Ethiopia’s Cinematic Journey
The Ethiopian film industry has come a long way since its humble beginnings in the late 1950s. The release of “Who is Hirut’s Father?” in 1957 marked the first black-and-white feature film made in Ethiopia. This groundbreaking production opened a new chapter in the county’s film industry, serving as inspiration for films to come.
However, over the years, the industry has experienced a rollercoaster ride, enduring the ebb and flow of different government regimes, as experts in the field attest.
On January 16, 2024, Ras-Mekonen Hall at Addis Ababa University hosted a conference bringing together those closely involved to discuss the state of Ethiopian cinema.
Aptly titled “Ethiopian Film Industry from Where to Where?” the event gathered film directors, producers, screenwriters and doctoral students studying performing arts. Renowned figures like Tewodros Teshome, director and producer of “Kezekaza Welafen,” discussed the rise and development of Ethiopian films. Henok Ayele, director of “Yewendoch Godaye,” shared insights into the production process of Ethiopian cinema.
Minilik Mered, president of the Ethiopian Films Producers Association, also addressed the conference on the development and challenges facing Ethiopian cinema.
The conference began with a concise historical overview, tracing the origins of the Ethiopian film industry and shedding light on the pivotal moments and proclamations that paved the way for the thriving film landscape we see today.
Ethiopia embraced the magic of cinema merely three years after the Lumiere brothers projected the world’s first film in Paris on December 28, 1895. During Emperor Minilik II’s reign, the grandeur of the first-ever film screening in Ethiopia unfolded within the palace walls.
The Ethiopian Film Center was established in 1978. The Center later evolved into the Ethiopian Film Corporation in 1986.
A survey conducted in 2003 on Ethiopian culture and media revealed that the film industry’s primary focus at that time revolved primarily around producing compelling documentary films.
Further revisions in 1999 breathed life into the Ethiopian Film Production Association (EFPA), which remains the organization’s present-day incarnation.
Ethiopia’s film industry stands at a critical juncture, with experts highlighting the country’s potential in film production and digital distribution, even surpassing its African counterparts.
During the conference, Tewodros’s thought-provoking address shed light on the challenges that hinder the Ethiopian film industry from fully realizing its potential. He challenged the notion of a fully-fledged film industry in Ethiopia.
Acknowledging the strides made, Tewodros emphasized that a thriving film industry requires three crucial pillars: quality labor/input, a compelling product, and effective distribution. However, he pointed out that, currently, the Ethiopian film industry only possesses the product, while the other two pillars remain elusive.
Drawing attention to the issue, Tewodros highlighted the lack of skilled professionals dedicated to the industry. He questioned the preparedness of stakeholders, emphasizing that many individuals involved in Ethiopian filmmaking come from diverse backgrounds, driven by personal interests or opportunistic circumstances. The absence of formal training institutions or educational centers further compounds the industry’s struggle to develop a competent workforce.
“Not only does the sector lack a skilled labor, but it also lacks proper training institutions or educational centers to develop a competent workforce,” he said.
The role of distributors in marketing films once they are produced should not be underestimated. Unfortunately, in Ethiopia, the responsibility of seeking a market has fallen primarily on the shoulders of producers and directors, adding an additional burden to their already demanding roles.
Distribution thrives on both investment and promotion. Given the pivotal role distributors play in the industry, Tewodros stresses the imperative for investors and business professionals to invest in and promote the industry, ensuring its comprehensive development and effectiveness.
The collaborative nature of film production, involving a diverse range of stakeholders and personnel, from bell-boys to actors, and from directors to producers, including distributors was also highlighted during the conference. The combined efforts of these stakeholders directly contribute to the success of film production, even in instances where the sector lacks vital support.
Henok contends that while the Ethiopian film industry has achieved success, it has fallen behind in terms of technological advancements.
He emphasizes the inherent connection between film production and technology. According to him, the development of the Ethiopian film industry can be divided into three stages based on technological advancements.
During the first stage, filmmakers used traditional 35mm cameras to shoot films. In the second stage, projectors, computer workstations, and high-resolution electronic video projectors were introduced, replacing conventional cameras. However, for Henok, the industry entered a new phase after the downfall of the Derge regime, embracing digital technology as the third phase of Ethiopian film production.
Henok says that despite experiencing growth and technological exposure across these three phases, a major obstacle to the development of the sector has been the lack of a consistent leader who can guide the industry on the right path.
“Just as Ethiopian film production began with ‘Who is Hirut’s father?’ it is equally important to question who rightfully owns the Ethiopian film industry and can lead it in the right direction,” Henok said.
Henok claims that every time there is a change in regime, the industry started from scratch. However, since the regime change in 1991, he says, “the establishment of training centers and art schools have nurtured young film actors, contributing to the industry’s development.”
Minilik, the Association’s president, highlighted the lengthy journey the film industry has undertaken to reach its current state.
He says that although the industry has managed to incorporate relatively modern filmmaking materials since the introduction of cinematography in Ethiopia, these advancements have primarily been the result of the “dedication and efforts” of individual professionals rather than “a well-established organizational structure.
Experts shed light on the independent operation of the film industry, operating outside established frameworks of screen financing, production, and distribution. This unique situation can be attributed to a multitude of obstacles faced by the industry, including the absence of digitalized production facilities, inadequate market organization, insufficient regulations, limited financial resources, and a scarcity of trained personnel.
Consequently, these various barriers have compelled the film industry to navigate outside the conventional systems of screen financing, production, and distribution.
Digital technology, particularly digital cinema, is hailed as a significant revolution and a promising solution to overcome the challenges faced by the analog film industry in Africa, specifically in Ethiopia, according to the 2023 Cultural and Religious Studies report.
Tewodros emphasizes the paramount importance of enriching the industry with well-trained personnel, expressing excitement over the pivotal role played by Addis Ababa University (AAU) in producing such skilled individuals, igniting a glimmer of hope for the future.
“Until now, we relied on personal motivation or seized opportunities as we pursued our work. However, moving forward, we will be supported by professionals who have the ambition to become experts through education and training. Leveraging this opportunity will establish a robust film industry within the country,” he stated.
While the development of the Ethiopian film industry has been a subject of ongoing debate, it is noteworthy that over 50 years ago, the industry experienced the benefits of modernization.
One particular film, “Shaft in Africa,” garnered significant attention and scrutiny from critics.
Directed by John Guillermin in 1973, this action film faced criticism for its portrayal of Africa, which was deemed stereotypical and sensationalized. However, it is worth highlighting that a substantial portion of the movie was actually filmed in Ethiopia, making it the third installment in the iconic “Shaft” film series, with Richard Roundtree portraying the renowned detective John Shaft.