The emergence of Contemporary Nights and Indie Film Screening, unique art venues in Addis, are designed for a niche audience who are tired of the ordinary art scene; and looking for something fresh. Contemporary Nights hosts diverse art disciplines and it is premised on the belief that art making isn’t necessarily an individual endeavor while the Screening is all about nurturing culture criticism. Artists get the opportunity to see other artists working in different mediums, give feedback and criticisms and possibly collaborate, writes Hiwot Abebe.
Monthly events focused on showcasing emerging local artists, creating dialogue about their output and introducing the culture of criticism took place this week in Addis -Art-house/ Indie Film Screening and Contemporary Nights.
Art-house/ Indie Film Screening is organized by ACTION Media and Communication in conjunction with IEFTA, a Monaco-based, non-profit organization that supports film related works in developing countries, and was hosted at Century Mall Cineplex. The screening came after a 4-day conference bringing together 40 local filmmakers for intense training and mentorship. The artists were engaged in developing their movie ideas, script improvement, learned how to get funding and enter their films into international festivals. This conference led to ACTION and IEFTA agreeing to host regular meeting for filmmakers.
The feature films are curated by four filmmakers from Tribeca Film Institute, Torino Film Lab, Watersprite Film Festival and Les Films de l’Après-Midi. The screening features a short film by an Ethiopian filmmaker and a feature length foreign film previously showcased at various film festivals. Local short films shown thus far have been Hiwot Getaneh’s New Eyes and Beza Hailu Lemma’s Ballad of the Spirits. Hiwot’s New Eyes, which was nominated for the Venice Horizons Award in 2015 and shown at TIFF, Venus, Toronto, and Durban Film Festivals and Beza’s Ballad of the Spirits, a visual love letter to old Addis Ababa; a young man’s contemplative journey through the city as he navigates through life and love. Henok Mebratu, chief creative officer of ACTION, and filmmaker Hiwot, curated the local short films.
The second Contemporary Nights is a monthly event organized by Contemporary Arts Collective, an initiative by Sarah Bushra, Dawit Seto and Jesse Brett, arts practitioners based in Addis Ababa, passionate about creating platforms for different art disciplines in one space and connect, collaborate and cross-pollinate.
The event consists of performances by dancers, actors, poets, painters and other visual or multidisciplinary artists. These diverse disciplines typically have their own hubs and Contemporary Nights is premised on the belief that art making isn’t necessarily an individual endeavor. Artists get the opportunity to see other artists working in different mediums, give feedback and possibly collaborate. Artists talk about ideas for future pieces, introduce a work in progress or showcase completed works.
Contemporary Nights has a sequence of performances but no permanent viewing stage. Audience moves around the room to view different artists’ works within a single space. The event also moves around the city, garnering dedicated followers around the city. It has so far been hosted by Goethe Institute, Alliance Ethio-Francaise, Italian Cultural Institute and now Addis Fine Art. According to Sarah, the different venues are a reflection of how much a space has accommodated art so far.
At the opening of the screening on March 27, Hiwot stated the desperate lack of film institutes in Addis and the necessity of a platform for filmmakers to meet and discuss opportunities. Henok says they have created this platform for people that dislike the current cinematic experience available in the city. Most local cinemas only screen international blockbusters and local romantic comedy movies, rarely moving into the serious films or art-house / independent cinema genres.
Both events cater to a small but intimate crowd, passionate about the evening’s proceedings. The discussions revolve around the artworks presented and how local art practitioners can improve their works and elevate the creative sector. Creating a space for artists to network regularly, collaborate and develop ideas together is important to both organizers. Preparing pieces/movies for artists and art lovers, inducing attendants to critically discuss the works presented is a major element of these events. “Feedback is necessary to build the culture of criticism,” says Henok. Sarah agrees. “Conversation is at the heart of Contemporary Nights,” she adds. Discussing an artwork before, during and after completion allows the audience to be part of the art making process. The conversation itself is curation of the artwork, with the viewers finding connecting points and common themes based on what they see or do not see during the presentation. Fostering a relationship between audience and art being careful not to overwhelm the audience by creating distance between artist and viewer as it is evident in gallery or museum spaces that can fence out viewers.
The attendants of the screening, filmmakers and film enthusiasts alike discussed how they will use this platform for future projects. Naod Lemma, a filmmaker in his late 20s, said he was encouraged to think about his own projects and how he will integrate other film practitioners he met at the screening. Another pressing issue discussed was about the definition of an indie or art-house film, especially because it is presented as high art, inaccessible to a wide audience.
Director Beza and screenwriter Tekea Haile emphasized the need for art house cinema and their desire to make a film they would like to watch. Ballad of the Spirit has been a great learning experience for them as filmmakers, to test the waters creatively and understand the challenges when making a movie. They describe the process as very different from their initial plan and expectation, forcing them to simplify the story due to time and budgetary constraints. The audience discussed the film’s stylistic approach, weighing the merit of monologue heavy film versus employing more visual storytelling.
According to Henok, local filmmakers that have had international exposure have underutilized their network resulting in short-lived sparks of productivity. An important problem local art-house filmmakers must overcome is the lack of cinemas willing to screen their movies. According to Henok, commercial cinemas believe Ethiopian audiences want only to laugh when watching a movie. Challenging genres like drama or experimental films that force viewers to internalize and reflect are rarely welcome. Such underestimations of viewers only hold back the industry from evolving. This platform hopes to create an audience for indie cinema by encouraging local film practitioners, especially says Henok, since indie films are simpler for filmmakers on a tight budget.
While both filmmakers and other art practitioners face problems finding a space to show their works, another challenge Contemporary Nights encounters is artists’ reservations to present their works for a critical audience. There are few platforms willing to host artists or showcase their works through a well thought out curatorial approach. The number of galleries that host visual artists has increased within the past couple of years but they rarely operate in a manner that attempts to critically analyze the pieces or contextualize the works for a mainstream audience. Artists at both events discuss the concept and execution of their initial idea, opening up the space for questions from the audience.
Criticism is an integral element to both events. Contemporary Nights tries to ask questions about each piece presented and give in-depth analysis to the motivation and presentation of the work. Sometimes, the onus of contextualizing a piece is on the audience, creating a narrative of the work. It is fundamental for developing technique and understanding the aesthetic and intellectual context of the work. Developing the culture of criticism by discussing foreign feature films can be good practice to explore local art-house films. Henok insists on the importance of understanding that there are no rights or wrongs in art but an analytical approach to art that is not personal is crucial to the growth of the sector.