Theory Teacher's Blog

Finfinne Diaries 8: Movies in Ethiopia

First International Short Film Festival in Addis Ababa

  As I mentioned in my first Finfinne Diary about my overall itinerary, one of the goals for my trip was to investigate the possibility of film and media development in Ethiopia. And serendipitously, while I was traveling around the Oromia region, Ethiopia just happened to be hosting its very first international short film festival — Images that Matter — to encourage and develop young talent. The festival included films and filmmakers from all over the world, including Morocco, Australia, Iran, Japan, France, Sudan, China, Brazil, and Kenya, and it was sponsored by a wide variety of organizations including Ethiopia’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the French government, the World Bank, Ethiopian Airlines,  BGI Ethiopia (a beer distributor), and Addis Ababa University… among many others. The guest of honor was the Somali-born supermodel Waris Dirie, whose autobiography Desert Flower was recently made into a movie that focuses attention on the problem of female circumcision. Luckily for me, extra tickets were being handed out on the street in front of the National Theater one morning, and I just happened to be walking by at that very moment, so I was able to attend several of the sessions and the final award ceremony. I was able to watch most of the short films competing for the East African film competition. This was a wonderful experience, and I almost can’t believe my good luck.  

So, the question for this blog is how to go about developing the film and media industry within Ethiopia. This was one of the stated goals of the film festival, and it is also one of the goals of organizations such as Sandscribe Communications, the Blue Nile Film and Television Academy, and the Goethe Institute’s Ethiopian Film Initiative. The two friends who most helped me with my trip — and who spoke with me on the phone almost every day I was there — are both aspiring Oromo film-makers, one living in the United States, one in Ethiopia. So, in a sense, my blog post today is in part a token of thanks to both of them, but it is also a critical inquiry into what is possible as well as into strategies for making that possibility a reality.  

Admittedly, although I have published a scholarly article about film and globalization, I knew nothing at all about the movie business in Ethiopia or anywhere in Africa before my trip this summer. So, after I came back to the United States I went to the local university library to check out a few books such as Francois Pfaff’s Focus on African Films (2004) and Nwachukwu Frank Ukadike’s Black African Cinema (1994), and I flipped through old issues of the Journal of Ethiopian Studies, Journal of Oromo Studies, African Studies Review, and Northeast African Studies. I also watched a few movies such as Ousmane Sembene’s classic Black Girl (1966) about colonial racism and Xala (1975) about postcolonial government corruption. (I probably should have done all this before I went on my big trip, but I didn’t have time.) Luckily, just a couple weeks after I returned from Oromia, the new movie Teza, by the Ethiopia-born independent film maker Haile Gerima (which coincidentally included two actors whom I briefly met at Addis Ababa University), was finally screened at an art-house theater in Minneapolis. Significantly, in all my research (which admittedly was far from rigorous or thorough), I found absolutely no scholarly  work whatsoever on the film industry in Ethiopia. Instead I found a few interviews with Haile Gerima and Salem Mekuria, but both of them live and work in the United States and in some ways are more African-American than they are Ethiopian. And I believe this absence of scholarly work indicates precisely the problem that my friends want to address: the lack of quality film and media in Ethiopia and the general disinterest among Ethiopian scholars. Moreover, based on my experience at the film festival and my follow-up research, the opportunities for someone to make a feature-length dramatic film in Ethiopia in a language other than Amharic are practically nil. What are my friends and I to do?  

Probably the most useful book for my purposes is African Cinema (1992) by Manthia Diawara (along with his earlier article available on-line [here].) Why I say Diawara’s book is most useful is because it comparatively analyzes the history of production, distribution, and consumption in many African countries from the colonial period of the 1930s through the postcolonial 1960s to the 1980s. Some nations (such as Nigeria, Ghana, and Senegal) were successful at fostering a national cinema, but most were not. Although every country is unique, so one can’t simply emulate the kind of profitable multi-ethnic film production happening in Nigeria (or “Nollywood” as it’s called), the various successes and failures provide us with lessons we can learn from. In contrast to Diawara’s book, all of the other books on African film that I found focused either on the genius of individual directors or on the style and content of “good” movies. In my view, focusing on the “author” or on the “work” doesn’t actually go far enough to explain why and how some movies get made and others do not. And for all my students from my “English 243” class who might still be reading my blog from time to time, this is one of Michel Foucault’s main points in his famous essay “What is an Author?” and in his book The Archaeology of Knowledge. No matter what an individual’s talents, if he or she doesn’t have the right equipment or enough investment of capital, the movie won’t get made. And even if one has equipment and financing, that doesn’t mean one has a labor force with the skills and knowledge necessary to shoot some good pictures, as is evident from the awful stuff made by Ethiopia’s national television station. And even more important than production is distribution, as I will argue in just moment. Please note that my blog on movies in Ethiopia is not going to discuss the subject matter, plots, or style of any movies. Those questions are for individual film-makers to decide, not me. Rather, I am interested in what conditions make possible the successful production and distribution of movies, whatever they may be about.  

My argument is basically that we need to pay attention not only to the means of production but also to distribution and consumption. And we need to pay attention to how production, distribution, and consumption affect each other in complex ways. I think my students and colleagues in central Minnesota can sympathize with me on this one. Although there is an enormous megaplex with 18 theaters very close to me, it only shows crap such as the recent A-Team, Knight and Day, Killers, etc. (And yes, in case you are wondering, I actually saw all of those earlier this summer, even though they are crap.) Not only is it almost impossible to see a highly acclaimed movie such as Gerima’s Teza, it’s even difficult to see a movie as popular as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — despite the fact that that movie is based on the best-selling novel of the past two years. Ironically, I had a similar experience while I was in Ethiopia’s capital city. The same movies that were in the movie theaters in my small city in central Minnesota were also at the very same time in the movie theaters in Finfinne (a.k.a. Addis Ababa). In other words, it was easier to watch the A-Team in Ethiopia than it was to watch Teza.  

Why is that? My students often seem to assume it’s simply a matter of popularity, but actually that’s not at all the case. As Diawara shows in his book about African cinema, and as theorists Fredric Jameson, Masao Miyoshi, Barbara Trent, and Paik Nak-chung all argue in the seminal book The Cultures of Globalization, and as anyone who has ever talked to the manager of a theater would know, there are other factors. For instance, even an independent movie theater is obliged to show certain movies by large production companies, even if it doesn’t want to show them or knows they will be unpopular, because they will lose access to a lot of movies they do want to show if they don’t. Sometimes popular movies don’t get much screen time while unpopular movies do.  

Diawara narrates case after case across Africa when European-and-American-controlled distribution networks effectively shut down efforts by independent African directors to produce their work. Such neo-colonial European-American interests are able to do this directly by simply denying access to theaters or indirectly by scaring off potential investors. As a result, African filmmakers were often unable to compete with Hollywood romances and Hong Kong kung fu. And even today, it is very difficult to watch African movies in the United States; they are almost never shown in theaters and even the DVDs are not available through the usual commercial channels or public libraries. Ironically, both times I’ve been on a plane to Africa (Kenya last year, Ethiopia this year), I could watch movies made in the United States, France, Japan, and India, but not movies made by anyone from Africa.  

Likewise, movies are often financially successful because an audience has been mobilized, whether through advertising or through other means such as universities, churches, or activist organizations. For instance, the case of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is somewhat well known — the first African-American-made, African-American-owned movie in the United States, whose financial success in 1971 surprised everyone. Part of its success is owed to the Black Panthers who mobilized its members to go watch it. If one thinks of the future of quality film in Ethiopia, one will have to figure out how to organize an audience. A city such as Jimma may not have a good theater, but it does have a good university with an auditorium. Smaller towns have churches. And some African governments in the 1970s and 80s sponsored mobile crews that traveled from town to town to promote and show films.  

One of the ways that individual nations in Africa attempted to support their nascent film industries in the wake of their independence from colonial rule was to nationalize the industry. In other words, European companies were controlling the content and the distribution, which meant that it was hard for Africans to develop their own skills and take control of the medium and to make movies that criticized European colonial and neo-colonial policies. Governments built training centers, funded movies, and facilitated their distribution. However, nationalization has three problems. First, often nationalization meant government control, and the result was boring propaganda films (and mostly documentaries or news) that supported the government’s narrow political agenda. Second, movies were rarely high on the government’s list of priorities, so the fledgling film industries withered away. Third, if the national government only supported production but didn’t also work effectively to support distribution, the films simply could not compete or even attract investment. Fourth, American and European companies were extremely hostile to any effort by an African nation or African company to control its own production and distribution, and hence the Americans and Europeans would use any means necessary to assert their interests. In other words, the film industry has never been governed by free market forces. To imagine that such is the case is to indulge in pure fantasy. Rather, like all big businesses where a lot is at stake both financially and politically, it has always been about power.  

Clearly the subject of cinema in Africa is complex since an entire book has been written about it, but I’d like to finish this post by first talking about two successful policies and then applying the lessons of those policies to the specific case of Ethiopia. One successful policy was Nigeria’s Indigenization Act that enabled private Nigerians with business contracts to take control of film distribution and exhibition. Instead of the kind of direct government control and sponsorship popular in many African countries, this act simply enables private businesses to compete with the more powerful American and European companies. And today, Nigeria is not just the biggest producer of films in Africa but also one of the biggest producers of films in the world, so I think we should take their example  seriously. (Admittedly, this is due mostly to Nigeria having one of the biggest populations in the world, not to mention a heck of a lot of oil. Nevertheless, the case of Nigeria is especially useful example to consider while thinking critically about Ethiopia’s situation considering that Nigeria also has a history of ethnic conflict.)  

The other successful policy is evident in the film festival I attended. Instead of national governments simply promoting their own films, there is collaboration across national boundaries. This might take the form of a film festival (such as the famous Cannes festival in France or the festival in Addis Ababa), but more significantly it might take the form of a multilateral trade negotiation among several national governments or the form of a transnational business association.  

OK… so, this blog post is already quite long, but I’d like to conclude by focusing on the case of Ethiopia. Today, Ethiopia lacks any formal training center for film and media — though one of my contacts at Addis Ababa University said that something was in the works there. Ethiopian media also is controlled by a not-so-democratic government. As a result, the aspiring film makers that I met believed their only option was to be completely independent and do everything themselves. As you might guess from everything I’ve written so far in this blog post and in my other Finfinne Diaries, although I am sympathetic to the feelings that motivate this point of view and this desire for total autonomy, I don’t think it is wise. Instead, I think independent film makers will have to build up the infrastructure of film-making gradually by collaborating both within national boundaries and across them. And when I say infrastructure, I mean not just production but also distribution and consumption. And when I say collaborating, I don’t mean in the political sense, but simply the sharing of equipment, space, knowledge, ideas, labor time, and other resources that goes on all the time among artists struggling to make a go at it. 

Also in the case of Ethiopia, one of the obvious issues is the question of ethnic self-determination and governance. Having control of its own media is clearly important for any culture because such media is how identity is expressed, how values are articulated, and how issues are brought to the public mind. For the most part, although some gains have been made by the Oromo and other ethnic groups in Ethiopia since 1992 to have newspapers and other media in their own languages, the mainstream media is still mostly ethnically Amhara. And this was clearly the case at the film festival I attended, though because of the international nature of the event, its primary language was not Amharic but English.  

Oromo Cultural Center Complex?...

 How can such ethnic populations gain access to investment capital and distribution networks in such an environment? Honestly, I do not have the answer to that, but I’d like to offer some highly speculative ideas. Two obvious sources of funding might be the Oromia International Bank and the Oromo Culture Center, soon to be built by the Oromiya Culture and Tourism Bureau — i.e., a government project led by a political party called the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO). What might make the Culture Center a problematic source of funding is that it is directed by a somewhat corrupt political organization that does not have the confidence of the Oromo people whom they are supposed to represent. 

... complex under construction...

For the non-Oromo folks reading this blog, the history of Ethiopia and Oromo politics is long and complex, and even after all the reading I’ve done and all the chatting with various peoples, I still don’t understand the in’s and out’s of it. But basically, ever since the mid-1990s, the political party of the OPDO has been almost completely subordinate to the dictatorial regime of Ethiopia and therefore is neither truly democratic nor truly representative of the Oromo people. From the perspective of the more radical and militant Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), an organization outlawed by the Ethiopian government, the OPDO is simply part of the oppressive state apparatus. But of course the OPDO believes they are more pragmatic than their critics give them credit for, given the reality of the situation. As for the status of the Oromia Bank, I have no idea, except that I doubt it would be in any position to fund a movie perceived to be against the government’s agenda. 

In any case, I can understand why an independent Oromo film maker would shy away from the financial support of the OPDO or the bank because not only might their creative vision be hampered, so too would their credibility and hence their potential audience base. However, on the other hand, an effective development of an Oromo media infrastructure will certainly take a long time and require the input of many organizations and individuals. Even independent film makers benefit from the infrastructure of the mainstream built by large corporate interests. For example, obviously few film makers build their own theaters. And to use an analogy, just because your enemy made the weapon (in this case, the movie theater or the film equipment) doesn’t mean you can’t use that weapon against your enemy. 

So, what to do? There seems to be an either/or situation here. Either the film-makers collaborate with sources of financial capital that they don’t like or they don’t and instead try to maintain their artistic integrity and/or political purity. But perhaps there is a solution that avoids this either/or. What if independent film makers formed an association across ethnic and national boundaries but independent of political parties and the state? What if artistic collaboration and the building of a vibrant media infrastructure were a multicultural and transnational venture? Could they pool their resources this way so as to avoid the pitfalls of both partisan politics and moneyed interests?


August 3, 2010 - Posted by | global, media, movies, Oromia

1 Comment »

  1. Bibliography of the books I checked out from the small local state university library:

    Nwachukwu Frank Ukadike, Black African Cinema (University of California Press, 1994)

    Nwachukwu Frank Ukadike, ed., Questioning African Cinema (University of Minnesota Press, 2002)

    Melissa Thackway, Africa Shoots Back: Alternative Perspectives in Sub-Saharan Francophone African Film (Indiana University Press, 2003)

    Olivier Barlet, African Cinemas: Decolonizing the Gaze (L’Harmattan, 1996; trans. Chris Turner, Zed Books, 2000)

    Manthia Diawara, African Cinema (Indiana University Press, 1992)

    Francoise Pfaff, ed., Focus on African Films (Indiana University Press, 2004)

    Comment by steventhomas | August 5, 2010 | Reply

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