When I asked pioneer Ethiopian filmmaker Salem Mekuria in 1997 about the presence of Ethiopian women in cinema she stated that while there were those who worked for the government, she was the only independent filmmaker—enthusiastically embracing the emerging group of women that have now come of age. At the present, Ethiopian women in cinema are imposing themselves both in Ethiopia and the Diaspora, as the extra-Ethiopia territories, notably the United States, have been the locations from which the first group has developed. It is not surprising that the United States counts a significant number of Ethiopian women as it has the largest population of Ethiopians outside of Africa.
Salem Mekuria, based in Massachusetts was trained in documentary filmmaking in the 1980s at NOVA, WGBH-TV, a Boston-based PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) science-focused public television program. In the 1990s Lucy Gebre-Egziabher and Aida Muluneh studied film at Howard University in Washington, DC where their compatriot, internationally acclaimed Haile Gerima is film professor—both completed their studies in the early 2000s. While Aida Muluneh chose image studies early as an undergraduate student, Lucy Gebre-Egziabher returned to school to study film while working as a senior program officer in international education, realizing a dream she had since childhood. During that same period, Aida Ashenafi completed film studies at Ithaca College in New York State in 1999. Like Salem Mekuria, U.S.-born African-American-Ethiopian Nnegest Likké got her training inside the industry, initially with a public access community television station in Los Angeles, California. On the continent, Yetnayet Bahru Gessesse represents a promising trend of Ethiopian-trained filmmakers.
Salem Mekuria honed her filmmaking skills while working on themes related to the African American community of Massachusetts, the region where she lives and works. She later focused her camera on Africa in the two acclaimed works for which she is most known. She dealt with social and political issues relating to women refugees in the film, Sidet: Forced Exile (1991), and the multilayered issues of revolution, lost, and betrayal in the film, Ye Wonz Maibel: Deluge (1997). From the very beginning of her film projects, Lucy Gebre-Egziabher directed her gaze towards issues relating to the Ethiopian Diaspora in the Washington DC area. Her last film, At the Second Traffic Light (2000) has a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and inter-religious focus with the intentions of highlighting the importance of tolerance. At the same time a filmmaker, Aida Muleneh is best known for her photographic work, notably in the 2003 seminal exhibition Ethiopian Passages: Dialogues in the Diaspora at the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian in Washington DC. Her film work in progress, Unhealing Wound, traces the experiences of Ethiopian war orphans raised and schooled in Cuba beginning in 1978, during the government of Mengistu Hailemariam. Aida Ashenafi, after studying, living, and working in the United States, returned to Ethiopia where she co-founded a communications company. Her award winning film Guzow (2009) is a documentary set in rural Ethiopia.
While Maji-da Abdi has also directed documentary films, notably The River Between Us (2001), her most visible work has been as producer and film professional in many African film-related initiatives. She currently manages the Paris-based production company Chinguetty Films that she created with her partner Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako. Nnegest Likké represents the first-generation of U.S.-born Ethiopians, her Ethiopian father met her African-American mother while they were both students at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1960s. Perhaps her comedy film, Phat Girlz (2006) with an “African twist”, is indicative of the influences of Hollywood, rather than a more “engaged” cinema evident in the works by other Ethiopian women. Although Yetnayet Bahru Gessesse may be setting a similar trend in Ethiopia.
One of the objectives of the First Ethiopian Film Initiative Meeting held in Addis Ababa in 2008 was to tackle the important issue of film training, as there is a lack of viable film schools in the country. Yetnayet Bahru Gessesse addressed this problem at the meeting in her presentation, “A Young Filmmaker’s Personal Experience”. Though she completed her studies in computer science, her passion for cinema gave her the motivation to navigate the Ethiopian cinematic terrain through trial and error, as a professional cinema infrastructure does not exist. After her successful debut film Aldewolem (2008), a romantic comedy, she participated in a filmmaking workshop in Burkina Faso in 2009, at the Imagine Film Training Institute founded by Gaston Kaboré.
The active presence of women in the emerging Ethiopian cinema is evident in their visible participation at the Ethiopian Film Initiative Meeting and the active and supportive reception of their films, both in Ethiopia and the Ethiopian Diaspora. Their numbers are increasing as well as the resources for making films. Of course the Ethiopian Diaspora will continue to play a vital role in these initiatives. In fact, the connecting forces of the two have strengthened both, as there is a concerted effort to build and work together, drawing from the positive energies that each has to offer.
Ethiopian Women in Cinema Links
Yetnayet Bahru Gessesse:
ADDED 26 FEBRUARY 2010
In an interview with Claire Diao (Africultures) Maji-da Abdi, Paris-based Ethiopian producer-filmmaker, talks about her film initiatives: the creation of “Images that Matter International Short Film Festival” in Ethiopia and her interest in Ethiopia-based film training.