Simet: a film set in medieval Ethiopia
Simet film tells a historical story set in the momentous Zemene Mesafint period. Brothers Mesfin and Endalk compete for their father’s throne in Gondar. Murder and betray abound with the kingdom battling with neighboring kingdoms Gojam and Shoa. While the king of Gondar decides who will succeed him and make peace within the divided country, the son, Endalk, is rightly suspicious that his younger brother Mesfin is the favorite and likely successor.
Writer, director and producer of the film Heldana Belayneh has been working on the project for five years. She says she has tried to make a film with a distinctly Ethiopian feel that young children can watch and use as additional historical resource. With costs close to 2.8 million birr to produce, Simet is a riveting tale of the era of princes.
Hardly ever seen in the Ethiopian film industry, Simet broaches a difficult subject for movies thus far. Filmmakers have coddled and underestimated Ethiopian audiences, looking to a cheap laugh and quick buck instead of portraying real or relatable stories. Simet may not be perfectly executed but at least it proves Ethiopian filmmakers have range.
The highlight of the film is Yidnekachew Tesfaye. Playing the villainous Endalk quiet beautifully, his violently shifting moods build the tense atmosphere of the film.
The most charming Meskerem Abera that plays the love interest of Mesfin and daughter of the king of Gojam brightens the tension brought on by Endalk.
The accents of the actors do not strictly abide by their character’s locales and the sparsely decorated palace grounds beg for more attention to set dressing. Writer and director Heldana explains the fluid speech patterns and intermixing of different cultures is intentional. The characters are not distinctly Gondere or Gojame because she intended them to be Ethiopian, unbound by ethnic identities. This rhetoric does seem to obfuscate Ethiopian history, covering up important details. Especially for a period drama, attention to cultural detail should be of paramount concern.
The linguistic choices are easier to understand. It would be difficult for the modern urbanite audience to decipher meaning had the characters spoken in accurate early 19th century Gondere or Gojame Amharic. The modernity of the language and word usage makes the film accessible to a wide range of people.
The well-made soundtrack by Sultan Nuri creates a soundscape that time travels to that specific period and attempts to balance poor sound engineering. The director had opted to add visual effects of the Fasiledes Castle instead of going on location or building smaller replicas. The effects have an almost comedic feel to them but they are thankfully short and do not detract from the flow of the plot.
Bravely defying the formulaic production of Ethiopian cinema, Simet attempts to tell an old tale anew. A commendable venture that is sure to open doors to many filmmakers fearlessly retelling Ethiopian stories.