Chiseling through silence
Finding Sally is a documentary by Tamara Mariam Dawit released this year, recounting the story of her missing aunt Sally.
Tamara begins the film by exploring the silence and secrecy around the Derg period. Many families affected by the military dictatorship remain quiet about the violence they experienced and witnessed. Tamara first became aware of the disappearance of her aunt Sally late in life and decided to unravel the mystery of this woman who joined the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party (EPRP) in the 1970s and was never heard from again.
Selamawit Dawit, also known as Sally, was a revolutionary at heart. Tamara follows Sally’s footsteps from Ottawa to the highlands of Assimba, as she joins the fight against the Derg, flees during the Red Terror and spends a period of time living underground.
Sally’s sisters Kibre, Bruktawit, and Tsion describe their upbringing as children of diplomats, as their father’s ambassadorial posting had them traveling around Africa then to Canada. Sally’s comrade in the EPRP, Fekerte describes the harrowing experience of hiding during the Red Terror as their contemporaries were massacred across the country. Sally’s mother-in-law Abrehet details the tragic loss of her children as they were killed by the Derg or disappeared under mysterious circumstances.
“The film may be about my family's experience in the Red Terror. But nearly all Ethiopian families have their own brutal memories from that period. And it is these painful silences that when buried within us can eat away at our families, communities and nations. Ethiopia is a country going through a repeating cycle of national trauma, yet failing to unpack our baggage,” Abrehet remarked.
Exploring this tragic period through personal stories is undoubtedly a difficult talk. Tamara has carefully woven a story that exposes the emotional weight of losing a family member, the concern of her sisters as they search for her, uncertain if she’s dead or alive.
“As a filmmaker, I feel that you have a high degree of duty of care to your subjects, especially when you are focused on revisiting painful periods in their lives. That duty was very present in making this film, especially when working with the two elder characters (my grandmother and Sally's mother-in-law). This is also why I went to them first to gain their permission to make the film. I wanted them to be on board with the journey and process to make the film to remember their children. I also needed to know that the filmmaking team could provide them with the necessary support to revisit these memories.”
Tamara and her aunts revisit the locations Sally must have stayed in. In one gripping scene, Tamara and her aunt Kibre visit the old jail Kibre was taken to as police interrogated her about Sally’s whereabouts.
“That shot was emotional for everyone because of Kibre's reaction and the honesty of her experience. We went with our natural instincts in that shot which is why I entered the scene.”
Tamara spent 10 years making and researching this story, traveling to the places Sally allegedly stayed, interviewing members of the EPRP and collecting archival footage.
“I've always been interested in history and politics. But making this film brought those things much closer to me as I was able to learn about the connections in my own family. I did spend a lot of time in the Library of Congress in the US reading files in their archives on the Ethiopian student movement and having coffee with former EPRP members in many cities around the world. The main thing I took from these interactions is that there are so many personal stories and memories from this period which also need to be recorded and remembered.”
Finding Sally also highlights the importance of telling stories from female points of view. Sally being remembered by her sisters, female family members and friends certainly has different weight. The Ethiopian woman is often talked about but hardly ever talked to.
Silence is the theme of this documentary. Investigating the whereabouts of one person reveals the silence around thousands of missing people during the Derg era. The brutal period is shrouded in silence and accepted as ancient history when it was just 40 years ago. Traces of that trauma are easily found in any household.
“I know from feedback from viewers that the film is triggering intergenerational conversations about the past in many households. I hope that those conversations can also pivot to talk about the future and what future Ethiopians want as a nation. Given the situation in Ethiopia today, discussions on the way forward are even more crucial.”
Although Tamara did not face any government roadblocks in making the film, working with the Ethiopian Broadcast Authority and the Ethiopian Press Agency revealed problems in documentation and archiving material. “Both offices were extremely helpful in making the film but the process of working with them really exposed the great need for investment in facilities, machinery and processes to properly catalogue and store the wealth of historical material they have,” says Tamara.
“My aunts and I revisited many of the locations related to Sally's story in the 1970s in Addis, some we couldn't access to film in like Kibre's old house by Stadium where Sally hid and Sally's apartment above Lion Bar by the National Theatre.” She experienced barriers from the Addis Ababa City Housing Authority to access filming locations leading to a three year battle to access an abandoned apartment.
Finding Sally serves as an important documentary detailing the impacts of the Red Terror and one family’s journey in dealing with their sister’s disappearance. The film can also serve as a way to continue the necessary conversation about the Derg era that is currently missing in national education and political discourse, investigating what Tamara refers to as the promise and agony that is Ethiopia.
“My hope is that Finding Sally is an opportunity to reflect on the recent history of Ethiopia, what we can learn, what we have not learned etc. It is only through reflection and understanding of the past that we can move forward in a more equitable fashion and hopefully learn to not repeat past mistakes,” says Tamara.
Finding Sally is currently on view in various documentary and film festivals. It is expected to hit Ethiopian television channels soon. A shortened version of the documentary is currently available on Al Jazeera as Finding Selam.