I just returned from a week-long trip to Ethiopia where I was — among other things — investigating the question of an Ethiopian Cinema. What I mean by “Ethiopian Cinema” is a film industry that is not only vibrant but also one that has a self-conscious identity and a unique “film language.” If you’ve been following my blog, you might recall that earlier this year I asked a similar question about an “African film language” and a “Third (World) Cinema” when I was studying African cinema. You might also recall that exactly a year ago I visited Ethiopia with some colleagues and with my wife to begin exploring this question, about which I blogged in a series of six posts composed during the trip , , , , , and .
The timing of my trip this year almost couldn’t have been better. Over the past decade, the number of films produced in Ethiopia and by Ethiopians has increased from about five per year to about a hundred per year. This is in part due to the new digital technologies and in part due to the nation’s overall economic growth. Consequently, this year Addis Ababa University (AAU) created its first masters degree program in film within the School of Fine Arts and Design (inexplicably doing this before creating an undergraduate program in film; incidentally, everyone I talked to in Ethiopia thought AAU’s creating a masters program before an undergraduate program was strange.) Also this year the Ministry of Culture and Tourism began hosting workshops with film professionals as it continues to work on its draft of the nation’s first comprehensive film policy. Perhaps not so coincidentally, also this year the national television station ETV changed its name to the Ethiopian Broadcasting Company (EBC) and has begun to show locally and internationally produced films. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the Diaspora community has also been busy, with the creation of the Ethiopian Broadcasting Service (EBS) in Silver Spring, Maryland in 2008, to distribute Ethiopian media entertainment. Earlier this year, an oppositional network representing the Oromo ethnic group and language, the Oromo Media Network (OMN) was created in Minneapolis, Minnesota (though unfortunately so far it only broadcasts news and political opinions); meanwhile, some young Oromos living in Diaspora have independently begun to make movies in their language.
My trip actually had four separate goals, so my time was a bit hectic, and I wasn’t able to accomplish all of the things that I wanted to accomplish or spend time with even half the people I would have liked to have seen. In addition to my research question, I also needed to do some preparation for a possible study-abroad program for which students from Wagner College will — I hope — travel with me to Ethiopia for a couple of weeks next summer. Where they will stay, what they will do, and the formalities of the international relationships between institutions are all tricky details. Also, I will be teaching a class on “African Cinema” at Wagner College in the spring, and in collaboration with Sandscribe Communications in Ethiopia, will make this course available via the internet as a workshop to students in Ethiopia. Copies of all of the movies that I will teach the textbook are now at Sandscribe’s office in Addis. To advertise this workshop, I gave a rather lengthy presentation at the Bole campus of Rift Valley University in which I attempted to relate the question of an Ethiopian cinema to the history of African cinema. Lastly, I did a little work for Sandscribe so that it can grow.
Hence, to achieve all these goals, my six days in Ethiopia’s capital city Addis Ababa were essentially a series of meetings and interviews at various places around the city that I did with the help of Sandscribe’s manager Tesfaye and his capable wife Metsihet, who video-recorded some of our activity. I had formal meetings with faculty at Rift Valley University and informal meetings with friends at Slow Food International and the Gudina Tumsa Foundation. I conducted interviews with a professor at Addis Ababa and with six film-makers, representing three different generations of film-making in the country. I also met with two individuals from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism who are working on a governmental film policy. Lastly, of course, was my own presentation, the audience for which included several people active in the film-making community. I had a really good time full of engaging conversations even though, it must be said, a lot of my time was spent in taxis stuck in traffic, since Ethiopia is building a new metro-rail that cuts right across the city and, for the time-being, creates a lot of congestion. Such is the big city.
To be quite honest, I’m overwhelmed with all that there is to think about and still learn. Debates about tax policy and infrastructure continue. Observations about the ways Ethiopia’s film industry is so unique present interesting questions — questions such as why Ethiopia’s market is so driven by theaters rather than by the DVD or internet markets and why so many of the films are romantic comedies rather than other genres. One question that I repeatedly raised is whether “Ethiopian cinema” is really only an “Addis Ababa cinema” that doesn’t truly express the entire country or even connect with audiences outside the capital city. Different ethnic groups within Ethiopia certainly experience “Ethiopian cinema” differently.
But to return to the question with which I began, is there such a thing as a distinctly Ethiopian film language? And how might this relate to that ever-problematic and ineffable something that some might call an “African film language” — what scholar Manthia Diawara explores in his 2010 book African Film: New Forms of Aesthetics and Politics, which will be the textbook for my class in the spring. The term “film language” can mean a lot of things, and at the core of its meaning is something of a paradox. On the one hand, film language has a universal grammar of images and sounds and how they are sequenced to create meaning and evoke emotion; the elements of this film language are pretty much the same no matter who the film-maker is (e.g., various kinds of shots, editing techniques, lighting, etc.) On the other hand, it is sometimes said that individual directors have a distinct style or that different national industries have recognizably different film languages (for example, Hollywood versus Paris.) More substantial than mere stylistic difference, and also more technical than the mere reflection of a national culture, the “film language” involves something that is sometimes called “looking relations” — how the camera positions the audience in relation to characters and objects. Such looking relations are intimately bound up with both politics and culture. For instance, feminist scholars have analyzed how much cinema objectifies women from a male perspective, and postcolonial scholars have analyzed how American and Hollywood cinema dehumanizes African people by gazing upon Africa from a condescending colonialist viewpoint that seems to reaffirm an implied feeling of white male privilege. Hence, in some ways, an “African film language” was a way of making films in opposition to the racist, sexist, and imperialist “looking relations” that persisted (and still persist) in so much of American and European movies. What is problematic about such oppositional cinema is that it is defined negatively “against” a more dominant cinema rather than simply being sui generis, of itself, or of its own culture. One way a film might define itself more positively and more nationally is through characters and looking relations that hold up a mirror to the whole country — rich and poor, male and female, etc. — that reflects critically on the multiplicity of relations out of which a culture is formed.
Considering this question historically, for Ethiopia, I noticed a difference between the earlier generation of filmmakers and the new generation. The earlier Ethiopian generations during the Haile Selassie and Derg regimes were trained and experienced film in a remarkably international context — studying at film schools in Paris, Berlin, London, Kiev, and Moscow with a cohort of individuals from countries such as Cuba and Argentina as well as other African countries. Those film-makers participated in the pan-African film festivals such as FESPACO and film movements such as “Third Cinema.” But the new generation that came of age under Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles after the 1991 revolution trained more locally, either self-taught or learned at small film academies in Addis with one-year programs. Their films tend to borrow (somewhat unconsciously according to some individuals I met) from the conventions of Hollywood and Bollywood movies and Latin-American soap operas, and they are somewhat disconnected from the rest of African cinema.
The paradox I want to emphasize here is that the more “national” cinema of the 1980s was forged out of the cauldron of an international education, Marxist thought, and Pan-African solidarities. In other words, a “national” film language was created out of an “international” consciousness. In contrast, today’s attempt by Ethiopian film makers at a “universal” film language is being created out of local contexts.
Admittedly, my observation is somewhat casual, simplistic, and incomplete. I pose this problematic dichotomy between “old” and “new” generations in hopes that the wrongness of my conceptualization might provoke a response so that I might continue to learn.