Yetnayet, could you talk about your personal and professional background?
My name is Yetnayet, I am 25 years old, I am from Ethiopia, and I am a filmmaker. I graduated from Addis Ababa University in 2007 with a degree in Computer Science.
What have been your experiences in cinema—were you a cinema buff, for instance, did you watch a lot of films while growing up— I know there are a lot of foreign films in Ethiopia? What led you to filmmaking?
I grew up watching a lot of American films and that is how I got inspired to go into filmmaking. I liked to sing since I was very young so I was able to do a soundtrack for a famous Ethiopian filmmaker while in college. After I graduated I did an internship at the United Nations but I could not picture myself working there my whole life. I then began thinking about filmmaking. I had a lot of connections with people in cinema from working on the soundtrack. I began to gather information and started writing the script. After completing the script, which took about three months to write, I consulted with my parents and they generously produced the film.
As computer science was your background was there some kind of transfer in terms of technology while making your first film?
I don’t think so. There is no film school in Ethiopia. There are workshops taught by film professionals, but there are no degree programs. In fact, I never actually dreamt of making films, but as I stated before, during the UN internship after college, I realized I wanted to do something else. I knew I had potential so I decided that I would begin with writing a story. If I had been able to enroll in a film school it would have been great, but I did not have that chance.
Well how did you do it? Technically the film is very well done. You stated earlier that you had made connections with people in cinema, did they assist you? In terms of cinematography, audio, editing, how did you get the team together?
There is a big film production company in Ethiopia called Admas Advertising, they have produced a feature film, documentaries and short films. They had all the equipment necessary for editing, camera, audio—so there was a local professional team.
So making this film was on-the-job training?
Yes, I learned on the job. My role with the actors—they did not know each other beforehand—was to make everyone comfortable. The goal was to make the actors feel that they were best friends, to make the story we see on the screen believable. I had to coach the actors—since only the leading actress had experience in cinema. It was a lot of work, but since I already had the storyboard in my mind, I knew the progression of the story. I actually edited in my head while on set. I knew what I was shooting and I knew what I was going to take into the editing room.
It was a great job! The question I have is how did you envision Aldewolem? What inspired you to write the story, the concept, the idea behind it?
Well, as I stated, I borrowed money from my parents with the idea that it would bring returns and I could pay them back in a year. It was a low budget film. I did not want to make a big production, but a simple film that would be entertaining. There were also certain things that I wanted to bring out—thus showing my point of view, so that the audience understood what I wanted to say about marriage, about a woman being independent. At the same time I wanted it to be funny and when people see the film they would think: “Yes she is right about these issues”. The main thing that inspired me was telephone stories, which is everyone’s story. I did it in high school and people of all ages continue to do it—have lives that are literally created on the telephone. Sometimes the story can be funny, or out of line, or even risky. So if I do an “everyone’s story”, I get a chance to entertain everyone.
It was generational, you see the parents who are very modern, very accepting. I suppose, I don’t know, when you talk about your parents they appear to be very supportive. Does the film reflect some aspects of your own life?
Yes, the relationship between best friends in the film are very much like my best friends and me—that is how we talk, that is how we communicate with each other, these experiences are very typical with my friends. It makes it easier to do a film about a story that you actually know. So it was like writing my story. The parents were typical of my father and mother. The way they talk to me, the way they tease each other. I was using a recipe that I have for my own life.
You participated in a filmmaking workshop in Burkina Faso in 2009, at the Imagine Film Training Institute founded by Gaston Kaboré. Of course you had already made the film Aldewolem, and had a great deal of knowledge and experience with the filmmaking process. How were you chosen to participate and what role has the workshop played in your professional development since then?
Maji-da Abdi, who is Ethiopian and a filmmaker, and also the wife of [internationally acclaimed filmmaker] Abderrahmane Sissako, recommended me. They were actually at the premiere of my film [in 2008 in Ethiopia]. Gaston Kaboré, the founder of the Imagine Film Training Institute wanted to enhance the knowledge of emerging Ethiopian talent and I got a chance to attend the workshop in Burkina Faso. I had never been to another African country so I definitely wanted to attend. But since I had already made a film, I underestimated what I would actually get from this experience. The workshop took place during the first six weeks while FESPACO [Pan African Film Festival of Ouagadougou] was held during the last two weeks. The participants included six Ethiopians, two Nigerians and one South African, while the teachers were from France and French-speaking Canada. So there was a real connection between different cultures. I learned a lot from the Imagine Film Training Institute and the FESPACO experience. I was also encouraged to send my film to the PAFF [Pan African Film Festival of Los Angeles]. It was as a result of this experience that I was inspired to do so. It helps a lot to communicate with other African filmmakers. During the time in Burkina, we watched diverse films, allowing us to learn a lot of different things and share many interesting experiences together.
My experience with Ethiopian films, or more specifically films made by Ethiopians in the Diaspora, reveal very politically or socially oriented themes, dealing with issues of Ethiopian history, conflicts or the alienation that Ethiopians experience living in the West. You are based in Ethiopia and live a very different experience—as you deal with the everyday, contemporary issues of Ethiopia. Do you have any reflections on this?
I don’t know if I am familiar with a lot of the films by Ethiopian Diaspora filmmakers. I saw Teza by Haile Gerima, and I met Salem Mekuria at the initiative in Ethiopia, though I don’t know if I really have a lot to say about this.
Well in fact, your response may reflect the very different worlds that Ethiopian Diasporans live and experience as it relates to their home country compared to Ethiopians who actually live in Ethiopia. They talk and think about Ethiopia in a very different way and perhaps the Ethiopians living on the continent may not even be familiar with the issues and some of the things that are happening in the Diaspora. In fact, many of the Diasporan films are not distributed in Ethiopia.
Another question…There are Ethiopian women who live and trained in the Diaspora, Maji-da Abdi, Aida Ashenafi, Lucy Gebre-Egziabher, Nnegest Likké, Salem Mekuria, Aida Muluneh. You have generated a great deal of attention, of course because of the success of your film Aldewolem, but also there has been a lot of attention on the fact that you are a woman and a very young woman on the timeline of Ethiopian Film History—who lives, was trained and works in Ethiopia…
Being a woman filmmaker…things were easier for me. Since I received the funding from my parents, I was my own boss. I did not have to work within the expectations of someone else. I generally got a lot of support and encouragement because of my youth and gender. People genuinely wanted to see me succeed. I was lucky to be a woman filmmaker in Ethiopia because a lot of opportunities were there and a lot of doors were open, people were very supportive. Though one difficulty was that I had no production manager at the time, so I had to organize the whole transportation logistics for the crew. The production team had their own vehicles but the actors, at five o’clock in the morning after the shooting was over, after eight or ten-hour days, I had to transport them back. While some things were very hard for me, my brother supported me a great deal. In fact, I have been often asked if it was difficult because I am a woman. On the contrary, everyone was encouraging and supportive and was rooting for my success. The actor who played the role of the father is very famous, I told him what my budget was and he agreed to do it. Again there was a sense that he wanted to see a young woman succeed.
You were featured at the first Ethiopian Film Initiative Meeting in 2008, The Future of Ethiopian Film. Could you elaborate on your talk entitled: A Young Filmmaker’s Personal Experience? What was the importance of that initiative and what have been some of the results?
The initiative focused on many issues such as filmmaking in Ethiopia, film training, and investment in movie theatres, among others. There were filmmakers from all over the world and I was asked to discuss the present state of the film industry. The premiere of my film was to take place six months after the Initiative so I was selected to talk about my filmmaking experience with Aldewolem: the making of the film from beginning to end, the kind of government support I received, and any difficult experiences I may have encountered. The initial goal of the Ethiopian Film Initiative was to provide a step forward in order to make a change and to jumpstart a growth in the industry. Committees were formed; I am part of the core committee, which serves as an umbrella group. We continue to have meetings on a frequent basis.
The future, the next project?
I am planning to go to film school in the United States perhaps next year. At the present I am making a short ten-minute film on education and girls, which I will present to festivals. Also I plan to make a documentary on social issues.