Born and raised in Gonder, Sewmehon Yismaw has been fascinated by movies ever since he was a kid. He began his career as a photographer and videographer while still in college, and by the time he had graduated, he was thoroughly enmeshed in the world of videography and had begun his journey into the world of film. He has directed a number of films, including “Ewir Amora Kelabi” and “Sewenetua.” He also oversaw the production of the DSTV channel Abol TV’s telenovela Adey, which aired more than 500 episodes. A TV series based on Addis Alemayehu’s renowned and widely adored novel “Fikir Eske Mekabir” is currently in production, with him at the helm as director and producer. The Director spoke with Rebecca Tewodors of The Reporter about the challenges facing cinematography in Ethiopia, Easter, and upcoming projects. EXCERPTS:
The Reporter: With Easter around the corner, how do you usually celebrate it? How have you been celebrating it since you were a child? What traditions did you have, and which ones do you still take part in these days?
Sewmehon Yismaw: Now, I celebrate it with my family and my kids. Ever since I became a father, I like to celebrate it with my children. My childhood experiences with Easter were amazing. It was a unique experience for me.
I was born and raised in Gondar, so fasting during Easter has a lot of reverence in the community. Any child over the age of seven is required to fast. So as children, we always think about Easter when we fast because that was our day to celebrate and eat.
I remember that during the 55 days of lent, we made a little deposit box and collected money in it for Easter, and when we opened it, it wasn’t more than 3.50 or 4 birr, and we used that money to make our Easter special. We used to do other hilarious things when we were kids, too. As a grown up, I sometimes think about those days, and even the vocabulary we used at that time, I often hear it in Easter commercials, and it just reminds me how it is a special and festive holiday, especially as an orthodox Christian myself.
As part of the celebration, we wake up at 3 a.m. in the morning to break our fast, and my mother used to make flax seed stew, and after we came back from church, she would invite our Muslim neighbors at 3 a.m. before we broke our fast, and then they would eat the stew, and after they leave, we have their leftovers so that our stomach isn’t disturbed from all the heavy fat we have to eat that day.
What’s your favorite thing about Easter now that you celebrate it with your own family and kids?
I love seeing my children become excited when it’s the time of the holidays, especially Easter. We are most excited about Doro wot (chicken stew) and the other traditions like waiting until 3 a.m. until the stew is ready, gathering around with family to eat, the first gursha that you have after 55 days of breaking your fast, the music, and so much more. The chicken stew is one of the things that excites us most.
How did you join the art and screenplay production world?
I have recently started producing movies, but people mostly know me as a cinematographer. I have loved movies ever since I was a kid. I even used to spend the majority of my time at video stores. After I finished high school, I joined the Addis Ababa University School of Commerce, which had no student dormitory, and your only option was to get a place around there with someone you knew. That person for me was my uncle, who was also the one who pushed me to apply there for that specific reason.
My uncle, Tesfaye Yigrem, was a very talented photographer. There used to be a thing called “photo shanta,” where they carried their cameras in a suit case around the city and took pictures. He used to do that around Merkato, and he also had a small photo studio.
I started working with him while I was a student, and I used to take pictures for weddings. Then, I upgraded to videography, and by the time I graduated university, I was fully occupied with working as a videographer. My work started getting better, and people started approaching me with work offers to do music video clips; after that, I transitioned to cinematography.
When I came to making movies, I realized that the way I was raised and where I grew up had a lot to offer for my storytelling direction and techniques. I began pondering how to narrate my stories in my own unique way, and as a result, my narrations began to stand out. People started approaching me to shoot their videos because they recognized and liked them.
The way I narrated my stories had its own vision and aesthetic, so when people approached me, it was to make them films with beautiful aesthetics and great lighting. So that is how I came into the world of cinema.
How was that journey? What challenges did you face? Were there moments where you thought about quitting?
In Ethiopian cinema, I think you feel like quitting every day. It’s a very difficult journey. The first thing to know is that you are not usually able to shoot what you imagine or visualize. There are many reasons as to why that is, and I don’t want that to seem like an excuse for holding me back, but to be honest, I have never shot what I have visualized. Only one of my movies, “Aleme” came close, but with the majority of the movies I made, what I had in mind and what I found on the set were completely different.
There are problems with professionalism, a lack of knowledge, and several other challenges in the cinema industry. Some producers do not usually understand their role in the art as well, so there are not many strong producers, which is also a setback on its own. There are producers that think making movies can be done with a little budget, for example, and I know that is a good quality, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of the movie. Things like this make the process hard.
The main challenges, however, are a lack of knowledge, professionalism, and ethics.
I see some improvements these days because people are more understanding now that television commercials are popular, and they started paying a better price than they used to for quality work. For one movie that is 1 hour and 45 minutes long, they used to pay 500,000 birr; now they pay one million birr for a one-minute commercial. It’s becoming a larger industry, and client expectations have increased, so you start to experiment to deliver something better. So, the whole journey is better now, but it’s still challenging.
How do you keep the balance between the passion for the art and profit-making, or the business side of the art?
That is a great question. This is something I say very often. I have started giving my scripts to other people because I don’t think I can do them justice at this age, having realized that I might not finish them. That is because I have not been paying attention to certain things when I had the time. I think I should understand the cinema vocabulary more because finance is very critical to cinema.
Cinema needs you to experiment, but you cannot always do that since it is expensive. You also need to be working with other people around you, like the actors, the crew, post- and pre-production, and then there are people that you approach for access to their homes and compounds. There are many things in this field of work. When you do it only for passion, you can do it freely, but you get paid a little amount, and when the work ends, so does the money, which is a vicious cycle in itself.
At some point, there has to be another way in which you can make the money. How it worked out for me is that I got into advertising and producing commercials while still doing my movies, which was able to balance it for me. I can live with the money I get from the commercials while still working on movies and focusing on my passion.
I believe that you have to work to earn money and that you have to gain something back from the audience, be it money or something else; there is nothing called passion alone. Passion drives you, but you still have to work for money. When you really think about doing something and you execute it perfectly, it will bring you financial freedom. It was difficult at first, but it’s the way you handle it that creates the balance. By doing so, this line of work can be profitable, contrary to what most people believe.
Filmmaking requires business administration or marketing so that you can find the balance in it all.
What do you think about the current generation’s aesthetic appetite? Whether it’s in music or film, is it more cultural or western? Are people more busy with inflation than enjoying art? What do you think?
For me personally, I think balance is important, especially for the young generation. The way you dress or the things you use in your day-to day lives might not be from Ethiopia, but at the end of the day, you are an Ethiopian; you cannot deny that. There should be a definition of what is Ethiopian and what isn’t to conclude the aesthetic.
For example, if you told me the music Gildo makes isn’t Ethiopian, I would have to question your judgment. Why? Because a certain group of Ethiopians is enjoying that music, they’re having a good time with it. So how can you judge that? It’s an art. The most powerful thing about art is that it is subjective, but that is also the most beautiful thing. You might not like something I love, but that’s okay.
There might be a drama where an Ethiopian mother is portrayed as living in poverty and sitting with her kids, feeding them dinner, and you might think that’s a beautiful Ethiopian character. There might be another Ethiopian mother who is portrayed as someone who fights with her husband and throws things at him, but she is also an Ethiopian character.
In fact, one of the negative things about Ethiopian cinema is that they associate poverty with being Ethiopian. There are Ethiopians who live a luxurious life as well, if you were to portray them as Ethiopians. You have to find the balance within this, and the youth have to be progressive about these ideas. It is through this journey, which I am also on, that I believe you can find your own language, vision, and voice.
With the current situation of the country, both politically and economically, do you believe that people are distracted by it too much?
I believe that, politics-wise, the generations look like their leaders. Each generation was influenced to a certain extent by the leaders and administration that it had. With each leader, there were great differences in the beliefs, the art, the fashion, and the culture of the generation. The current generation is in a mess with ethnic differences. So how does one artist show their work in these situations?
I have done videos for the Office of the Prime Minister, for example, and that makes me feel like I have supported and contributed to my country. It might backfire, however, or be perceived wrongly, so it is better for an artist to focus solely on the country as a whole rather than the government.
Political analyses dominate entertainment, such as those found on YouTube. There is also the cancel culture, which is a problem because if someone does something regarded as wrong, then everyone turns against them. We should be less judgmental and look within ourselves first. My fear is that the art is going to be full of lies rather than being dominated by strong and genuine ideas.
When do you think the Ethiopian film industry will grow?
It is changing a lot now. There are two things when it comes to the language of cinema: grammar and vocabulary. The grammar is the visual aspect, which has shown growth because technology is advancing and many cameras with great qualities are available. A lot of young and energetic kids who are great at manipulating these cameras are also on the rise, so the grammar of the cinematic world is growing. The vocabulary, which is the thing you are going to present, needs a lot of work now.
My biggest fear is not knowing if the youth are willing to read, if they go to art galleries and exhibitions, if they are willing to ask about the histories of their families, or if they are explorers. I went to Afar recently, and I know Afar, but I didn’t actually know it until I went there. It is such a beautiful place, and it looks like another planet. If I were to shoot a scene from Afar, the world would look at it with shock. This is how vocabulary can be built by traveling. It is very important to work on the content to make something that has a future.
The side-by-side growth of the grammar and vocabulary is essential. If the video is amazing but the content is not appealing, it would be embarrassing. The strength of the content truly matters, as we have seen on Tik Tok and YouTube, where people will watch low-quality videos if the content is strong. In fact, a person would rather watch an hour of Tik Tok videos than an hour-long movie because of the content.
You have made a lot of movies that haven’t gone to market; why is that?
They have only been released on YouTube. I think only one of my movies is on YouTube, and that is because the producer released it. It is mainly because of the kind of movie I made.
If we were to talk of the last two movies I made, both “Sewenetua,” a movie about illegal migration of women, especially to Arab countries, which I made with the International Labor Organization, and ‘Ewer Amora Kelabi’, a docudrama about a young boy who migrated to Canada through Egypt, had a good reception from the audience, especially around film festivals. However, there are times when the investment you put into the work and the amount you gain when you present it to society do not balance each other. So, it is usually the call of the producers.
The movies that I produced I still haven’t released on YouTube because I don’t think they’re worth it right now. I might do it one day when we have our own platform, but I don’t want to do it now. If you asked me why, I wouldn’t know, to be honest.
We also have the tendency to destroy opportunities. YouTube, for example, is one of the biggest platforms, but there is something called YouTube films, which is very low class and just a pastime when someone is bored. When you put your film in that category, you are forced to join that category, and the quality of the story is reduced in our country.
Do you think that TV series and dramas have a larger audience now than movies?
Yes. I believe that television is a medium that is going to have a short life in Ethiopia because it requires a lot of strategy. Ethiopian TV was the only medium for a very long time, so every category of content, including sports, art, drama, and thousands of other programs, were mashed into one station. When new TV channels came along, they followed suit and did the same thing.
Focused content is very important. When Kana first started, people thought it was successful because it showed western movies. The reality is that it was because it was focused. Focused content is what is being done all over the world.
Before this was fixed, a stronger social media impact came from sites like YouTube. When I go to make deals with TV channels, I always say that the YouTube content is my own because it’s the preferred medium rather than TV. People don’t see TV like before because it’s on our phones, and soon enough, it will be completely unnecessary. It’s not like radio, which is a very strong medium and has been coping and persisting through the ages.
When TV channels make deals, they know that their biggest revenue comes from YouTube, so when they make a deal, they make sure to also have YouTube rights and don’t just make it free to air. You can make seven million birr in just 20 episodes, which is a lot of money. So, TV is going to disappear, but the audience still prefers TV to the cinema because of accessibility. There are also platforms like Netflix that are being tried out in our country, and when that comes, it’s a done deal.
How many hours do you work daily? How do you keep that up with other hobbies that you have or with making sure you have time with your family?
I sleep a maximum of four hours a night; I work really hard. I usually write a lot at night and, if I am up early, in the mornings. Other than that, if there is something that I need to shoot, I will be doing that or planning for it. You can always find me around the camera or editing. I am also currently involved in producing, which has become my other hobby.
Considering all of this, I work for about 16–18 hours a day. What I did to balance work with family time is that I made sure to live right across my office. That way, I can see my kids whenever I have free time or when I have lunch because my house is within walking distance. When they lived farther away, it was tough, and there were times I didn’t see them for two days or so because I left early and came back late. The time I was working on Adey, I didn’t see them for weeks, and they used to come on set to visit me, which was really tough.
Can we talk about the Adey drama TV series? How did it go, and how was the reception?
Adey was experimental for us because we challenged the system with our work. It was our first time working on a drama that is aired on TV five days a week. It is tough in this country to do this kind of thing, and a lot of people questioned how we were going to do it because even in dramas that were aired only once a week, there were times when the scenes weren’t aired completely until the last minute, and sometimes, it wouldn’t be completed in time so it was covered up.
The first two months were the hardest, but we adapted. I believe it was the Kenyans who held the record by doing 35 scenes a day, and we broke that record because we did 36 scenes in one day, which means we shot one and a half episodes in a day. We also paid our actors really well so that they were always there and did their jobs really well. That is why we successfully finished more than 500 episodes within two years without having a single blackout.
Are you currently planning to adapt other novels for the big screen?
Yes. Currently, we are collaborating with Ethiopian Television to work on the Fikir Eske Mekaber’ television series. We are building the set, which is from the 1920s, and we are trying to make it look as close to it as possible. This is our biggest project, and it has our full attention. It was written in 1958 by Addis Alemayehu, and in 1974, artist Wegayehu Negatu narrated it. Now it’s our turn, and we want to show people what it will look like visually. We are struggling to make that happen.
When changing novels into movies or television series in Ethiopia, it is really difficult, and only a few people have been able to do it. How did you manage to do that?
Yes, it’s definitely not easy, but it’s not impossible. It depends on how much time you spend on it, how well you master the book, how well you understand cinema, how well you understand the concept of adaptation, and what you want to express to the generation with this movie.
We are trying to understand the book before executing it; there are more than 70 researches done on the Fikir Eske Mekabir book, and we are trying to read and understand each perspective. We want to know how people perceive it, and in the end, we want to go out with our own voice. It needs dedication and confidence.
Most people, like the families, are not willing because they have this belief that if a book is made into a movie or a series, there will be less printing of books. But in other countries, the book gets sold way more than it usually does when the movie comes out. Mainly, the problem is not having a proper understanding. I am sure that a week before the movie ‘Fikir eske Mekaber’ comes out, the book will sell out because people want to see what it’s about and how we are going to execute it.
Do you have any other agreements with DSTV? Also, do you share your revenues with DSTV, or is it just a one-time payment thing?
Currently, we don’t, but we plan to in the future. When we do, however, it is a contractual deal. We are given money and are required to make a certain number of episodes that run for a certain amount of time within a set timeline. The work they did with me was commissioned as well.
What kind of preparations is your production company undertaking to make Fikir Eske Mekabir a successful screenplay?
A lot of paperwork. We are also preparing a strong management team because there are 50 to 60 production crew members that are going to be managed in addition to the actors and the rest of the crew. We will all be moving to the rural area as well, so we need to prepare the places they will stay in and so on. We are creating a system at some point.
I am also trying to outsource some of the work, like the sound, the color, the intro video, and so on. That way, the individual studios can grow their own system by hiring workers, giving rise to an industry. That way, there will be set policies; we will start working with the government; we will commission amongst ourselves; and it will slowly become a large industry of its own.
Do you plan to join the international film industry or participate in international competitions?
That’s my next move, especially after ‘Fikir eske Mekabir’. Going global is my biggest dream, and there are works that I have prepared that I believe should go global. But to do that, you have to have a strong production house, good resolution, good sound, and a set list of requirements. I have to fulfill those requirements at least. We have good content already, and I plan to go completely into cinema after this project. I also don’t know how far ‘Fikir eske Mekabir’ can go, and it might have the potential to actually reach global status, so we will see.
Any last word?
I just want to say happy holidays, and I hope everyone has a great Easter. I hope that, with God’s help, we will be able to bring you a great TV series that you will all love. Thank you.