Ethiopian Highlands come to the French Riviera
Yared Zeleke credits his becoming a filmmaker partly to his grandmother who told him stories when he was growing up.
“She was renowned for her great storytelling,” said Zeleke, who was born in 1978, as Ethiopia was experiencing ongoing famine and internal conflict. “I loved listening to her stories, reading other stories, and now sharing them. Some people say I’ve inherited her thirst for storytelling.”
Zeleke’s first feature, Lamb, is dedicated to the memory of this grandmother, whom he was named after, and most people would agree that it’s a fitting tribute. The movie was chosen for the Official Selection of the 68th Cannes Film Festival held in May, and this was the first time that Ethiopia was represented at the prestigious event, held annually in the southern French town.
“I’m really fortunate to have been selected,” Zeleke said in an interview. “You don’t write or direct a film thinking it’s going to Cannes or anywhere really. You just try to do something honest with yourself first, and then after years of hard work and process, if it’s finally accepted and selected on the world’s biggest stage – it’s incredible, it’s such a gift. And I’m just also so really proud to represent Ethiopia, and be the first filmmaker from there. But it’s a story for everyone and viewers have told me that they connect with it.”
Although Lamb did not achieve any of the festival’s prizes, it received glowing reviews from the international press, who praised its poetry and insider portrayal of Ethiopian culture. Critics said the film gave an authentic depiction of the characters rather than being made by someone on the outside looking in.
Slated for general release in France later this year, Lamb tells the story of nine- (or ten)-year-old Ephraim (Rediat Amare) and his beloved pet, a sheep named Chuni that belonged to his mother. The animal follows Ephraim around like a devoted dog, and he speaks with her as to a best friend, although her response consists mostly of “ba-a” and a sheepish look. The audience learns early that Ephraim has lost his mother in the current drought, and, to survive, his father has decided to take him to stay with relatives in a remote but greener region, an area of striking natural beauty but increasing poverty. Ephraim will have to stay there while his father seeks work in the city, without any clear idea of when he might return.
The relatives don’t really have enough to live on, and they aren’t totally happy to take on an added burden, but viewers can identify with their motives as Zeleke does a skillful job of characterisation. He convincingly depicts the main members in the family: the strict farmer uncle who thinks Ephraim is too girly (the boy likes to cook), his wife who’s overworked and worried about her thin, sick daughter, the generous and witty grand-aunt who tries to keep the family in line with a whip, and an older girl cousin – Tsion – who spends her time reading scientific papers and with whom Ephraim eventually bonds.
Soon after arriving in their midst, Ephraim is told by his uncle that he will have to learn to do as other boys: he will have to slaughter his pet sheep for an upcoming traditional feast. This news pushes Ephraim to start devising ways to save Chuni, and that forms the bulk of the storyline, while the film subtly highlights gender issues, the ravages of drought and famine, and the isolation that comes from the feeling of not belonging. Throughout it all, viewers get beautifully shot views of the magnificent rolling hills and the forbidding forest, which could be seen as additional characters in the movie.
Lamb was filmed in northern and central Ethiopia, with French-Canadian cinematographer Josée Deshaies effectively capturing the country’s mountainous and rugged landscape. When Zeleke was asked why he chose this setting when he grew up in urban Addis Ababa, he responded with a laugh: “Well, look how beautiful the land is! How could I not, as an artist and a human being?”
He added that he also wanted to “tell stories of farmers”, as his previous degree (before his masters in film from New York University) was in natural-resource management for sub-Saharan Africa. “I even pursued an agri-economics masters [in Norway] because I always wanted to work with Ethiopian farmers. Eighty-five per cent of the population are farmers, and I wanted to tackle the biggest issue facing our country,” he said. “But in the end, I made up a film about them instead.”
He said that as he became unhappy with his studies in agri-economics, he started questioning himself. “My grandmother’s stories were deeply embedded in me, and one media for writing and story-telling is film and I’ve always loved film,” he recalled. “So I asked myself: if I were in Ethiopia at the time, and if it was as prosperous and peaceful as Norway, what would I be doing with my life? Would I be working with farmers? No, I would be telling stories and finding a way to connect with people.”
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