Way back when Amharic drama artistry was limited to theatrical performances, ‘Hirut, Abatua Manew’ paved the way as the first cinematic Amharic film production. On August 29, 1965, the first ever Ethiopian movie made its debut at the emperor Haile Selassie I theatre, present day National Theatre. Produced by the then national film and commercial institute, the movie blazed a trail for any and all Ethiopian movies that followed.
A story that follows a 1940’s woman from Nazareth to Addis Ababa and then Asmera, a well-funded project with a budget of 200,000 birr, managed to capture issues considered taboo for its time on a 30-millimeter black and white camera. The movie was written and produced by Elala Ipssa, while the director’s chair was occupied by the Greek director, Lambros Yokaris.
The audience is given an insight into the life of the young and shy Hirut, back in Nazareth, where she meets an older man “Gugsa” who piques her interest. She falls for him, consummating their love in Nazareth, where he afterwards leaves for Addis Ababa bringing her nothing but unrequited love and a baby. As soon as he makes it to Addis, the good-looking musician is met with misfortune, ending up in jail for 15 years.
Unaware of his misfortune, Hirut sets out for Addis in search of her first love with her daughter in-tow. The tragic story then unfolds as she tries to provide the best life for her daughter “Abeba” ending up in Asmera in search of a better life for the two of them. Met with ridicule over having a daughter without a father or constantly being asked “who the father is?” the young woman is seen navigating life through all this chaos.
On January 5th 2022, this epic tale was brought forth to viewers after having been digitalized two years prior for new cinema viewing, debuting at Sheraton Addis in the presence of honored guests and diaspora’s. Another viewing was offered to the general public on January 7, 2022 at Ambassador Theatre, Cinema Ethiopia and Cinema Empire. The timeless movie was introduced to younger audiences who were not fortunate enough to have witnessed the masterpiece.
Having a female lead for such a big budget movie was a giant leap forward for moviemakers back then, touching on issues of single motherhood and the challenges of being a woman, where the world views you either as a wife, a mother or a spinster.
Abebech Ejigu, who played ‘Hirut’, portrayed the character in such a nuanced manner; it made audiences sympathize with her back when the single motherhood life was frowned upon.
The issues the movie raised still stand relevant in today’s day and age, where women face the same ridicule. Hirut is portrayed as a strong woman living for her daughter despite facing issues and circumstances that made her an outcast in the society.
Those fortunate enough to experience the movie either 57 or 35 years ago, remember the excitement of getting to see and hear their own language on the big screens.
“I was in complete shock. I was 23 at the time and I had seen movies before but only movies in other languages, it was 35 years ago and I may not remember the plot of the movie, but I vividly remember how it made me feel. I ran home right after to tell my family how I got to see a movie in Amharic made by Ethiopian actors and actresses. It was a magical experience where representation mattered,” Mekdes Sime told The Reporter recalling her experience at that time.
The movie has had quite a long journey, making its debut in other parts of the country like Bahir Dar 24 years ago. The then Culture and Tourism Minister, Alemayehu Gebrehiwot, recalled having to take the movie to the then newly opened Mulualem cultural center in Bahir Dar.
“We were showing an Egyptian movie about the Nile called “fountains of the sun” before taking ‘Hirut, Abatua Manew?’, ‘Aster’ (the first color movie) and Guma,” Alemayehu said as he recalled the movie having a significant value even at a time when color movies were just starting to surface.
“The movie made me nostalgic for a time. I remember, upon my first viewing, it had strong family values that made me long for my home and family. It was not my first Amharic movie; my first Amharic movie was Haile Gerima’s, Mert 3000 Amet. I knew ‘Hirut, Abatua Manew?’ influenced Gerima’s work,” added Alemayehu.
Even though a lot of movies came out after it, the relevance of Hirut, Abatua Manew? Is still visible all these years later, serving as a time capsule that gives us a glimpse into the past when life looked much simpler, yet individual problems persisted in the same way.
The beauty of cinema is in its timeless nature, being able to share and look at the same set of images was a magical experience on its own. On top of that, one must be able to look back at the past. Ethiopia’s cinematic history might have kicked-off in a strong start but one may not be able to tell that looking at the cinematic experience in today’s Ethiopia.
The digitization of the epic tale hopefully will serve as inspiration to current and future filmmakers of the country, to tell stories that do not revolve around romance or the comedic fails of a cartoonish romance.