Serving society through art as an expression of oneself
Aron Yeshitila is a playwright and filmmaker now based in Switzerland. His new play The Possibilities ("Die Möglichkeiten") is currently on view in Zurich. He is also the screenwriter and director of the film Mizewochu. Aron studied theater at Addis Ababa University and is the co-founder of Gebrehanna Productions. His 2019 play Kings of Interest focused on the neocolonialism of Ethiopia going back to the history of Western influence and exploring the pitfalls of capitalism to the present day. The Reporter’s Hiwot Abebe spoke to Aron about his new theater piece, his short film Dagu and using the arts to bring political issues to the front.
What is your play The Possibilities about? I read your current play has elements about race and the pandemic. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
The Possibilities is a discussion of three unfertilized eggs living in their mother’s womb. They don’t know their father yet; so, they did not develop any worldly identity and related interests. In this Sci-Fi situation, they are able to obtain information about the world through an artificial intelligent interface. Soon they realize the hierarchical and discriminatory nature of the world. They reflect on racism and sexism based on their body experience. They then engage in trying to forge an agreement that will create a fair situation for all in the world.
How was the production? How is the reception, especially with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic?
The theater was produced by our Gebrehanna Productions, in collaboration with two theater houses in the Swiss cities of Aarau and Zürich. The reception was quite good. The Possibilities was originally programmed to be premiered at the end of March 2020. Due to the lockdown, it had to be postponed to October 2020. The spike in COVID cases now again in autumn has obviously affected the amount of attendance. But the COVID-19 pandemic and Black lives matter movements have made our play more relevant and urgent. What these hierarchical relationships, manifested through racism and sexism, do is affect the distribution of resources and access to resources within a society and in the world at large. Besides its immediate danger to health, COVID-19 has exposed the problems faced by the socially and economically vulnerable part of society. People appreciated us for raising these issues and discussing more of its roots.
Your short film Dagu is a Sci-Fi story, a rarely explored genre in Ethiopian cinema. What made you choose to tell the story that way?
Dagu as you know is a traditional but highly efficient way of communication and socialization of the Afar people. The film Dagu is set in the futuristic African Continent where an authoritarian regime blocks the internet and media from people. Dagu comes as a tool of resistance to exchange information in this difficult situation.
This application, for example, transforms the concept and image of Dagu from ‘a traditional practice of a pastoralist society’ to a dynamic and relevant modern concept. The blockbuster Black Panther applies the persona and concept of Dahomey (now Benin) all-female warriors of the 17th century to its elite Dora Milaje Warriors.
I think it all relates to Afrofuturism which is for me, among other things, this growing consciousness among some artists of African descent for an attempt to transform the image of an African from the stereotype of a fixed, tribal, or traditional to that of dynamic and visionary. It is also about imagining black experience in a futuristic and alternate reality.
In my case, it had also a practical reason. JJ, the Addis Ababa part of Dagu, was shot a few months before PM Abiy Ahmed came to power and it was a tense situation. Coming from abroad, I thought it would be easier for me to tell the authorities it’s just a Sci-Fi film. But I found the actors braver. They realized the film’s political nature and they liked it even better because of that. It was a humbling experience.
What has been the difference between working as a screenwriter and a playwright, especially when it comes to the production process and working in collaboration with other people?
The theater would be a preparation for one or two long camera takes for a movie. Both have their own challenges. In film, the camera moves and focuses, images are frequently juxtaposed. Theater makes everything at one place and time - mostly but not always. The theater could also move with scenes, with audiovisual aid, or even with a moving audience. In the case of site-specific theaters, for example, the audience would follow the performance moving through a park or industrial building . . . The idea of theater has moved a lot to include different types of performative acts. Very generally speaking, I would say a random theater would have a lot more experimental elements than a random film.
How does your understanding of politics - may be in the role art plays as a political tool as well as a form of resistance - inform the work you do?
Politics informs my work because of the amount of injustice faced by me and the society to which I belong. It preoccupies our mind; like in Ethiopia as an Ethiopian, in Europe as a black person. I remember Haile Gerima’s response when asked about where he gets the inspiration or how he chooses his topic; he said he always picks a topic that gives him stomach ache and what keeps him up at night. The work becoming a tool for resistance or education is a secondary thing for me. The purpose is to make meaning and recount these difficult experiences while at the same time imagining the future or the alternative. I choose the art to deal with the problems as a remedy and to deny their attempt to reduce me in any form, from being a free and emancipated human. The act of telling the true experience of the people, in a performative and public way, also counters the lies of the repressive system which are also interestingly told in a performative and public way. This, then, turns the work of art also to a tool of resistance.
What has been your experience working in Ethiopia versus in Europe, especially with regards to access to resources, education, audience, freedom of expression, ... whatever else you think is relevant.
It is difficult to compare. At the center of the difference, especially for independent theater and filmmakers, is the purpose. In Ethiopia, artists make theater and film expecting ticket sales to make a profit thereof. With this idea, they do anything they deem would attract the public. Access to knowledge and different forms of art is not available both to the artist and the audience. If there is production, therefore, it is more of repetition in all forms. In the West, there is an old and established understanding of the importance of art for the progress of society. Government, public and private institutions are set up to support these independent art groups and individuals at every phase of production. So, the concern of the artists is what kind of topic to choose or in what kind of fresh and authentic form to present it. They would rather choose to challenge the audience with an aesthetic or topic than to entertain or please. The audience also has a long experience and exposure to different forms of arts. They are ready and equipped to the challenge and to understand and appreciate the artistic works. But the situation in Ethiopia has the chance to be improved, I believe. Knowledge and training are now easily accessible via the internet. We have a lot of big companies that sponsor events of different kinds. Their awareness should be raised to support quality and innovative works of art that may not be – let’s say - popular. To quote Haile Gerima again, ‘the society should have the right to get A, B and C level movies’.
You wrote in an article in 2011 about the Ethiopian film industry that 'the value of the films in contributing to Ethiopian culture or representing it is mostly very low' and the filmmakers’ inability to discern between culture and tradition has become detrimental to their understanding of the Ethiopian context. I don't know how much access you have to newly produced films but do you think that assertion still holds true? Have local filmmakers and producers become aware of their responsibility in depicting the nation and its people and telling honest stories?
I like to think of myself as an artist first. From me being an artist, I will benefit or serve myself or society better. A physician should be a physician first, a judge should be a judge first, and from that, society will really benefit. If you assume another responsibility other than being that, I believe it would be corrupting and it would not even serve the entity that was supposed to be served from the outset.
I have a problem with having another responsibility first than being an artist. That is why I believe this idea of promoting a nation through this and that ends up being a noisy cliché work. For me, the experience of an Ethiopian in Addis, or Harar or Gojam or Axum is all Ethiopian experience and worth telling. It should be told from the people’s experience, not from the leader or the past. The value of the experience of the past is very less than the present for me.
In my view, artists in Ethiopia try hard to appeal to people by showing their religiousness or being a fan of the kings of the past which has nothing to do with being an artist. It may look popular now but as the awareness of the society increases, these all go away. This is constantly telling the youth “there are past kings, the current leader . . . above you. You are less important, your role is to promote them and their ideas - whatever it is.” This puts the imagination of the youth in the rabbit hole and denies their capacity to make meaning out of their own lived experience and build upon that as a member of this ever-changing world. In short, when they start to express themselves and their environment in a truthful way, everybody benefits and goes forward.
Do you have plans of returning to Ethiopia and producing films or plays here?
I always look for opportunities to present my works in Ethiopia. We were preparing to stage our play ‘Kings of Interest’ (shown in Switzerland in 2018, 2019) in Addis Ababa in collaboration with the National Theater. But the plan failed due to COVID-19.