The single foreign character in Ethiopian movies
There is a lot to say about Ethiopian movies - whether it’s the unrealistic plot points, the love interest that highlights the class divide that is virtually absent from national political dialogue, or the myriad issues that plague production like terrible sound design.
One trope that’s been long popular is the presence of a single foreign character. Often inserted as comic relief, this ferenji is mocked and celebrated in turn. In a selection of movies made in the last 15 years, the singular foreigner has been a tool for the moral superiority of Ethiopians as he learns there’s more to the country outside of poverty porn.
Of course, the most common trope is the foreigner as a villainous love interest keeping the beautiful, and often uncomplicated, woman away from the plucky but unfortunate male lead. The rich Arab, the American playboy, the European of uncertain origin and even less clear motivation, are the proverbial adversary from whom the man must snatch his love interest.
Parsing the problematic details of female leads is a whole other issue for another time but, the woman is often portrayed as eager to take advantage of the foreigner’s fortuitous gaze, ignoring the man she’s always loved. The trope of the Ethiopian woman attracted by wealth, status, and migration requires deeper study.
The foreigner that understands Amharic or any other local language is also popular, perhaps referring to our inherent shock and delight when a fereneji speaks Amharic. It appears like a parlor trick in many films, whipped out to incite what should be a quick reaction but is brought up at every opportunity. Each character that meets the foreigner sports the same ‘you speak Amharic?’ quizzical look.
Another common portrayal of the ferenji is within the typical white savior story that may not feature the foreigner in a central role but the character emerges at just the right time to offer a great opportunity. In Running Against the Wind, two brothers are separated by time and distance as one trains to be an athlete and the other is a homeless photographer. The young photographer befriends an established white photographer played by Jan Philipp Weyl and is finally welcomed into Addis Ababa’s art scene and gains the notice of a local curator. Jan Philipp Weyl is also the writer, director, and producer of Running Against the Wind.
In the memorable La Borena, this white character is a French tourist called Zoe ostensibly in Ethiopia to complete her anthropological research but is later revealed to have come to Borena to visit her late father’s grave, a researcher and educator. This twist comes along as Zoe falls for her driver Tewodros, played by Alemseged Tesfaye.
By highlighting the stereotypes foreigners would likely have about Ethiopia, this movie tries to address them head-on. The film is filled with nuggets like “I like this Abyssinian boy. They are all unique” and “I didn’t think there was enough food to eat in Ethiopia let alone good food”. Comments like these are harshly corrected or laughed at as Zoe and Tewodros drive across the country.
The movie begins with Tewodros’s girlfriend leaving him for an American soldier in the hopes of getting rich and moving to the US. Subsequent scenes show him planning on forgetting this girlfriend by beginning an affair with Zoe.
Wealth and morality are central to most Ethiopian films. The addition of race only highlights the economic divide and preconceptions around whiteness and privilege. In La Borena, Tewodros’s conversations with friends have him speculating whether he could get some benefits from Zoe, his boss proposing Tewodros marry her and move to France, and another friend suggesting Tewodros should ask her for a car.
This friend advises Tewodros to take advantage of his situation, revealing that he’d had relationships with three white women that were so lucrative he’s bought many cattle and is currently building a house.
The conflict in this film is virtually nonexistent save for Tewodros’s lack of clarity about what he wants from this woman. She overhears him wondering if he should ask her for a down payment for a car or if she should just shell out cash for full payment and the resulting conflict is resolved in less than 10 minutes as they both decide they love each other despite the cultural dissonance.
In one scene, Tewodros implores Zoe to tell her countrymen that Ethiopia doesn’t need loans disguised as charity and instead send educated and kindhearted people to help develop the nation. This comment is in turn echoed and contradicted in many parts of the film. Another scene repudiates the white savior complex as Tewodros talks about the pride of Ethiopia and the oft-mentioned history of fighting colonizers comes up as a sign of the country’s uniqueness.
Other films focus on highlighting the foreigner as a comedic device. In Made in China, a Chinese immigrant befriends two of what the former administration would have called ‘adegegna bozene’ and they go on an adventure scamming people and all the while learning a lesson about friendship and community.
This misadventure stars Tewodros Seyoum and Mesfin Haileyesus as the neighborhood conmen and Young Guk Lee as Abule, a criminal recently released from prison. The two men obviously past the age of youthful unemployment decide to use the race of their new friend to run scams all over the city, posing Abule as a Wushu master, a masseuse, as well as a healer. The three of them concoct a scheme to pose as engineers and steal funds from a road-building plan in their neighborhood.
Even though the film is essentially plotless and lacks any real conflict or character growth, the absurdity is fun to watch. These con artists change their minds towards the end of the movie, give the stolen money back, and decide to fix the road themselves. The impetus for this change is unclear but the antics of the three characters as they swindle people all across the city is entertaining.
Approaching Made in China as commentary about Ethiopia’s growing infrastructural relationship with China, the film feels welcoming. The three share their stolen riches and commiserate their misfortune, their economic disadvantage, and predilection for shortcuts bringing them to a shared cause. The circumstances that led Abule to Ethiopia and the corruption case that led to his 4-year imprisonment could probably make a whole other movie.
What is very evident about foreigners cast in local films is that they are often not real actors. Contrasted against the talented Ethiopian cast, these actors can be irritatingly flat. It’s confusing why filmmakers insist on this trope when talented foreign actors are rarely found.
In the Ethiopian film industry, the foreign character reveals issues of economic class and racial privilege that are not discussed enough. The ferenji is not just a trope of storytelling, it is hinting at societal values. Let’s not leave it two-dimensional or as a tool for furthering the plot. The reality we live in indicates there’s likely more to this character.