How the Market-oriented Ethiopian Infant Film ‘Industry’ Staggers to Stand on its Feet
How It All Began
We neither eat nor drink it, why would we pay for something we see with our own eyes?” was the question posed by many of the aristocrats of Emperor Menelik II, when asked to pay to watch the first ever film screened in Ethiopia at what later became to be known as “Saitan Bet” – the house of the devil. Others concluded “this is the work of the devil not humans” after watching it. Now, almost a century later, people wait in long queues at the gates of Cinemas to watch Ethiopian films, willing to pay their hard earned money, knowing that they are the works of their fellow countrymen.
Despite the fact that the inauguration of movie theaters in Ethiopia is a century old, the history of filmmaking traces back to only forty years ago, when the country provided the setting for the shooting of ‘Shaft in Africa’ for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) and other documentary films by foreigners in the 1960s and early 1970s. In 1971 the first Ethiopian-produced movie, Hirut Abatua Man New?, a 90 minute, black and white 35mm film was made. A couple of years later, Gouma and Behiyiwot Zuria were also produced locally. Many refer to this period as the “golden age” of Ethiopian arts, as art in its several forms flourished during this time.
Since then, the production and marketing of films in Ethiopia can be said to have been in hibernation for a long period of time. The inspiration burgeoned in the early 70s had been halted and slowed down with the redirection of arts towards propaganda by the ruling military junta. Though the Ethiopian Film Corporation, a center for an Ethiopian film industry and co-productions equipped with substantial film and editing devices, was established later in 1986, only one feature film, ‘Aster’, directed by Solomon Bekele, was produced.
The last decade showed the resurgence of Ethiopian cinema. This revival was heralded in the early 2000s when young filmmakers began to produce films with the help of digital filmmaking technologies and started showing them on big screens; the government’s ban on showing films (for their supposed adverse effects on society) was lifted unceremoniously during this time; Alem Cinema, the first privately owned Cinema also started showing Ethiopian films on big screens side by side with the government owned Cinemas.
“We don’t have a lot to talk about films as we have a lot of things to talk about Ethiopia” says Tesfaye Mamo, President of Ethiopian Filmmakers Association in an interview with EBR. “However, the production of video films, intermingled and transformed to digital video filmmaking and editing technologies, has shown a remarkable development of production and commercialization in the last decade” he adds. Films such as Kezkaza Wolafen by Tewodros Teshome, Yeberedo Zemen by Helen Tadesse and Gudifecha by Tatek Kassa can be considered as pioneers of the renaissance of Ethiopian film industry.
As digital technologies in filmmaking have made cinema accessible to the emerging talent, numerous domestic film production companies have increasingly targeted the big screen, to penetrate into the promising market. Young Ethiopians who have acquired the skills through the process locally and those educated in the West have produced films and the reward for most of them has been encouraging.
Almost all of the film producers and directors EBR approached conclude that the film industry is a promising business.
The production and marketing of films is showing an unprecedented growth recently. According to data from the Addis Ababa City Administration Culture and Tourism Bureau, about 400 films have been produced and granted permission to be screened in the past five years alone.
There are many self-made filmmakers in Ethiopia, who without even going to formal school succeed to produce some of the commercially successful movies. Tewodros Teshome, who started making movies with the skills he acquired while working in a photography studio, has already made a big impact in the Ethiopian film industry. His movies Kezkaza Wolafen, Fikir Siferd, Key Sihtet and now Sost Maezen have been popular and market success. His courage to invest and reinvest huge capital into filmmaking has earned him praise from industry observers; though some have reservations about the roles he plays in some of his movies. “He should be given the credit as a pioneer and should be appreciated for his commitments and relentless investment” argues Tefaye.
Nevertheless, Tewodros considers himself a groundbreaker for opening Ethiopia up to digital filmmaking. However, the director and producer also has some regrets that he could have set a ‘higher standard’ of filmmaking had he exerted extra effort in his movie Kezkaza Wolafen. “People tend to use [the movie] as a template and much better films may have been made had I set the bar higher” he told EBR.
A growing number of people are now investing in movie-making as it has become a profitable business, Tewodros asserts. Back then, only a few people used to be engaged in the sector. Many other filmmakers have made some of the relatively good movies afterwards, such as “Semayawi Feres”, by Serawit Fikre, a commercially successful movie whose theme explores the Blue Nile and one man’s quest to harness its potential.
The Young Bloods
Young filmmakers have been exerting aggressive efforts in improving the production quality of films made in the country and they have been successful so far. Yonas Birhane Mewa is one example of these success stories. Yonas, who began his filmmaking career with Yegizew Sewoch, starring the now popular singer, Ejigayehu Shibabaw (Gigi) when he was a teenager, later went to the United States to study filmmaking. “With this tryout, I realized that making movies need enormous knowledge and decided to study the science of filmmaking” says Yonas remembering the time he started a career which made him one of the popular filmmakers today.
Returning home after seven years of rigorous study and practical training, at the San Francisco and Wayne State Universities in California and Michigan, Yonas has produced 11 movies in the past ten years. These include some of the market successes such as Hermela, Yemoriam Midir, Baletaxiw and Mekaniku. His 12th feature film Bitania will be released soon. “When we started making movies 10 years ago the business was not on its feet, rather it followed the trend of theaters” Yonas told EBR. “Since the theaters fee was ETB10, we used to charge the same amount to show our movies; the process used to be a trial and error exercise”.
Another young filmmaker Yidnekachew Shumete, who started filmmaking while teaching videography at one of the training institutes in Addis Ababa, has directed two of the commercially successful films. His films Siryet and Nishan are recognized as ‘different’ from most of the films produced and marketed in the country. “I want to put my philosophy and thoughts in my movies rather than putting what the market wants” he said. The acceptance both from the audiences and critics has been remarkable” he added. His second movie Nishan was screened among the 16 movies selected from more than 1,000 movies submitted for the best feature film selection at Festival Pan-African du Cinema de Ouagadougou (FESPACO), the ‘African Oscar’. It has also been featured in several film festivals in the US, Europe and Latin America as well.
Many of the filmmakers operating in the country at the moment are young self-made producers, who learnt the techniques and business of filmmaking on their own way.
The Business and the Money
Capital investment in feature filmmaking has grown from a few hundred thousand birr a decade ago to more than a million now. The contribution of inflation, like in any other sector is visible in the surge for increased financial needs. Films such as Nishan and Mekaniku have cost ETB700 and 750 thousand respectively. While, Sost Maezen, a film about illegal migration by Tewodros Teshome which is on screens now, has been said to cost in millions since it includes scenes in far remote desert and on the sea. Some parts of the movie were also shot in Mexico and the United States. According to Tewodros, some of the post production activities –such as the sound and animation– were done in the United States with the cost of USD85,000 (close to ETB1.7 million), though the director declined to disclose the total cost of the movie.
“In Ethiopia we only have some of the most essential crew members and technicians necessary in filmmaking” says one of the directors EBR approached. Several responsibilities and activities are taken care of by few individuals usually familiar with the producer. Some of the inputs are also acquired through sponsorship and cooperation. For example, many filmmakers use costumes received through sponsorships from tailors and fashion designers rather than hiring a costume designer and paying for expenses.
On the other hand, payment to actors and actresses as well as other crew members and professionals has grown astoundingly. Ten years ago the highest payment for lead acting roles used to be ETB3,000- 7,000. The figure has now grown to more than tenfold. Prominent male actors request from ETB75,000 – 120,000 to play in the lead acting roles in feature films, while payment for lead female actresses has also reached ETB70,000-100,000. A film director is paid from ETB60,000-70,000 on average, whereas the fee for film scripts has grown to ETB40,000-50,000. Makeup artists are also paid around ETB50,000.
The first Ethiopian film to achieve international recognition was directed by Haile Gerima, an independent filmmaker and professor of film at Howard University, Washington DC, the United States. His movie Teza, has won several acclamations including: best film award at FESPACO which took the Stallion of Yenenga (named after the horse of the famous warrior Queen of the Mossi of Burkina Faso) to East Africa for the first time. It has also won the Special Jury and Best Screenplay awards at the Venice Film Festival, (in the best screenplay category, Slumdog Millionaire placed second and won the Best Film at the American Oscars and became highly successful, while very few people who aren’t related with films outside Ethiopia have heard of Teza), a Golden Taint for best film at the Carthage film festival, and other several awards in different film festivals.
One important feature of filmmaking is that many filmmakers also get sponsorships to produce their movies. Several businesses, companies and other institutions sponsor production; they pay a substantial amount of money to promote their products and services in the movies, as well as to inculcate their missions in the stories. Aida Ashenafi’s film Guzo was the first Ethiopian movie to be shown on Ethiopian Airlines, the airline provided a sponsorship grant of ETB250,000 for the production.
The Quality Problem
All this growth and recognition isn’t without faults. A lecturer at Yoftahe Nigussie School of Theatrical Arts at Addis Ababa University watches this development cautiously. Though the number of films produced, and the money involved has increased substantially, the quality of the films in respective to arts and cinematography seems flat, he explained to EBR. “The qualities of sounds and pictures have in fact improved thanks to the digital technology, but other artistic and cinematographic elements as well as the themes and stories in movies haven’t shown significant improvements” he argues refering some of the movies he has watched.
Although a large number of youth in urban areas enjoy local films, western films familiar moviegoers aren’t satisfied with the quality of local films. Mekedes Nega, 31, is one of such movie lovers who thinks life without movies [and music] would be unbearable. “I have seen Hollywood movies from Gone with the Wind to Avatar” she claims when approached by EBR while she was getting tickets at Mathi Cenema. (The cinema, located inside Edna Mall around the booming Bole Medhanialem Business District in Downtown Addis Ababa, is a privately-owned venue that screens newly released Hollywood blockbusters and Ethiopian movies.) “I have also seen many of the movies produced locally but I have never been satisfied with any of them” she adds. She attributes her dissatisfaction to the absence of professional elements in the movies, mainly a plot. “They [Ethiopian movies] lack a lot of things you would expect from a movie, mainly a story” she adds.
One reason why local movies have not satisfied the expectations of moviegoers is due to their genres, which in recent years have become more or less similar – comedy or romantic comedy. Another moviegoer, Thomas Urgesa, is “sick and tired” of watching these similar genre films. “The plots are very similar in several of the movies I have watched” he reflects to EBR. “The themes of the films usually revolve around the affluent and simple way of life with fun and comedy scenes in the cities, particularly in Addis Ababa.” Thomas adds. “This is not the only way of life in Ethiopia, if movies are supposed to show our lives”.
In the initial years of filmmaking in Ethiopia, the genre of the movies was focused on showing the dark side of life; portraying crime, murder and corruption Yonas Berhane explains. These days most of the movies produced and marketed locally are either comedy, or romantic comedies. Filmmakers believe that such movies are what the market needs. Despite the commercial success his films have achieved, Yonas isn’t contented with the level of the film industry in the country. “Though art is meant to show basic challenges and ways of life in the society, our movies are mostly market-oriented and couldn’t do that” he says. “We are just not doing art for the sake of art” he confesses.
Several of the stakeholders EBR has approached agree on one thing, in a country where there is no formal education at a university level on filmmaking, the growth of the industry has been encouraging, but improvement is needed in all spheres. Some say with the absence of critical filmgoers who watch most of the films on screen, improvement may take time.
Yonas argues, in a country where the art of watching film is a new phenomenon, the responsibility of producing quality movies solenly goes to the filmmakers, the cinema houses and the government in producing and screening better quality films.
Yidnekachew Shumete has made films that are not in the romantic comedy genre, and yet has been successful. He argues that even though the demand in the market dictates the success and failure of films thematic and cinematographic qualities of movies can still win over the taste of the audiences. Teza which has been a ground breaking in bringing thought provoking stories and of course, the highest level of cinematography is one good example of this, he asserts. An Amharic movie has never been seen with that intensity, he says.
The Long Queue at the Cinema Halls
It is not only the movie goers who stand in a queue at the gates of the cinema; filmmakers too have to get to the queues to get their films screened for the public. In government-owned cinemas film producers wait up to two years to get their turn, whereas in privately owned cinema they have to pass the criteria set by the cinemas – to present a movie that film goers would like or “laugh” at.
The number of cinemas has grown parallel to the number of films produced in the country, though it still can’t satisfy the high demand. There are now 15 cinemas in Addis Ababa where movies are premiered in big screens. These include three of the state owned cinemas; Ambassador Theater, Cinema Ethiopia and Cinema Empire which have 1,447, 1,012 and 805 seats respectively. There are also 12 privately owned cinemas with accommodation capacities of more than 100 seats. The Addis Ababa City Culture and Tourism Bureau give permission to screen movies to cinemas that has a minimum of 100 seats.
Understanding this, many buildings in Addis Ababa are re-designing their facilities to have cinemas. Many new buildings are also including cinemas as part of their real estate business. Buildings that have cinemas attract a large number of visitors per day, which contributes well to tenants interest to acquire a place at a higher rate. The opening of a new cinema at Getu Commercial Center on Africa Avenue and dedication of a floor at the Zefmesh Building around Megenagna are good examples.
Sebastopol Entertainment Plc, owned by Tewodros Teshome, is constructing a six-storey multiplex in Arada District at a cost of ETB50 million. The multiplex will have 10 cinemas, five with 250 seats, two with 400, the other two with 600 seats and the biggest one with 1,000 seats. The top two stories of the building will have a sound stage where much of the resources needed to shoot movies will be available. The earth work for construction has already started.
Edna Mall, which has Mathi Cinema around Bole Medhanealem, is also planning to build a new cinema soon. Dembel and Ambassador real estates have also plans to include cinemas in their buildings.
Ethiopia’s rich and diverse culture, history, geography and topography make the country favorable for filmmaking. “Government should enact a policy for filmmaking by separating it from other sectors and it can earn the country a substantial income and help in image-building” urges Tesfaye Mamo, president of the Ethiopian Filmmakers Association. He argues that a policy that encourages and supports co-production of films with those who have vast knowledge and experience in the sector, will help with technology and knowledge transfer.
Filmmaking and screening has come a long way through the commitments and efforts of individuals. Now, policy-makers should work towards institutionalizing and enhancing its development to the next professional level. Creating connection and opening up the sector for more advanced and experienced foreign filmmaking companies will help achieve this.
Some countries joined the movie industry very recently and have registered a remarkable achievement, Nigeria being a good case in point. The Nigerian Film Industry hit a turning point when Living in Bondage hit the market in 1992, and when the government set up a favorable atmosphere for filmmaking. Government and institutions need to support the production of Cinematic Arts, which will help in applying the principles of the discipline. As it stands, the movie making ‘industry’ is inclined to satisfy the taste of the audience. That is why the genre of most films is either comedy or romantic comedies, which are genres the audience enjoys more.
Producers, directors, cinemas and others involved in the sector should sacrifice to help the ‘industry’ grow a step ahead rather than focusing on money-making motives and disregarding the development of the art. The ‘industry’ should evolve to higher standards of professionalism at all aspects. Otherwise, film goers may not label the films as the “works of devil”, but may refuse to pay as aristocrats of Menelik II did a century ago. EBR