Friday, July 19, 2024
ArtA Rebirth for Ethiopian Cinema?

A Rebirth for Ethiopian Cinema?

Ethiopian film industry looks to overcome quality challenges to regain glory days

Ethiopia’s cinema industry was facing challenges even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced theater closures worldwide. Ethiopia’s cinemas experienced a steep decline in attendance starting in 2016.

In 2018, the once thriving Ethiopian cinema industry saw visitor numbers fall by as much as half over three years’ period, according to local filmmakers. They blame two main factors. The launch of Kana TV, a popular satellite channel that began broadcasting free Turkish and foreign films, drew customers away from cinemas. Critics also argue a glut of low-quality Amharic films failed to attract audiences.

With cinemas increasingly empty, many were forced to permanently close as filmmakers turned instead to self-distributing online through YouTube. Even after the government allowed cinemas to partially reopen following COVID lockdowns, the industry has struggled to recover from its golden era when moviegoers would queue for hours.

“The war has also contributed,” says Wondimagegn Lemma, a writer, producer and director known for his directorship role of Zetenegnaw Shi sitcom series drama.

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While a few new releases have recently packed cinemas again, the industry faces significant hurdles. Movie piracy remains rampant as pirated copies are illegally uploaded and distributed online before films finish their theatrical run, without the producers’ permission. This denies them revenue and further discourages investment in quality Ethiopian films that could revive the struggling industry.

Ethiopia’s film industry dates back to the 1940s when the first Ethiopian films were produced. However, there was a long period of decline and stagnation for decades. The first color film was produced in Ethiopia only in 1981, nearly 40 years after the first black and white films. This shows the slow pace of development of the industry.

Ethiopian films were predominantly in Amharic, though some were also made in Oromo, Tigrinya and other local languages. Many Ethiopian films face challenges in terms of technical production quality, film aesthetics and storytelling capabilities.

Against this backdrop, changes are now underway.

Ezekiel Tesfaye, 31, is among those helping revive Ethiopia’s struggling cinemas. For years he had avoided Amharic films, disappointed by their quality. Then the pandemic hit theaters hard.

Now Ezekiel is back – and he’s not alone. “The stories, footage – I’m seeing a big change for the better,” he says, citing the new film “Doka” as an example.

Directed by Kidst Yilma, “Doka” reportedly cost three million birr – a record for Ethiopian cinema. It stars famed actor Girum Zenebe, luring crowds back to Alem Cinema where Ezekiel queued last month to watch it.

“It was incredible,” he beams.

Director Wondimagegn links this rebirth to higher budgets made possible by new financing from TV stations like Abol and Canal Plus.

“Producers now get paid right after delivering a film, unlike the revenue-sharing model used for decades,” he says.

His theory seems borne out by the proliferation of TV dramas on these channels, forcing even state broadcaster EBC and Fana Broadcasting Corp to follow suit.

EBC recently launched three new sitcoms including “Gera Kegn” while FBC bought “Sene Ena Segno,” which Wondimagegn himself directed.

Wondimagegn believes these big-budget films and TV shows will restore Ethiopia’s “golden age of cinema,” after years of low-budget movies drove audiences away.

Surafel Bisrat, an actor known for his role in Betoch Drama which aired on EBC for over a decade, agrees but has some reservations. The perceived quality of movies, in the eyes of audiences, is often based on the fame of the actors starring in them, which he still considers as a big challenge.

“The quality of a film is not always determined by the actors in it,” Surafel added. “Great acting comes from passion and skill, not fame. The role can make the actor, or the actor can make the role come alive through their performance.”

In the meantime, as audience demand increases and more people flock to theaters, industry observers say the future is bright for Ethiopian filmmakers.

Wondimagegn says boosting investor confidence will be key to sustaining the industry’s growth. Currently, most Ethiopian films operate on shoestring budgets, limiting their potential scope and quality.

“Producing films at the highest level requires massive resources, which means getting more investors on board,” Wondimagegn tells The Reporter.

He hopes businesses will recognize the opportunities in funding Ethiopian stories that increasingly resonate with audiences seeking fresh, authentic perspectives from lesser-known regions.

“The prospects are positive,” says Wondimagen. “Ethiopian cinema is ready to make the leap if it can secure the necessary capital.”

But some investors remain cautious, pointing to Ethiopia’s poor infrastructure and undeveloped distribution channels as risks. There are also concerns about the supply of experienced technical and creative talent.

Still, promising early signs have hope rising for those seeking to elevate Ethiopian film onto the world stage. The challenge now is translating that potential into tangible progress.

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