The slab-like grey bulk of the Ethiopian National Theatre in central Addis Ababa could not be further removed from the sparkle and attention-grabbing headlines of the Cannes Film Festival.
Nevertheless, 37-year-old Yared Zeleke was still more nervous about being in the Ethiopian capital for the premiere of his film Lamb, which earlier this year became the first Ethiopian movie to be selected at Cannes.
“I did not sleep last night,” Mr Yared says, two hours before the premiere.
“You cannot get more prestigious a film festival than Cannes, but still it feels more important here—there is the power of home, the power of identity. This is part of who I am.”
Mr Yared says he was born and raised “in the slums of Addis Ababa” until, aged 10, he moved to the US, along with his family during Ethiopia’s communist dictatorship, the Derg – a time of upheaval across the country due to war and famine.
Yared Zeleke, film director:
“This film is a celebration of being Ethiopian. It is about the love, struggle, complexity and beauty here that you usually do not see portrayed”
Lamb tackles the issues of displacement and loss in the form of a young boy, Ephraim, who is sent by his father to live with his extended family far from home.
Ephraim’s best and only friend is a lamb called Chuni, but his uncle wants to slaughter the lamb for a religious festival. The clock is ticking for an unlikely cinematic pairing.
As part of the Ethiopian diaspora, Mr Yared is acutely conscious of how Ethiopia and Africa are often negatively stereotyped in media. Lamb aims to offer a counterbalance, he says.
“This film is a celebration of being Ethiopian,” Mr Yared says. “It is about the love, struggle, complexity and beauty here that you usually do not see portrayed.”
Mr Yared says Africa has a major PR problem in the mass media and that it is “high-time to reassess these Africa misery stories”.
“I want Ethiopians to take away from the film a reassertion of identity and a positive sense of it, and Westerners to understand that Ethiopia is not a desert but green.”
Six lambs auditioned
Lamb began as a 20-page master’s thesis while Mr Yared studied at New York University film school, before a professor encouraged him to turn it into a feature-length film.
In 2012 it won a script award from the Amiens Film Festival, leading to opportunities opening for the film to be made and castings began in Addis Ababa in 2014.
The first half of the film was shot in Ethiopia’s hot lowlands, with the second in the chilly highlands.
“Many foreign audiences are taken aback by the scenery and seeing such greenness,” says Ghanaian producer Ama Ampadu.
“We filmed in the Simien Mountains and the Bale forests—Ethiopian landscapes people do not know about.”
The film’s two main young stars, 14-year-old Rediat Amare, who plays Ephraim, and 16-year-old Kidist Siyum, who plays his rebellious cousin, were also exposed to a previously unfamiliar world through their Cannes experience.
The two first-time actors say they enjoyed the beautiful city but struggled with the food – “especially the cheese”, Kidist says.
Ethiopia has a bustling indigenous cinema industry but it took a joint Ethiopian-international effort to bring Lamb to foreign screens.
The mostly Ethiopian crew was supplemented with film professionals from France, Germany, Kenya and Belgium bringing required additional expertise, Mr Yared says.
“The shoot was very disciplined and professional, a different standard to what I am used to,” says 31-year-old local Ethiopian actress Rahel Teshome, who plays Ephraim’s aunt.
“All the pre-production and workshops made a big difference.”
Casting for Ephraim included testing how Rediat interacted with the six lambs initially on hand to play Chuni, Ms Ampudu says.
Rediat bonded so well with one lamb the other five weren’t needed.
Lamb at Cannes and beyond:
- First Ethiopian film entry at Cannes
- It secured distribution to Denmark, Mexico, Taiwan and South Asia at the French festival
- Before Cannes it had already found French, German and Swiss distributors
- During October at the BFI London Film Festival it will compete for the Sutherland Award in the First Feature Competition
But securing partnerships to provide the $1.7m (£1.1m) budget proved a greater challenge.
“When pitching, not only did we have working with children and animals against us, but we wanted to do it in the mountains of Ethiopia. It was a hard sell,” she says.
Most funding was secured from European film organisations, and from the European Union-funded Africa, Caribbean and Pacific Cultural Sector programme.
Ethiopian Airlines was another useful sponsor – flying all the crew, cast and equipment to the rugged highland territories featured in the film, and to those important international film festivals.
Lamb follows on the heels of another internationally acclaimed Ethiopian film Difret, which won the World Cinematic Dramatic Audience Award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival for its portrayal of the Ethiopian tradition of kidnapping child brides.
Could these successes herald the emergence of an Ethiopian movement in world cinema?
“The art of cinema has yet to be fully realised in the country,” Mr Yared says.
“The film industry needs development in all areas—financial, technical and artistic. Until those huge needs are met, most productions will remain at the local level.”
‘Subtle take on social issues’
At the Addis Ababa premiere there was one noticeable absence – Chuni, the lamb. At the end of filming it went to live on the family farm of one of the film’s crew.
After the screening, there was applause, but not the standing ovation some foreign audiences have given it.
Thirty-three-year-old Daniel Meles and his group of 10 Ethiopian friends discussed the film as they left the theatre.
“I liked how it told the sort of story you can come across in life but never see in a movie,” he said.
“It was also a good reminder that although Ethiopia is changing a lot, in the countryside there is still a reality far removed from the city.”
Some found the storyline confusing, the presentation of rural life oversimplified, and the film generally too serious.
Mr Daniel put this down to it being less commercial than Ethiopian cinematic fare that usually focuses on comedy, love and life in the city.
Hellen Kassa, 25, who works as a business consultant, said she enjoyed the subtle way it dealt with social matters.
“Food security, gender inequalities, urban migration – that is brilliant, to spark your thought processes without making concrete statements.”
She has been fielding many inquiries from fellow Ethiopians since the premiere.
“People are very interested to hear about it, the first Ethiopian film at Cannes – they want to know why all the buzz.”
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