Politics, Culture, Africa

Ethiopia: Films breathe optimism into political malaise

Political films and plays motivate audiences of troubled nation to embrace peace, tolerance and unity

Seleshi Tessema   | 03.01.2020
Ethiopia: Films breathe optimism into political malaise

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia

A mother of nine was on her deathbed after a careless surgeon who operated on her left surgical scissors in her belly.

The woman was also deeply pained by her children, who had been entrenched in their self-centered acrimonious worlds. There was no love lost among them.

It was a quiet Sunday afternoon in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. Hundreds of men and women of all ages were waiting in a long line at the compound of Hager Fikir, Ethiopia’s first theater house.

In a small costume room, Eyerusalem Haileeyesus was elaborately costumed in an Ethiopian women's dress she wore to portray the dying woman, the main character depicted in a popular Amharic language play called Kemegarejawu Jerba, or Behind the Scene.

“The sick old woman symbolizes the troubled 'Mother Ethiopia,' our country," Haileeyesus said. "Her children represent the divided Ethiopians of this particular time."

‘Creative fever pitch'

Yohannes Afewerk, a playwright and stage manager with Hager Fikir, told Anadolu Agency that the government theater house, which was established in 1927, had been the epicenter of Ethiopian modern theater and music.

”Throughout the years, we have produced thousands of original, adapted and translated plays from the likes of Shakespeare, Henrik Ibsen and Moliere among others," he noted.

But recently, hopes and fears over the reform that had been changing the political landscape of Ethiopia had attracted the creative attention of playwrights and film producers, he said.

“The Sunday play [Kemegarejawu Jerba] and my musical play are among many plays with political plots staged in other theater houses," he said.

“There has been a creative excitement with the reform that brought about freedom of expression, and we are also worried by the violence and divisive narratives accompanying it."

The political, economic and social reform spearheaded by Nobel Laureate Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been transforming nearly three decades of authoritarian rule by enacting laws that have created a space for political pluralism, a free press, equity and justice.

Despite the reform, religious and ethnic violence has posed an existential threat to the unity and stability of the country with its 109 million people.

Growing thematic trend of films

Solomon Denu, an expert with the Addis Ababa City Administration Art Bureau, told Anadolu Agency that many film scriptwriters and producers in the Ethiopian film industry had been preoccupied with the current political situation in the country.

“We know that in many of the films released to cinemas in Addis Ababa, politics has become a trendy plot," he said.

Maheder Assefa, a renowned actress and producer of the popular television serial drama Zemen, told Anadolu Agency that the growing political theme in films was partly motivated by the interests of viewers who have begun to participate in politics.

“In my view, scriptwriters and producers who used to shy away from politics now want to reflect on the change," she said.

Competing against foreign films, Turkish dramas

Ethiopia's film industry, which produces low-budget movies in the local language, has joined the cinema houses that had been traditionally dominated by Hollywood, Bollywood and Chinese action movies.

According to Assefa, despite apparent limitations, Ethiopian films had made a significant stride over the past decade.

“We have proved to be much closer to the audiences than foreign cinemas,” she said. “However, we are in a tough competition against the theater, high-quality foreign films and Turkish television dramas."

A private television station, Kana, has been airing multiple dubbed Turkish dramas which have attracted a huge amount of viewers and advertisers, according to Assefa.

Assefa said that by the time Turkish dramas started to reach Ethiopian viewers, her company’s serial television drama, Zemen, had also begun to be broadcast on Ethiopian television.

“Sponsors and advertisers at home and abroad who agreed to work with us went to the stations with Turkish dramas," she said. “It was tough, but we have continued to broadcast our drama."

"Cinema is all about the story. The cinematic storytelling, connection of exciting scenes and clarity of messages are the overriding edges of Turkish television dramas."

Assefa said she was looking for ways and means to team up with Turkish producers which could add quality to Ethiopian cinema in every aspect.

Fate of Mother Ethiopia

The two plays at Hager Fikir offer happy endings to audiences troubled by the political situation in their country.

Accordingly, the playwright made the children and their mortally ill mother, which symbolizes Ethiopia, reestablish their family bonds, and the family took her to the hospital and the scissors were removed. She becomes happy and healthy.

According to Afework, current political plays foresee a resolution of the crisis.

”They teach peace, tolerance in serious drama, comedy and musical plays,” he said. “There is no order or persuasion from the government."

"The viewers leave the hall happy with a visible sign of relief. The line between fiction and reality seems to go away."

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