A Fact-Finding Report from Ethiopia
A Fact-finding Mission to Ethiopia in Support of the Emerging Film Talent and Film Industry
By Ragnhild Ek
The Global Film Expression (GFE), an initiative by the International Emerging Talent Film Festival (IETFF) in Monaco, aims to provide opportunities and education to those who lack the resources for cinematic expression. Ethiopia, ravaged by war, famine, drought and AIDS, but thirsty for education, skills and tools to use film as a means for change, was chosen as the pilotcountry during the festival in May 2007.
In order to expedite the launch of the GFE in Ethiopia, a fact-finding mission was undertaken to Addis Ababa (13–16 June 2007), collecting information on the status of Ethiopian filmmaking and the needs of the filmmakers. This mission was facilitated and attended by Ambassador Tadelech H/Michael. However, I’m solely responsible for the contents of this report.
Discussions were held with Ethiopian authorities and representatives of the Ethiopian broadcasting as well as the private sector, including veteran as well as emerging filmmakers, the previous and current head of the Ethiopian Film Association, and business people.
There is a widespread awareness of the critical role Ethiopian film could play in changing the image of the country, as well as depicting its country’s ancient heritage of culture, religion and art, the beauty of its varied landscape, multitude of ethnic groups, its checkered history and dramas of daily life.
The discussions centered on the resources needed as well as problems encountered by the emerging talent. Our interlocutors repeatedly called for ways and means of supporting and training Ethiopian filmmakers in their own country. With Ethiopian cinema in its infancy, the immediate aim is to build a quality film infrastructure with professional crews, equipment, knowledge and experience. However, the ultimate long-term aspiration is to make the country an important potential location not only for national but also for international film productions, both within the documentary as well as feature film fields. This, however, will require substantial planning, advice and investment in capacity-building.
Until some ten years ago the number of films shot in Ethiopia were limited and largely produced by established Ethiopian filmmakers trained and mostly residing abroad. And while problems of red tape and bureaucracy may be a problem of the past, the filmmakers still face an uphill battle against budgetary constraints, lack of domestic training and screening opportunities, as well as understanding of film production, limiting the number of films produced in the country. But, while the new generation clearly sees the potential of the industry, not least through looking towards West Africa (Nigeria & Ghana) and more recently neighboring Kenya, lessons need to be drawn on how to successfully marry quantity with quality and learn from developments in similar markets.
Watching movies is undoubtedly popular in Ethiopia, with American, as well as European, Indian and Arabic films showing at the cinemas or rented through numerous DVD/video distributors in the main cities. Increasingly, Ethiopian-made films are appearing on the screens, and some cinemas have started concentrating on domestic productions. Until recently there were only a limited number of government-owned cinemas (theaters), but increasingly private cinema houses are opening. However, with most of Ethiopia’s 75 million people struggling below the poverty line, many can ill afford to go and see a movie, and thus providing access to film to a broader part of the community is another challenge to be addressed in due course.
(a) Addis Ababa University is exploring the establishment of a film school and the president of the University, Prof. Andreas Eshete and Prof Abiy Tasse underlined the need for support and advice to make this endeavor possible, as they aim to make it a reality in the coming year.
The process of developing a draft syllabus for filmmaking has already been initiated, and a workshop to discuss this draft syllabus is being planned - tentatively for the end of July or early August 2007. The participants would include
- Government representatives, i.e. decision-makers from the ministries of Capacity Building, Tourism and Culture, etc;
- Educational institutions;
- Ethiopian filmmakers;
- Selected African and Western filmmakers with relevant experience; and
- The private sector.
Ideally the courses would include the art of cinematography / cinema and media studies, directing, editing, producing, production design, screenwriting, sound design, etc including comprehensive training with hands-on experience in filmmaking. The structure would make it possible to provide shorter courses covering creative and practical fields in both film and television for people looking to improve their skills, but also allow students to build a selection of courses towards full-length university degrees.
The lack of in-country educators is a big concern. But a pool of existing filmmakers and film educators, particularly Ethiopians in the Diaspora with relevant skills and familiarity with the culture and language, has been identified to kick-start the training. To encourage visiting educators, support will be needed to cover travel, subsistence costs, stipends and/or salaries.
(b) Ministry of Capacity-Building
The minister of Capacity-Building Ato Tefera Waluwa underlined the commitment of the government in supporting the development of Ethiopian filmmaking. He would very much welcome international assistance and underlined his Ministry’s readiness to provide the
necessary political and administrative support needed for the development of the film industry. A focal person was assigned to follow up on his behalf.
(c) The Ethiopian Film Association and Ethiopian filmmakers
Discussions regarding the Ethiopian film industry in general and highlighting the problems faced by the emerging talent in particular, were also held with
- Ethiopia’s Film Association – both the former head Tafari Wossen, and the current head Tesfaye Mamo, as well as current members;
- Pioneer filmmakers – all trained abroad - including Michel Papatakis, and
- Emerging talent - representing the most successful Ethiopian young producers/directors producing among the best productions and whose feature films are currently showing at Addis Ababa cinemas. They had no formal film training though except 'on-line courses', in one case a couple of short courses in the US, and 'trial-and-error' during production.
These discussions covered both the past history and the current problems. The transition ‘from celluloid to video’ is hampered by the lack of trained players, scarce resources and experience. However, the potential in the domestic market and among the large Ethiopian expatriate community, coupled with the ease of accessing digital technology regardless of professional background and know-how, is fueling a rapid surge of often rudimentary productions.
FROM CELLULOID TO VIDEO
Ethiopian films and the status of its industry reflect the opportunities, or lack of such, during the different stages of Ethiopia’s modern history: the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie (1930- 1974); the Derg/Mengistu regime (1974-1991) and the current EPRDF government.
The Ethiopian Film Corporation
A first step towards building an Ethiopian film industry was taken over thirty years ago, when the country provided the set for the filming of Shaft in Africa (MGM -1973) and the local production Gouma (1975) by Michel Papatakis. This triggered the launch of the Ethiopian Film Corporation as a center for an Ethiopian film industry and co-productions, equipped with substantial film and editing gear, incl 35 mm Arriflex with accessories and Nagra soundrecorders, and funded by the income from the government-owned cinemas. It was eventually divided into two sections, one for news and propaganda; and the other for art productions, which only produced one feature film, Aster, directed by Solomon Bekele.
Following the change of government in 1991, the Film Corporation lost its role. However, among its legacy is a spacious compound, well-located and beautifully set in Addis Ababa, which remains intact with its diverse equipment. It emerged from the discussions that it is a perfect location - hard to otherwise find in the overcrowded capital - for a national film body/centre, training, screenings, small festivals, and even location filming. Many feared that the compound might be at an impending risk of being sold off and stressed the importance of retaining the camera gear and rescuing the compound to the benefit of Ethiopian film industry.
Another legacy from the Mengistu era is a considerable amount of raw footage either spread between different basements in government buildings, or withering away ‘in limbo’, as most ministries were provided with 16 mm cameras, having realized the power of film for propaganda purposes. The footage needs to be preserved, and restored as part of Ethiopian national film and audiovisual archives.
Some of the members of the Film Corporation subsequently formed the Ethiopian Film Association. One of the important issues they are facing is how to bridge the gap between the cineasts trained in traditional film production coming from ‘the old school’ and the new talent embracing digital video as a means of storytelling. It is a challenge to successfully bring together the old filmmakers with the new emerging talent in a ‘revamped’ industry where all skills are desperately needed.
The Emerging Talent
In the past couple of years there has been a real surge in domestic productions ‘made in Ethiopia’. As digital filmmaking has made cinema approachable to the emerging talent, numerous domestic video production companies are increasingly aiming for the big screen and to break into a nascent Ethiopian film market (a sort of Ethiowood). However, while these budding Ethiopian filmmakers are rapidly moving forward with enthusiasm and passion, they lack both training and financial resources, making ‘no-budget’ films primarily shot on video, with postproduction done on Avid Xpress and Final Cut Pro.
It should be noted that British DFID has financed short hands-on courses for youth from underprivileged backgrounds. There are also a couple of private initiatives for film training run by business people rather than professionals from the film industry.
In 2006 a workshop on film was held at the Hilton Hotel, convened by the Indian Ambassador to Ethiopia, discussing the status of Ethiopian film industry and ‘what to do next’.
THE NEEDS IDENTIFIED DURING THE MEETINGS
The areas considered to be in need of intervention covered all aspects of filmmaking – which reflects the fact that Ethiopia is a country with a nascent industry in need of support:
· In-country training opportunities (directing, cinematography, production design, sound design, editing, screenwriting)
· Understanding the legal, financial, business and logistics of production, including
§ How make a budget and how to the film pay off – improving access to cinemas and distribution, as they currently get negligible return from the screenings
§ Marketing, exhibition arrangements, international exposure / festival exposure.
· Funding as grants and/or loans for script development, gear/equipment; productions, distribution, marketing;
· Develop co-production deals with international companies;
· Securing tax breaks and the understanding that film is primarily art, not lucrative business;
· The establishment of a body which provides information and expert knowledge on the industry as well as monitoring and regulatory body;
· Securing the compound owned by the Film Corporation to benefit the Film Industry;
· Preserve materials of interest to cinematic history, which is currently being destroyed through neglect.
HOW TO MEET THE OBJECTIVES OUTLINED IN THE IETFF GLOBAL FILM EXPRESSION PROGRAMME
1. Develop educators that can teach cinema and filmmaking to the nation’s young people
The establishment and staffing of a Department of Cinematography or Film school at Addis Ababa University will require international partnerships and could be one of the key Ethiopian counterparts for the Global Film Expression.
The plans for the Film school will be developed at a workshop in late summer 2007, which would provide an excellent opportunity for the GFE to start its program in Ethiopia. The GFE could co-sponsor the workshop, making the outcome part of a formal base for its future work in the country.
2. Educate young people about the craft of filmmaking, with an emphasis on the practical, expressive capabilities of moving pictures and about the employment opportunities available for those with these skills
The planned Film School will include practical short technical courses, which will require camera and sound gear; editing hardware; editing and graphics software; tapes; training books etc; scholarships for students; as well as support for student productions.
The GFE could provide some of that needed equipment in kind and/or dedicated scholarships. In addition, GFE could send educators for dedicated courses and workshops.
3. Assist interested persons and groups in producing their own films
The emerging filmmakers need a central production and distribution support scheme with cash and kind – the mechanism of which will have to be worked out – to which GFE could be among the donors, and possibly even assume the role of being the initiator. This could also be the base from which a participant is chosen to produce a film, which with the assistance of GFE participates in the International Emerging Talent Film Festival 2008.
The scheme would cover all relevant areas, from providing development support for film ideas and script writing; production financing; legal training; financing and technical support of translation; opportunities for co-productions; as well as support for distribution and participation in international festivals.
4. Screen films for communities that have only limited access, if any, to cinema
This objective was seen as very important, not the least given Ethiopia’s multitude of ethnic groups and languages. There are already video houses at community level around the country, for which the screening of films on DVD and VHS should be regulated before further screening schemes are pursued. However, the support of language versioning/dubbing/sub-titling is already an urgent requirement.
The potential and status of the emerging talent, coupled with the interest shown by the relevant authorities in Ethiopia, underlined that Ethiopia is an important choice by the Emerging Talent Film Festival as a pilot country for its Global Film Expression. The immediate key challenge is how to turn the initiative into a constructive and fundable plan of action – which could make a difference and bring sustainable results.
An important next step for IETFF in pursuing this project would be to participate in the workshop, which Addis Ababa University is preparing. This would make it a player in the discussions on how to provide film education as a means of expression in Ethiopia and serve as a base for the planning and implementation of the GFE initiative.
In this context it should also be mentioned that it is imperative that the existing “film compound”, previously used by the Film Corporation, is secured as a national center for film work. This would facilitate GFE’s involvement but above all support national filmmaking. Not only is the timing conducive; it has to be stressed that ‘time is now’ for any organization interested in assisting aspiring Ethiopian filmmakers and/or participating in the development and capacity-building of the national film industry. It also has to be stressed that there is a vibrant community, both among aspiring students, emerging talent and the established filmmakers, to support and work with, as well as accessible government authorities. The country could also, with the right support, become an attractive and suitable location for international film production and eventually qualify for IETFF’s Global Film Forum. The potential is clearly there ready to be developed, and the overriding challenge will be how to best achieve this goal. There are disperse initiatives in the making and bringing them onto common ground in a focused cohesive plan of support, nurturing and promoting the emerging talent, would be a very important achievement.