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Globalization and the Ethiopian Sci-Fi Film

25 Oct

Last night, I went to the Cinema Village in New York with my wife and a friend to watch a new movie, Crumbs, which has been called “Ethiopia’s first post-apocalyptic science fiction film” by OkayAfrica and IndieWire. The premise for the story is typical of the genre of post-apocalyptic sci-fi — a man and a woman trying to make meaning out of their lives after the entire planet and civilization as we know it has been destroyed by a world war. What they make meaning out of are the “crumbs” or detritus that remain after the war, such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle figurines and a basketball poster of Michael Jordan. As in other movies of this genre such as A Boy and His Dog and Mad Max, the “crumbs” of previous civilizations take on religious significance in the post-apocalyptic culture that emerges. The absurdly curatorial assessment of what we might consider to be trash serves as a satirical commentary on globalization today, as the valuation of such objects in the future draws ironic attention to what is absurd about the values of consumer capitalism today and its hegemonic dominance throughout the world. The satire of Crumbs is often hilarious and insightful. One might compare Crumbs to other surrealistic sci-fi movies that critique the forces of market-driven globalization such as Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men. And one might compare the ideas expressed in the film to the critiques of globalization’s commodity fetish made by the philosopher Slavoj Zizek. You can see the trailer here:

What makes the movie unique is not just that it takes place in Ethiopia but that the director used a contemporary Ethiopian landscape as a setting for a post-apocalyptic future. For example, the salt lake Beseka near the town of Metahara and the back of the defunct train station in Dire Dawa as well as some of Ethiopia’s popular tourist destinations such as the beautiful Wenchi Crater Lake. (I’ve included hyperlinks to webpages with pictures of these locations.) Hence, the juxtaposition of future and present is itself also an odd commentary on Ethiopia, which is currently one of the world’s fastest growing economies, but whose recent development is at the same time a striking contrast to its high poverty rate and the leftover detritus from previous political regimes and economic projects.

But we might consider the film an example of globalization in another way — not in terms of what the film is about, but in terms of how it got produced, distributed, and marketed. Although the actors and setting are Ethiopian, and although it is marketed as “Ethiopia’s first post-apocalyptic sci-fi film,” the writer, director, and producer, Miguel Llanso, is from Spain, and so are most of the crew. The movie is technically a co-production of three countries: Ethiopia, Spain, and Finland, though I’m not sure what Finland’s role was. It is perhaps worth thinking carefully about why this movie is being advertised as an Ethiopian film especially considering that none of the hundreds of movies made in the past decade by Ethiopian production companies have been featured at New York art-house cinemas such as Cinema Village — the sort of posh theater that would invite directors from around the world to answer questions from the audience. And indeed, after watching the film last night, I was able to ask Llanso exactly the question of how his film relates to the Ethiopian cinema. Llanso has lived in Ethiopia since 2008 and is somewhat knowledgeable about the place and its cinema culture and is admirably self-conscious and thoughtful about his own relation to its people, whom he clearly respects.

As readers of my blog well know, the question of an Ethiopian cinema has been on my mind for some time now, due to my work for Sandscribe Communications and my teaching of film theory to students in Addis Ababa, and also due to the fact that Ethiopia’s film industry has grown so rapidly over the past decade. One could argue that such international collaborations and co-productions will encourage the local industry, or one could argue the opposite that foreign filmmakers and investors have an unfair competitive advantage over local producers. I’m not sure how I would respond to either of those two views, as I’m still trying to figure that out and suspect that each specific situation is unique. What struck me about Llonso’s answer to my question — which was similar to something he has said previously in a published interview [here] — is that he very clearly asserted that the style and theme of his film was completely different from anything being done by Ethiopian filmmakers in Ethiopia. Moreover, he suggested that Ethiopia’s film industry was so dominated by commercial interests that its movies have tended to be formulaic soap-opera-like melodramas or romantic comedies lacking artistic value.

Llonso’s comments are somewhat problematic since they beg a lot of questions. One might argue that movie industries in all countries are dominated by commercial interests that produce movies that lack artistic value — “art house” cinema is generally the exception, not the rule, of the movie industry. Moreover, his dismissive statement about Ethiopia’s film industry begs the question of what artistic value is, since the genre of post-apocalyptic sci-fi is not necessarily more artistic than a romantic comedy. After all, Shakespeare wrote formulaic romantic comedies, and most sci-fi movies are quite commercial.  Moreover, as professor Aboneh Ashigrie of Addis Ababa University has recently written, many of Ethiopia’s directors actually use the genre of romantic comedy and melodrama to address serious social issues such as changing gender roles, the widening gap between rich and poor, HIV-AIDS, and even the effects of globalization on local cultures. Some of these movies reflect intelligently on the goals of environmentalists, feminists, and other progressive social movements.

So, it is curious that a film being marketed as Ethiopia’s first sci-fi film is being made by a Spanish director who quite explicitly says that his film is nothing like the films being made by Ethiopian directors and producers. This might provoke one to re-think what Llonso is doing when he makes a movie about the world’s post-apocalyptic future that features so much of Ethiopia’s present. What about Ethiopia today is any more or less apocalyptic than his home country Spain or, indeed, my own home in Brooklyn, New York? After all, Llonso’s production budget was obviously too small for him to design futuristic movie sets, so he was in some ways appropriating Ethiopia’s geography that is more available to him for his own artistic ends.

This appropriation got especially problematic, for instance, when his mostly European crew accidentally stumbled into regions of Ethiopia where there is some ethnic conflict. One of his film sites was near the town of Metahara in Ethiopia’s Fantalle district. In that district, for the past half century or more, the local Karayu tribe has been persecuted, kicked off their land, and denied access to water because the Ethiopian government has given the valuable land to multinational corporations. You can read more about this situation [here], but one can easily imagine that the economic and environmental conditions within which the Karayu struggle to survive are tough. Perhaps Llonso and his crew were unaware of this, and perhaps they were also unaware that they could have worked with a Karayu film-maker or with local Karayu environmentalist organizations that work in that area such as Labata Fantalle so as not to accidentally upset the people whose backyards they were filming in.

I don’t mean for my critique to be taken as a simple criticism, because I think Llonso’s film is brilliant, and my critique is intended to draw attention to the changing dynamic context of film production, distribution, and marketing in today’s global economy. As Llonso is himself very well aware, everyone operates within that dynamic context whether they want to or not, and my intent in this blog is to shed light on that context rather than to criticize Llonso’s film.

In many ways, we might imagine him participating in a new movement called “Afrofuturism” in which black and white artists creatively work toward a future that they build out of the detritus and “crumbs” of the present. One example of this is the very successful Kenyan short sci-fi film “Pumzi” which also presents an African hero in a post-apocalyptic world. The theme of “Pumzi” is clearly environmentalist, and its hero a strikingly beautiful woman. You can watch the entire 21-minute film on YouTube [here]. Below is the trailer:

The global “Afrofuturist” movement is in some ways a response to what many African intellectuals have called “Afropessimism.” Afropessimism is the tendency of American and European media to represent Africa as a place of war, famine, and corruption. Instead, we might see Africa as a vibrant place where artists work hard to create something positive out of the “crumbs” of an inherently self-destructive global capitalism. In the context of such conversations about Afropessimism and Afrofuturism, one might raise the question of why Llonso opted for a “diminutive hero” (quoting one review), a somewhat crippled man, rather than a more traditional heroic figure. On the one hand, if we consider the ways in which European and American media have repeatedly represented Africa as a “crippled” space, we might challenge Llonso’s choice, but on the other hand, since Afrofuturism is a movement highly conscious of the politics of disability and technology, we might see this as a smartly “futurist” choice.

There is more to say about this film, as it is the type of film that provokes conversations. One could read it is a European film, rather than an Ethiopian one, but one might also consider it in the context of the rapidly changing world and the new African artistic movements. One recent documentary, Afripedia, has attempted to capture this wealth of culture and creativity in six different countries in the new Africa. Check it out, here’s the trailer for Afripedia’s “Ghana”:


The Question of an Ethiopian Cinema

25 Dec

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 [1], [2], [3], [4], [5], and [6].

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.

Interview with Berhanu Shibiru_3

my interview with film director Berhanu in my hotel room at the Bole Ambassador

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.

Interview Tesfaye Mamo 1

my interview with movie maker Tesfaye

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.


me with Sandscribe Communications manager Tesfaye and Rift Valley University professors Merga and Teshome

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.


with former students Hiwote, Fiker, and Yimeka and film-maker Paolos at the delicious Efoy pizza parlor in Addis

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.


me and Karl Marx after meeting with Professor Aboneh at the outdoor cafe across the street from Addis Ababa University

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.

Finfinne Diaries 1 January 2014 “The Last Day”

5 Jan

I am writing this blog post back home in Brooklyn about my last couple days in Oromia-Ethiopia, especially about the afternoon of the last day, when I traveled to the small town of Holeta, about 30 km west of Finfinne/Addis Ababa in the heart of Ethiopia’s industrial-scale agriculture, with a young man named Ebessa who was in the midst of starting his own philanthropy to fight HIV-AIDS and help poor children get an education. Holeta also happens to be the place where Nelson Mandela received some military training just months before his arrest by the South African government, the subject of a new documentary film currently in the midst of production entitled Mandela’s Gun. Ebessa is the older brother of Tesfa, the man who had been our driver the previous two weeks, and my purpose for meeting with him was simply to scout out possible non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with whom my students at Wagner College might do some volunteer work if they visited the country. Earlier that same day, in fact, I had met again with Aster and Lensa of the Gudina Tumsa Foundation (whose site in the arid district of Fantalle I had visited in 2010) to discuss this very same subject over lunch. However, what I thought would be a simple meeting with Ebessa turned out to be a lot more.

The day before (New Year’s Eve day by the European calendar) had been pretty much the usual for me and my wife Maya. My stomach had recovered from whatever it was I ate on Sunday that had caused it so much distress, and I had spent the morning writing a blog post about the previous few days. After a quick lunch at Kaldi’s Coffee — the Ethiopian version of Starbucks (except a whole lot better than Starbucks) named after the fabled goat-herd Kaldi who discovered the coffee plant — Maya and I visited the beautiful campus of Addis Ababa University and the ethnographic museum that is part of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, housed in a building that was once the emperor’s palace. We then had coffee with the scholar Dr. Ezekiel Gebissa, who teaches at Kettering University in Michigan and whom I have met several times in the United States at Oromo Studies Association conferences. He was in Addis to run a short winter-term seminar at the brand new Center for Human Rights at the university, and he gave us a brief tour of the center. He also invited us to come out to see the legendary Oromo pop star Ali Birra give a live show for New Year’s Eve, but Maya and I had already planned a triple date for the evening with my friends Alessandro and Roba and their girlfriends (recently arrived from France and Italy) at a fancy Egyptian restaurant, and I was still not feeling 100% enough after Sunday night’s food-poisoning to attend a late-night concert. Perhaps coincidentally, or perhaps not, all of us on this triple date are in bi-racial relationships, which got me to thinking that if you aren’t in a bi-racial and/or intercontinental relationship, you just may be out of touch with the twenty-first century, ha-ha-ha. Then again, who cares. After this last evening out, I thought that things were tapering off — that the next day I’d just have a couple of meetings, after which Maya and I would have dinner with her grandparents, and then we’d go to the airport for a midnight flight home. But the afternoon turned out to be one of the most interesting afternoons of my whole trip.

Taking notes in HoletaEbessa picked me up from outside the Kaldi’s Coffee by the Bole Madhane Alem Cathedral in an ancient Toyota Corolla he’d rented for our trip from an acquaintance. In the open compartment below the dashboard were some CDs and DVDs that belonged to the car’s owner, including bootlegs of the American TV suspense drama Nikita with sexy pictures of actress Maggie Q on the covers. Ebessa had originally planned to become an evangelical minister, attending the Mekane Yesus Seminary, but his experience as a high school student volunteering to help victims of HIV-AIDS had instilled in him a passion for philanthropy, and so he changed his program of study to management and leadership. He got a job with an NGO working in Holeta, but that program was phased out after two years (as is, unfortunately, far too often the case with such non-governmental programs.) During those two years, he had formed a relationship with the community, and so he decided to start up his own organization that would help poor children go to school. He was currently working with about 80 children (about ten from each of the eight kebeles — or “wards” — of the town) to help them with food security, school supplies, and life-skills. In addition, considering his own experience with short-lived programs, he is already planning for the possibility that his program may not last by setting up a chicken and goat farm that will be owned and operated by the families he works with even after he leaves. After we drove into town, he first first took me far off the main road to this farm, where we met a few of the men and women caretakers. When we left, the caretakers said “ciao” — the Italian word for goodbye, which is how most people say goodbye in Ethiopia. Next, Ebessa took me to visit one of the neighborhoods to visit a couple of the families and their homes. On the way from the farm to the families, we picked up an elementary school teacher named Kidist who works closely with some of the children.

Comin out of house in HoletaIn the pictures uploaded to the blog, you see me, always with my pad and pen, taking notes. On this trip, I learned a lot about Holeta and the “kebele” town organization that I didn’t know before. As is explained in the town’s promotional video that I’ve inserted below, Holeta is a big agricultural area with a government research facility and even a wildlife preserve. For ordinary people in the town, the research center is simply the place where they go to get milk. Holeta and the nearby towns also have many large flower farms owned by foreign corporations, and you will sometimes see Chinese and South Korean writing and flags next to the Oromo and Ethiopian writing and flags. On the one hand, such agribusiness is good for the community, providing thousands of jobs. The parents of the children I met worked for these companies. On the other hand, the families still seemed quite poor, living in small houses with dirt floors, mud walls, and thatch roofs, and the companies did not always follow environmental standards, so the long-term effects on the local ecology (especially the water) is a major issue. From the elementary school where Kidist works, if one looks in one direction, one can see these enormous industrial-sized hot houses, and if one looks in the other direction, one sees the construction of a brand new building for a facility that will train security guards for government embassies. It’s a curious irony that these two things would be within sight of the same school that is itself looking forward to the children’s future.

Holeta with Tibabuu and KidistFurther down the dirt road from the school, we stopped and got out of the car and walked for a bit, passing the kebele office building, which is important for a number of reasons. For those of you unfamiliar with Ethiopian history, a “kebele” is an administrative unit originally set up in the 1970s after the revolution to transform the feudal system of lord-and-tenant farmer into a system of governance by peasant associations. What I learned is how central the kebele office is for the community, as it is the office that allocated the land for the small homes that I visited and it is where families go to get water from the faucet (unless they want to get it from the local creeks, which may or may not be polluted.) If anyone wishes to do business or philanthropy in the neighborhood, or even just visit, one must go through the kebele. I visited just one of the eight kebeles in Holeta. At the first home I visited, I met a small boy named Tibabuu, who showed me the perfect score he received on his math quiz that week.

I left with many questions, and reflecting on my experience now, a few days later, I think that getting a complete picture of the situation would require months of work. One question was a question that Ebessa was himself dealing with, and that is how to create a grass-roots NGO that would be able to sustain itself. Another related question is funding, and a third question is when and how to begin identifying which individuals had HIV-AIDS since it still was a horrible stigma in the community, despite government and church efforts at public education. Lastly, I wondered what my students could usefully do there in the limited span of a week, or if the place would simply be too difficult for them. The promotional video above explains that the name “Holeta Genet” suggests a garden of Eden. It isn’t.

Finfinne Diaries 31 December 2013

31 Dec

There is an old notion about creating your own luck, and another way to put it is that “the more you do, the more you do.” In my case here in the capital city of Ethiopia, each thing that we have done soon led to more opportunities, and so I want to narrate the chain of events to highlight what I perceive to be a cause-and-effect. During the first week in Finfinne/Addis, as I described in my blog back then, my colleagues and I held a public forum about the state of the film industry in Ethiopia. One of the things that I believe this led to was some conversations with some government officials a few days later, as I described in a previous blog post, but in addition to that, another thing that it led to was an invitation to me and Alessandro from the Alitinos young film-makers association to present at one of their regular meetings.

So, on Thursday, the day after Maya and I returned from our trip to Wollega, we had a nice café with Alessandro and a few members of the Alitinos group at old Taitu Hotel (where there is a lot of good modernist art on display) in the Piazza neighborhood and then walked over to the Russian Cultural Center where we gave our presentation. The questions posed to us ranged from academic curricular issues to local question about making film in Ethiopia to the globalization of the film industry, and it was an enjoyable discussion.

Following the discussion, one of the young film-makers invited me and Maya to his “studio” (basically an office in his home) on Saturday afternoon to watch his first film, have lunch, and converse with him and the president of the Alitinos group about film technique. Maya and I thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. I have had some amazing opportunities here in Ethiopia, better than I anticipated, and I look forward to coming back again.

Meanwhile, on Friday, I arranged a brunch meeting with my friends Roba (the coordinator for activities in Ethiopia by the international environmentalist organization Slow Food) and Gammachu (a professor of forestry) so that I could introduce them to each other and begin brainstorming about a possible Sandscribe Communications documentary film on environmental issues. One question we raised was how to make an original movie about the environment. Another was how to involve ordinary people in the making the film so that it expresses their points of view and so that the stakeholders can represent themselves (which, in Ethiopia, also means getting government permission to do that.)

But I don’t want the readers of this blog to think all my time here is just about film-and-media and work. We also are tourists, and we spent Friday afternoon at the National Museum (which I’ve written about before in my other blog [here]), checking out the bones of the first human as well as some pretty amazing modern art, and we spent Saturday morning at the Red Terror Museum (which I’ve written about for the Oromo webzine Ogina [here]) where took an incredible guided tour by someone who had actually been imprisoned and tortured by the military Derg regime in the late 1970s, which was both moving and informative.

Also important on this trip is friends and family, and for fun on Saturday night, we met some friends at the Beer Garden Inn, which is the first German-style brew house to serve its own beer in Ethiopia. On Sunday, we spent the day eating far too much food with Maya’s grandparents, aunts, and uncles, and then went out with her cousin for some young-people’s time at the Yod Abyssinia Cultural Restaurant. This restaurant features live performances of traditional singing and dancing – including the traditional Ethiopian version of “twerking,” and I half-expected to see Miley Cyrus to make an appearance, hahaha. It is also one of the few restaurants that serves the traditional  home-made dhadhi (a.k..a, tej, a.k.a., honey wine or mead.) As you might guess, this place is a popular tourist spot, and half the audience were either white or Asian. The owner of the restaurant is ethnically Gurage, and the performances were quite diverse, representing the cultures of different regions of Ethiopia from western Oromia to southern Sidamo and Gurage as well as the central Shoa and northernTigray. In retrospect, I should have taken my colleagues Jennifer and Stephen to this place for dinner (as was recommended by our driver.) One funny thing is that a lot of it reminded me of the many “culture nights” put on by the Oromo Students Union at different colleges and by International Oromo Youth Association that I’ve attended in Minnesota (and that I’ve blogged about before [here]). They both blended singing and dancing with small skits. One difference is that the restaurant had musicians playing traditional instruments, not recorded or synthesized music, but the bigger difference was the location and audience – one was in Ethiopia and consisted of mostly tourists, and the other was in America and consisted almost entirely or Oromo immigrants. I began to think about this uncanny parallel between the tourist experience and the immigrant experience of traditional culture. Another surprising event was when the performers invited audience members to try to dance, and an Asian man got up on stage and impressed everyone, so later he was crowned “king” of the dance (like a homecoming king) alongside an Ethiopian woman. I noticed that he could actually speak Amharic, and I wondered how many American businessmen in Ethiopia could do that, and while wondering, I also speculated that there may be a reason behind China’s success in Africa. To be honest, I don’t know much about China (though I studied ancient Chinese philosophy and art as an undergraduate and love Chinese cinema), but there was something about the performances and skits at the Yod Abyssinia Cultural Restaurant that reminded me of Japanese skits and musical performance that I saw when I lived in Tokyo for two years. The similarities really struck me, and I see some real opening for cross-cultural connection. In some ways, the more I travel, the more I think that people are basically people, and all this talk of cultural differences and identity politics might  be missing the point. The real differences that I see are differences in wealth and power (and I see those everywhere I go), not culture. On the other hand, the cultural differences are pretty fascinating too.

As you might guess from how this blog post has no focus or theme, our trip is winding down, and I’m a bit ready for home.  After a weekend of food and fun, I got sick and spent Monday in bed. Maya took care of me, and then, at my urging, went shopping with her aunt at the Shiro Meda market. Today we plan to have dinner with a couple of friends (and we might even remember that it’s New Year’s Eve, though we might not, so far away are we from “Western” life right now), and tomorrow I plan to meet with a couple of local NGOs to see about possible volunteer opportunities for my students, and then we board our flight back to New York. This is my last blog post from Finfinne, but I hope to compose a more reflective and theoretical post once I am home in Brooklyn.

Finfinne Diaries 26 December 2013

26 Dec

My wife Maya and I just returned from a three-day trip to the Wollega district of Ethiopia, a few hundred kilometers straight west of the capital city. Now that I’m back in Addis Ababa/Finfinne and have a bit of time to spend at an internet café, this blog post will be devoted to that trip. Unfortunately, unlike last week when I blogged three times while staying at the Bole Ambassador hotel, this week I haven’t been able to blog much or even check e-mail because I don’t have access to the internet. The official college business part of my trip ended Saturday morning when we met with the Gudina Tumsa Foundation — about which I have already written at length on my other blog [here] after my last visit to Ethiopia in 2010 — and there we saw the Sandscribe Communications office. After that brief visit, Maya and I moved from the hotel to the house of a relative, and on Sunday, we spent the day at a family gathering, stuffing ourselves with doro wat, kitfo, anchote, rafu, and other stews on top of the budeena (a.k.a., injira, the traditional Ethiopian pancake-like bread), and catching up with relatives of Maya’s whom neither of us had ever met before. Luckily, during this family gathering we were able to recruit someone to join us on our trip, Juwar, born and raised in Addis but has lived in Maryland, not far from Maya’s family.

So, early Monday morning, just as the sun began to rise, the five of us set out for Wollega. Our group was me, Maya, Maya’s youngest aunt Lensa, our new friend Juwar, and our trusty driver and all-around righteous dude Tesfa. I’m afraid the trip had a mix of different purposes, a little mixing of business, pleasure, and family, so there isn’t much coherence, and it may not seem like it has much to do with film and media at first, but bear with me, and hopefully you’ll see. And when I say “see,” you’ll have to rely on my descriptions and theorizations, because I haven’t had time to process all the photos and transfer them to a USB jump-drive to bring to the internet cafe where I am now.

For those of you who don’t know Ethiopia’s geography, the drive into Wollega is extraordinarily beautiful. The elevation is between 7000 and 8000 feet (which is about 2000 to 3000 feet higher than the Appalachian mountains in America.) One goes up and down mountains and valleys, crosses over small rivers, and drives past what essentially is hundreds of kilometers of farmland. Even during the dry cold season after the crops have already been harvested (i.e., now in December), it is still lush, and when one looks down from the mountain onto the valley spread out below, it looks like a patchwork of different colors with fields of a variety of crops such as tef (the nutritious grain used to make budeena), corn, chickpeas, and pasture for cattle. We drove past groves of mango, banana, avocado, papaya, and other trees such as the tall and straight poplar tree, and small towns of small houses made of mud or clay walls and either thatch or corrugated tin roofs. Juwar remarked that it reminded him of the Shire from J.R.R. Tokien’s novels The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Our ultimate destination was the coffee farm owned by Maya’s grandfather in the town of Bodji, and upon arrival at their stately home, we compared it to Eden. The home itself almost feels like a nineteenth-century American farm with a well for water, a woodshed out back, a beautiful garden, and a patio where we all rested after our journey and had coffee and a dish called irridibu, which is freshly made budeena basted with spiced butter. Nothing tastes better than fresh, home-made bread out in the country. We also noted the ironic juxtaposition of essentially old, traditional forms of life and the new forms. Throughout the region, one sees mud huts with satellite dishes, people driving carts pulled by donkeys while talking on their cell phones, streams of children walking miles to a school where they study an academic curriculum that comes from who-knows-where, and young boys herding cattle down a major highway recently build by the Chinese government. Indeed, this road had only been completed a couples months before we arrived, which made our trip significantly easier and faster, for otherwise we would have needed an SUV to manage tedious unpaved roads. Such a mixture of old and new, local and foreign, is precisely the sort of paradox of globalization that I taught last spring in a special course that utilized various internet technologies to connect American and Ethiopian students.

Our first destination on Monday was the city of Nekemte, where after driving for many hours across gorgeous landscape, I met with the president of Wollega University, a new regional state university created just six years ago. The school is rapidly expanding as part of the federal government’s commitment to regional development and national integration. My guess is that the Chinese investment in the roads helps somewhat, but I also notice that the Ministry of Education seems to deliberately send students to campuses in other regions, which I assume is intended to contribute to national integration. Wollega University also recruits faculty from other countries, especially India, for medical sciences and information science & technology. They also have exchange programs with schools in Italy, Netherlands, and Norway, and they are in the midst of talks with the U.S. embassy about possible connections with American schools since they want American faculty to participate in their English language and literature program. At the same time, they are creating a folklore department to study local cultures and have plans for fostering local arts and media (including film.) Of course, media and folklore go together, since the documentation of folklore is essentially oral and visual, i.e., documentary film. I could not help but notice that the work of so-called “development” and “globalization” always seems to be followed by a renewed interest in preserving local culture, and I think this paradox needs to be theorized more deeply by Ethiopian scholars, government officials, artists, and film-makers. The key word that I’ve been hearing for the past week and a half is “development,” but the problem that I also see with the “development” ideology is that it is as much ideological as it is practical, sometimes blind to the very economic opportunities it is supposedly meant to foster as well as to the cultural dynamics that should be obvious, but aren’t.

After this short visit of an hour, I then visited the Mekane Yesus church compound in Nekemte, where Maya and I met with Fenan, the country coordinator for Resources for the Enrichment of African Lives (REAL) – the organization that we had briefly met in Addis last week and that our documentarian Jennifer had briefly filmed. REAL’s mission is to help teenage girls who have lost their parents so that they can go to college and become leaders. Fenan was once one of the students herself and now mentors others. That was Monday, and we had been up since 5:00 a.m., driven 325 km, and met with two organizations, so I was ready for a couple beers and some shekla (a delicious food which is basically spicy meat served in stoneware pot in which it is still being cooked by coals underneath.)

The next day (Tuesday) was to be devoted to family. We woke up very early for our long trip ahead, but soon after we woke up, the electricity went out in the whole neighborhood, and we found ourselves in pitch darkness, so Maya had to shower by the light of her cell phone. We then drove to the small city of Gimbi where we had breakfast, and then continued on to the country town of Bodji. I have already described how beautiful this terrain is and the lovely house of Maya’s family. After some visiting with relatives, we drove a couple miles to where the coffee farm is and hiked around the tef field and coffee plants. Next, we visited the Bodji Deremedji primary and secondary school that Juwar’s grandfather had built, and Juwar talked to administrators about his grandfather’s legacy. Coincidentally, Maya’s mother, uncles, and aunts had all attended that school, and so for Lensa it was a bit of a walk down memory lane. We then drove back to Gimbi and relaxed at the hotel, where unfortunately Maya caught a bug in her stomach resulting in necessary religious devotions to the porcelain god. Wednesday morning, we woke up bright and early, drove to Nekemte where we had breakfast. I had chechebsa, which is made from a fried doughy bread called keeta mixed with the spiced butter, along with scrambled eggs and honey. In some ways, Ethiopia really is the land of milk and honey. In other ways, it is a land of staggering poverty. In a society whose culture is essentially based on farming, those who have no land will struggle to survive. The question of land is central, I believe. For the five of us travelers, it was painful to see some of our own relatives unable to make ends meet at the same time that other relatives appear quite prosperous. After breakfast, we went to the Wollega Museum where I learned that the Oromo culture in Wollega values farming and land and that, traditionally, skilled professionals such as blacksmiths were somewhat isolated from the rest of the community. This cultural bias has changed since the People’s Revolution in 1974 that began to democratize the country, but I wonder if it persists in some less visible ways. I also learned that there is significant diversity in Wollega, both Christians and Muslims, and not just Oromos, but also communities that have migrated from the very environmentally different Gambella region as well as the Jebelawi community from Assosa. Now that the southern Sudan is so rife with conflict, I wonder how many people from there might migrate to Wollega in the near future.

On our return home (on what is Christmas day in Europe and America, but just an ordinary day here in Ethiopia where Christmas occurs on January 7), we again drove past miles and miles of beautiful farmland as well as miles of miles of poverty. On the roadside, either squatting or standing, but always looking for the car around the bend, people sold coal, avocados, pumpkins, lumber, sugar cane, corn, beautifully carved wood utensils, and even dirt (for the walls of homes.) Women walked carrying bundles of firewood on their backs or gallons of water – “hewers of wood and drawers of water” — the classic biblical formula for the hard labor of women and servants (a biblical formula brilliantly discussed in its eighteenth-century transatlantic context in Rediker and Linebaugh’s awesome work of history, Many-Headed Hydra.) As we got closer to Addis, we also drove past miles of industrial-scale greenhouses cultivating flowers and other things for export. We also experienced the “traffic-cop” phenomenon that I had seen in the locally produced movie just last week. Traffic cops will frequently post themselves in the road and stop vehicles in hopes of taking bribes. Since I was the only white non-Ethiopian in the car, our driver insisted that I sit in the front seat with him since the traffic-cops were more likely to let us go if they saw me there. We dubbed this the “Ferenji pass” (ferenji being the word for foreigner), so essentially my official “job” in the car was “being white.” On the 432 km journey back from Gimbi to Addis, we were stopped ten times (five in the Wollega district, five in the Shoa district, in case anyone wants to keep score), and usually we were just waved on (the ferenji pass), but twice we were searched (once in Wollega, once in Shoa), and one cop hinted that the presence of a ferenji meant the driver could afford the bribe. We never paid a cent. I decided to make a drinking game out of this, since Juwar had procured some home-made arak liquor in Nekemte, and he and I took a swig after every encounter.

As I reflected on all of these local-global paradoxes, I wondered how the economy and culture of Wollega might soon change since the road has been completed (two months ago, just in time for my trip.) For instance, would the new highway and new presence of universities bring industrialization to the region? Since I noticed that some of the children were confused about the difference between “ferenji” (the word for European) and “China” (the word for all Asians), would they start learning Chinese in Wollega? Would the khat trade (which I have written about [here]) expand now that it could be exported more quickly, as it did in other regions after highways were completed there? I wondered what my Ethiopian students would have to teach me about this in the days and years to come. What movies might they make to dramatize this complexity?

Finfinne Diaries 20 December 2013

20 Dec

This is going to be a short and quick blog post. I would write later, but this is my last night in the hotel with wi-fi, so I’m not sure when I will have a chance to blog again. As I mentioned in the first paragraph of my Finfinne Diary of December 16th, our trip had a number of goals. I outlined four, but in my haste I forgot to mention one of them — the investigation of possible topics for documentary film projects. Towards that goal, in addition to meeting with girls from the Resources for the Enrichment of African Lives project that I mentioned before, our documentarian Jennifer Dworkin returned to the studio of Paulos Regassa with some of the Sandscribe Communications students and has spent some time later with the students themselves. We will also meet with the Gudina Tumsa Foundation tomorrow, and then most of our official work will be done. Stephen Greenwald has already left, and tonight I got to finally spend some time with Maya’s grandparents and other relatives.

The previous night (Thursday) we invited the scholar Alessandro Jedlowski out to dinner with us again and also the young film-maker whom we had met at Addis Ababa University and whose film we had gone to the cinema to watch the night before (as I described in my blog post for 18 December 2013). Happily, my wife Maya, who had just arrived the night before, could join us also.

2013-12-20 Ethiopia trip pictures 003Most of the past two days (Thursday and Friday) have been various meetings with a diverse group of government officials at various locations in the city. We had intentionally left Friday wide open on our schedule just in case something came up or to do a little tourism, but it ended up being our busiest day of the week. Possibly, after our public presentation on Tuesday, some word got around about our trip, or possibly just serendipity, but in any case, Dhaba got some calls from worthy individuals. Out of respect for those officials who met with us, I will refrain from mentioning their names or posting photographs here, but let me just say that we did get to see the inside of Parliament, which was cool. We have learned a lot about the current state of film and media in Ethiopia from all these meetings, and I hope we were able to contribute something useful as well and that they will lead to great things in the future.

From here on, although I will continue to follow through with my research and the various goals of the trip here and there, I will mostly be spending time with Maya and her family, and we plan to travel west about 250 miles to the Wollega region where her family comes from. I don’t know if I will be able to blog again until I return on Wednesday.

Finfinne Diaries 18 December 2013

18 Dec

When I blogged about our trip in Oromia-Ethiopia two days ago, I had some foolish notion that I could actually write a blog post every night, but last night we were having too much fun, out on the town in Addis Ababa with colleagues and friends at a delicious Italian restaurant called Grani de Pepe, that houses the environmentally  conscious Slow Food shop organized by my friend Roba Bulga. After some delicious food, delicious company, and probably too much wine, we returned to our hotel quite late. And tonight, my wife Maya will be arriving at the airport, so once again, I will be writing as fast as I possibly can, and I apologize if it is just a list of events streaming past — we’ve been so busy these past two days that “streaming past” is precisely what it felt like.

2013 Ethiopia trip picts Dec 17 to 18 009_croppedSo, to catch up, we continued to pursue our agenda that I laid out in the first paragraph of my last post. First, Stephen Greenwald and I visited the premier national university of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa University (AAU) where we met with the chair of the Theater Department, Dr. Aboneh, the chair of the Communications and Journalism Department, Dr. Negeri, a couple of their graduate students who work on film, and of couple of journalists who graduated from that program. The journalists, not coincidentally, also took the transnational class on film and globalization that I taught last spring that connected a classroom of American students with a classroom of Ethiopian students. One of our topics was the discipline of film studies, which some faculty at AAU are interested in creating there. While we were having this discussion, Jennifer Dworkin was at Rift Valley University College where she held the second class for Sandscribe Communications on documentary film-making.

2013 Ethiopia trip picts Dec 17 to 18 014The next big event, as I promised to talk about at the conclusion of my last post, was the grand event — a three-hour panel discussion on the production and distribution of film in Ethiopia and the possibilities for its development. The panel included Sandscribe’s founder Dhaba Wayessa who explained the reason for Sandscribe’s existence — to create a climate for young people to make creative and socially responsible films — and the point of the panel — to explore this question and get feedback from an audience that included students, professors, media professionals, businessmen, and government officials all interested in this topic. Next up was Sandscribes’ managing officer who reported on the surveys he conducted about the viewing habits of film-goers in Addis. Third was the visiting scholar Alessandro Jedlowski who gave a brief overview of his extensive research comparing different African film industries. Fourth, Stephen Greenwald outlined the key ingredients of a sustainable film industry and what he had learned about Ethiopia’s strengths and weaknesses when measured against that standard. Last, I ran the discussion organized around key questions and points brought by the panelists and solicited feedback from our audience and the diverse expertise that it represented. The discussion was lively and attentive.

2013 Ethiopia trip picts Dec 17 to 18 035One unexpected bonus for me at both Addis Ababa University and the Sandscribe panel at Rift Valley was the chance to meet some of the students from last spring’s class. It is also wonderful for a teacher to discover that his teaching mattered to someone, and I was overjoyed that some of them were there and could pose with us for this group photo. I was even more moved when I discovered to learn that the conversations my class had started about the globalization of the film industry were still continuing. We capped off a great day by going out to dinner as I mentioned above.

me and Berhanu

me and Berhanu

Another fortunate consequence of the panel discussion is that it created enough buzz that it generated more opportunities for us. One person in the audience, Wosenyelleh Tilahun,  is a businessman working for nascent production and distribution company, Sebastopol Films in Addis. Wosenyelleh had also taken my class while he was simultaneously translating another film criticism textbook from English into Amharic. This morning we visited one of the studies and theaters and discussed the business with us and the goals of his company, including the new theaters it had built. After this visit, we stopped by the Mekane Yesus Seminary, which is where Sandscribe ran its first workshops back in 2011 and 2012, to visit with its President Dr. Belay and its director of the music and media program Bereket Melese. We returned to our hotel to be interviewed by Mr. Berhanu, a journalist for the English-language newspaper The Ethiopian Herald. Meanwhile, Jennifer had gone to film interviews with three girls who are part of the REAL program to provide opportunities for disadvantaged.

Next on our agenda was a conversation with Mr. Mesfin Dereje at the Oromia Radio and Television Organization Office. As many readers of this blog may already know, most of the radio and all of the television in Ethiopia is a state-run enterprise. Only recently, in 2008, has this enterprise diversified somewhat with new regional stations, such as Oromia’s, that can broadcast in the local languages. We discussed this historical change as well as the challenges of television programming in Ethiopia.

We capped off the evening by going to one of the government cinemas and watching a locally produced romantic comedy about a female traffic cop who falls in love with a taxi driver. The film was actually produced by one of the graduate students whom we had met at Addis Ababa University the day before, and happily her brother met us at the door and helped us understand some of the story (since there were no subtitles.) It was a delightful movie, and what we all agreed that we most liked about it was its attention to details of the ordinary lives of working-class people.

All of these events and conversations have given me a lot to think about, and I have learned a lot. I wish I could devote some time to reflecting on the events now or even just add some more hyperlinks, but it is well past midnight and instead I must go to the airport to pick up my wife. Fortunately, tomorrow has a less intense schedule.

Finfinne Diaries 16 December 2013

16 Dec

I am writing from the Bole Ambassador Hotel in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital city, also known by its Oromo name, Finfinne. It is late at night, and tomorrow I have another busy schedule, so I hope you will excuse the hasty and sloppy style of my writing in this blog post, but I wanted to speedily tell about my trip so my friends, family, and colleagues back home could follow my experiences day-by-day. My colleagues Stephen Greenwald (director of film and media initiatives at Wagner College), Jennifer Dworkin (documentary film-maker), and I arrived in Ethiopia late Saturday night to join my good friend and collaborator, Dhaba Wayessa (Voice of America journalist and all-around renaissance man) who travelled ahead of us to prepare for our project. Our trip has several goals: (1) to continue my ongoing research about the cultural history of America’s relationship to Ethiopia, (2) to investigate the state of cinema in Ethiopia and the potential for its development, (3) to give two quick, introductory seminars for Sandscribe Communications on the business of film and documentary film-making, and (4) to look for potential partners for education abroad opportunities and international exchange with the college where I work in New York.

On Sunday, I woke up and went for a quick jog around the neighborhood and soon discovered that either I hadn’t had enough sleep after 20 or so hours of airplane travel or wasn’t used to the high altitude of Addis Ababa (almost 8,000 feet above sea level.) After breakfast, we all met to discuss the agenda for the week, go out for lunch, and do a little tourism, driving up the forested Mount Entoto above Addis and checking out the Church of St. Mary, the site that inaugurated the religious dimension of the colonization of the Oromo town by the Abyssinian empire.

documentarian Jennifer Dworkin captures Paolos Regassa's work as Stephen Greenwald and Dhaba Wayessa look on

documentarian Jennifer Dworkin captures Paolos Regassa’s work as Stephen Greenwald, Dhaba Wayessa, and Alessandro Jedlowski look on

Today, Monday, we began our work and were joined by the scholar from Italy Alessandro Jedlowski, currently doing postdoctoral study in Belgium on the production and distribution of film in Africa. We began by meeting with a local entrepreneur to discuss the state of finance and the legal framework business in Ethiopia. Though not directly related to film and the goals of our trip, the question of capital investment and the rather unique system that governs business in Ethiopia is germane to the potential for film production. After an unexpectedly entertaining and surreal — and therefore especially useful — conversation, we drove to visit the studio of a brilliant local film-maker named Paulos Regassa, director of the dramatic film Ashenge and many documentaries, to discuss the challenges and opportunities of making films in Ethiopia.

We then went for lunch and briefly met with someone from Resources for the Enrichment of African Lives (REAL), an organization that provides mentors and support for disadvantaged girls in the Oromia region of Ethiopia and in the United States to discuss the possibility of filming a few of the girls in the organization.

2013 Ethiopia trip picts Dec 15 to 16 060_crop

Stephen Greenwald, Steven Thomas, and Dhaba Wayessa with a few Rift Valley University College faculty and administrators

After lunch, we all traveled to the Bole campus of the extensive Rift Valley University College. There, Dhaba, Steve G., and Steve T. met with several faculty and administrators. We explained our goals (as I outlined them above), and they explained the history of their school, and we discussed possible points of mutual interest and future endeavors. They were a wonderful and enthusiastic group. Meanwhile, Jennifer led a workshop on documentary film with some Sandscribe Communications students. Later in the evening, we were treated to a tasty dinner at the Hilton Hotel by the president of Rift Valley, Dinku Deyasa.

At some point, I want to theorize about one of the main topics of conversation that we had to today and the many things I learned regarding the question of film and media production in Ethiopia, since theorizing is the sort of thing that I usually do in this blog, but it is now midnight, and tomorrow is another busy day, and that is precisely the question that all of us will formally give a public presentation about tomorrow afternoon. Stay tuned!