Telenovela Genre

“The Telenovela Genre has not Caught on in Ethiopia.”

Samuel HabtabMarch 15, 202112910

Producing a television drama series that airs daily is overambitious, especially considering the broadcast production capacity of Ethiopia. Yet, new approaches are emerging to capture the growing viewership of addictive TV series.
Sewmehon Yismah, 38, is Founder of Sewmehon Film Production. He recently reached an agreement with DStv to produce the first-of-its-kind daily show, titled Adey. The script of the series is contextually adapted from English and other foreign languages. Once produced with localized characters in Ethiopia, it will be aired on a new TV channel to be launched on DStv. DStv outsourced the production to Sewmehon, a new arrangement in Ethiopia’s television drama series production history.
Sewmehon, a movie maker and cinematographer, has produced sensational music clips including Mar Eske Twaf and a number of Amharic movies like Balageru and Sewnetwa, displaying quality that DStv could not ignore. He is also currently producing a documentary on the life and work of Tilahun Gessesse. EBR’s Samuel Habtab visited Sewmehon’s studio to converse on his upcoming work.

What is the concept of the TV series production? Some say it is new to Ethiopia but has been done in other countries.

I was previously better known for creating advertisement productions. But as of recently, I have been working on dramatic television series, similar to the telenovela genre.
The telenovela genre has not caught on in Ethiopia. It is a daily television drama show common in Latin America. Brazil, Spain, and Argentina have especially produced many telenovela shows over several years. The actors become family because they work together daily. The story narration is kind of mellow dramatic.

We are working with Multichoice Ethiopia for this project. The show originally has 160 episodes and is written by Indians, I believe. It is also being produced in Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana, and many other countries. All the countries adapt the script’s idea to their own context.
We have tailored it with indigenous Ethiopian knowledge. The plot line and characters are not changed but the movie will have an Ethiopian feel.

Is the script directly copied from abroad and rewritten in Ethiopia?
We first translated the script from English and modified it to Ethiopia’s context. They bring the English script and we translate the idea. It is a contextual translation. There are nine writers working on this. Our company does the production. The name of the company is Sewmehon Film Production.

If the movie is in Amharic, does it have subtitles?
The movie is made in Amharic and will have English subtitles.
The series will be streamed on a new DStv channel. So, it will have high visibility in other African nations. It will promote our culture and actors to other African countries. It is a different format with many advantages.
The format is completely different from weekly dramatic series, films, or daily shows. It has unique specifications and certain presentation standards. It has its own way of telling the story. It will be streamed every evening.
It is very challenging to produce such content especially regarding deadline issues.

What themes are common in telenovelas?
Telenovelas are novel stories written on various topics like love, but of longer duration. It is like a soap opera, but different at the same time. It can go on for up to two years. It is kind of like Cinderella stories in which a poor boy loves a girl from a rich family. Or maybe about the adventure of pursuing a criminal. The stories are very simplistic, non-complicated, and melodramatic.
It is also called ‘middle class’ because it is made for that sector of society. It is kind of a movie that everybody can watch.

How did DStv initially approach you and give our company this opportunity? Was it through bidding or selection?
DStv conducted research for many years on the producers and movies in this country. They evaluated movies produced by us. We have good productions but have no experience with TV drama shows and usually take time to produce. This forced them to compromise but they wanted to capitalize on our strong side of quality production. So, they picked us after comparing our previous works with other producers.

They gave us ample time to create a backlog. The whole production time should take a year and nine months. It has been three months since we began with pre-production taking one month. We have currently shot around 21 episodes.

They bring people onboard using two mechanisms. They either commission actors to work on the movie or they rent the production license.
After first receiving payment from them we bring on the actors and production crew, then produce the movie and give them the content. It is their content and we have nothing to add. We do the casting and artistic works but they might forward suggestions. There are specifications on the type of HD camera and sound we have to use.

How much do they pay your company?
They work with many people, not only us. If I disclose the price, other people will quote me to negotiate with them. I do not know if it is big or small but they pay us nice.
The deal was initially awarded to others before they selected our company. While preparing with the previous group they saw our movie ‘Sewnetwa’. That is when they said we need to see who produced this movie and came to us.

There is a rumor that they picked you through a bid.
It is difficult to find a good producer of cinematic art through bidding. If I want to hire a director, I do not float a bid. I look for an artist who has the quality I want. They tested us before hiring us and also saw our previous productions. We adapted the synopsis, produced a sample, and sent it to them. This took two months. It was not a simple process.

How many crew members do you have working on the cinematography?
We have 35 crew for now. We have a full-fledged production crew.

Can you tell us the name of the channel?
It is a new channel that is going to be launched on DStv. I cannot disclose the name of the channel now.

What about the title? Who came up with the title?
Adey. It is the name of one of the female characters in the movie. I gave it that title. The story itself starts in Meskerem, in the season where flowers bloom. Adey is a flower in Amharic. So, the title is associated with the character and the season. Plus, the flower’s color yellow is our major color and theme. The story is simple so that house maids, the rich, the poor, and everybody can gather and watch with equal enjoyment. It has no complications. You just enjoy it.

Can you tell us the names of the actors?
The main actor, Israel, is actually a singer in a choir called Merewa. The main female actor is Bemnet and this is her first movie. All of the characters are fresh faces. Producing for television is challenging but we did our best.

How did you pick the locations?
Locations for telenovelas are very limited. There is a big house in which almost 80Pct is placed in. Characters move between the bedroom, living room, and kitchen. It is manageable because the production does not go to many places. It is shot around Entoto and Legetafo. It is mostly indoor shooting.
Does the original version or the adapted story prevail more? For instance, is Adey more foreign or Ethiopian?
She is Ethiopian.

Any last words?
Everything about this series is new. The genre, channel, and even the actors. We exerted big energy and emotion, despite challenges. Television has its own type of actors, just like it has its own kind of spectator. So, we tried to cast fresh actors so the viewer will not be irritated or bored too early. Of course, the story is also strong and very attractive. I urge people to buy DStv and watch this upcoming production. EBR


9th Year • Feb 16 – Mar 15 2021 • No. 95

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