By Christian Tesfaye Special to Fortune
Half a lifetime ago, the Ethiopian National Theatre was inaugurated to coincide with the King of Kings’ Silver Jubilee. The theatre did not look like much from the outside but the interior, even several decades on, makes the jaw slacken. But then again, Emperor Haile Selassie Iwas a very hard person to impress.
It is rumoured that he found the large lion statue in front of the theatre mediocre because it was not plausible as a lion (the unique design has since become a landmark in Addis). Nonetheless, even such an imposing figure as the Emperor could not have denied that the theatre itself was exceptional. Other internationally famous great halls may be larger and brighter, but this one, despite its immodest beginnings, is testament to a calm, timeless architectural wizardry.
Fast forward to 2016 – I sat in the same theatre for a film screening. The attendance was replete, mostly because it was free to get in and there were free delicacies in the anteroom. All of this, in expectation of a unique Israeli-Ethiopian movie, Qeyaye Qenbetoch, that was released two years ago.
The film tells the story of an elderly member of the Bete Israel community (Falasha, as they are known in Ethiopia) called Misganaw. For decades now he has lived in Israel, and all that time as an immigrant. Despite a change of geography and culture, and as a result of living amongst a protected Ethiopian community, and his own conservative attitudes, he remains intrinsically Ethiopian.
On the anniversary of his wife’s death, he announces to his large family that he has sold his house and that he plans to spend the rest of his life commuting between his relatives’ houses; cuing the film to unfold the secrets and woes of the family’s life.
First, Misganaw visits his brother. A form of celebration ensues; there is laughter and for an instance, there appears to be happiness too, but it does not last long. It seems that he does not approve of his youngest daughter’s, according to him, racially inferior love interest.
He pushes her away by calling her all kinds of names. Later, when he finds out that most of the family sides with the daughter’s choice, he leaves his brother’s house for that of his son. But he does not find any consolation there either – he discovers that his son cheats on his wife. This enrages Misganaw, while it never occurs to him that his son’s lack of respect for his wife might be caused by his very own obvious dislike of women.
The only person from the cast and crew that showed up for the Ethiopian screening was esteemed actor Debebe Eshetu, who plays the lead role in the film. To western audiences, he is the most popular Ethiopian actor, as he ones worked in Shaft in Africa, a sequel to one of the most acclaimed “Blaxploitation” films of all time. His performance in this film is wistful. Not for a second does he look like he is acting, but being.
The strength in his depiction of Misganaw lies in his mannerisms – the looks he gives, the way he walks and violently retorts. It is almost as if he was playing himself, and is being honest about it. But then again, after the film ended, Eshetu gave a small speech on stage, and sounded modest, tolerant, nothing like the character he has just enlivened. This is the mark of a great actor, and the performance, the greatest for any actor in any Ethiopian movie.
Equally important to the film’s primal intensity is writer/director Bazi Gete. He is himself part of Bete Israel and lived most of his life in an Ethiopian community in Israel.
This is his debut movie and it is obvious – Qeyaye Qenbetoch has that raw overstated passion. It is not apologetic, and its cinéma vérité, a style of film-making with simple equipment, is visually battering. Gete might not have set foot in Ethiopia, but has obviously spent a lot of time around Ethiopians and observed their typical notable shortcomings – overwhelming secretiveness, endless obedience and catastrophic sexual repression.
Most audiences at the screening miscalculated the film. Their reactions were largely based on what the film unintentionally pretends to be – the life of immigrants – and that could not be further from the truth. It is incredible how bad people are at making correlations between their own lives and what is on the screen. I am not sure if this is because they do not take cinema seriously or mere self-denial.
Qeyaye Qenbetoch could have easily been made right here in Ethiopia. The setting itself is uncannily Third World. The weather is sunny, but not sunny in that bright, clean, beautiful manner as in western movies; sunny in a sticky, dusty, suffocating sort of way. The houses are all cramped and inadequately lit. Anyone making his way into the theatre while the film is in progress will never guess it was set anywhere but in Ethiopia.
More importantly, it is the Ethiopian mindset that is palpable to those who watch objectively. Misganaw is above all a proud man; if he has phlegm obviously situated right on his nose, he will punish the first person to point it out to him. He loves his family sure, but it is doubtful if he loves them more than the idea of family.
The first thing he did when he arrived in Israel was to help his relatives make it to the Promised Land. Thus, either consciously or unconsciously, he holds this against them; he demands utmost respect and obedience because without him they would still be in Ethiopia.
But what is his family to do? Live by the old man’s 19th Century rules and regulations? There are two audiences’ perspectives on the film, one that views Misganaw as a poor old man maltreated by those that owe a lifetime debt to him, and the second that sees him as the source of all the pain and heartache that exists around him.
In a single day he might get into a heated argument with five different people and it will never occur to him that maybe, just maybe, the problem emanates from him. He is paranoid – he thinks that everyone is out to get him. And, in a way, they are. Because he is old and his way of thinking has aged, time and society have simply stopped accommodating him.
Misganaw is Ethiopia’s first true antihero. We never like him, but his life is fascinating, so we follow his journey, probably hoping to figure out just what went wrong. In both the two most highly acclaimed Ethiopian movies – Teza and Lamb – we do not really get to see the Ethiopian society criticised but in the most basic of ways; they may touch on the faults of backwardness, but say naught of modern society’s deficiencies.
Saying so – especially in the bare, brave, bold manner this film does – is almost considered taboo. Hopefully, this perceptive film sets a trend toward more honest, probing Ethiopian films that can shock and illuminate. But it is doubtful; Qeyaye Qenbetoch does not even have a release date for Ethiopia.
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