The young man called me after a screening, and told me what the film meant to him, and that it had touched him after he left the cinema. That’s really good to hear as a writer.”
However, it has also thrown into relief one of the biggest problems facing film arts in Ethiopia. According to Behailu, many of the people entering the industry are unformed as filmmakers, through a lack of education and support program for film and television. Another issue is that the ability of art and film to change minds has been misunderstood and neglected in Ethiopia.
“Filmmaking in Ethiopia is like the Great Ethiopian Run: anyone who wants to do it can join the industry. Of course, there are people in the mix who are talented and skilled, but many of them are not. It is a problem caused by the lack of training programs in the country that can turn out well prepared and skilled filmmakers,” he says. “In other countries, the governments understand the utility and value of the film industry. Words have power. Celebrities have been elevated to the status of idols. That is all a result of the power of words. But in Ethiopia, it has been neglected so far.”
On the other hand, whatever structures do exist have stagnated and is run by people who don’t respect or understand film or television. “The first hurdle to overcome is that the people at the top of the relevant industry structures, like associations and institutes, don’t want to welcome and develop new talent. It’s a problem that appears in many industries, not just film.” All of this, he says creates a hostile environment for new talent, endangering the quality and continuity of the industry.
In an environment where increased interconnectivity has brought people closer together, issues about representation and inclusion have been brought to the forefront. In some areas, they have even erupted into violence and unrest. This has also become a problem in the arts world. “There aren’t many training facilities in Addis Ababa, let alone in rural areas. Of course, people have social media and they are able to find ways to put their talent out there. For example, now, directors and writers are available on social media. An aspiring actor or writer can contact me online and send me sample of their work, but there is no institutional structure to foster and include under-represented people in the industry.”
This is also one of the political issues that are facing the country. Politics has become an important aspect of Behailu’s sitcom Min Litazez, which is something of a given, since it is set in a café. However, for some people the repetition of the political themes is a bit of a puzzle.
“Politics is just part of the discussions that happen at café,” he explains. “We discuss politics on the show, because that is the main preoccupation of the country right now. For most people, it is the biggest issue right now. But we do include other social issues in the show. I think because of the things happening in the country right now, it just seems like we talk about it a lot.”
Even after all is said and done, Behailu loves his chosen career. Even in the face of all the challenges facing the film and television industry, Behailu is still hopeful about its future. “The industry is still just beginning. In my opinion, the first thing that we need to do is define what Ethiopian film actually is. I’ve had the experience of sitting with seven other people, trying to establish a film association and none of us could agree on what Ethiopian film is. We need that kind of definition here, to understand what kind of values Ethiopian films communicate,” he says. “At the end of the day, my art work is my reflection, but the correct interpretation of art is that of the audience. I have to make sure that I’m doing my best for them.”
8th Year • Jan.16 – Feb.15 2019 • No. 70