Why after 57 years a film continues to impress modern audiences


All films cannot assume the status of being classics. Hollywood has so far produced tons of good, bad or best films. But, those who shared the status of being classic are very few. According to my research there are only 37 classic movies in American film history. These are: among others, the Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Lawrence of Arabia, West Side Story, citizen Cane, Psycho…etc.

It would of course be preposterous to compare Hollywood with the nascent Ethiopian film industry and its productions in the last 57 or so years. Classic movies are often distinguished ones that transcend time and place, and remain stuck in the memories of movie goers and enjoy worldwide recognition among film makers and critics. People still see and enjoy classic movies because their messages are relevant to their times and they identify with their messages whether at the personal, national or global levels.

If we compare Ethiopian film production and movies so far produced, none of them can meet the above criteria. Maybe the closest thing we can have as a classic is a film tested by time and proved relevant, exciting and impressive according to the opinions of viewers, actors and film connoisseurs. What does it take to make an immortal movie? The answer may be that, classic movies are made by talented script writers, actors, directors and producers in combination and not separately. Many films may have excellent stories or screenplays but they may be destroyed with bad acting or bad directing. The same can be said about the other points. That is why film experts say that good movies are the combined efforts of all those professionals who engage in their making.

As we said above, there are few Ethiopian films that can enjoy the unanimous appreciation as good in everything or in every department of production, directing, acting or screen writing. Like classic books, classic movies appear once in many decades. In Ethiopia, for instance, “Fikir eske mekabir” (Love unto the Grave) is the most classic Amharic novel. But no one knows what its movie version would look like as long as we don’t have a film based on the book. However, you don’t always need a classic story to produce a classic movie.

A few weeks back, there was a surprise awaiting all those movie viewers assembled at the Sheraton Hotel for a show of an almost forgotten Ethiopian movie called, “Hirut abatua manew” (Who is Hirut’s father?), a 1957 black and white film that was made when a film industry did not exist and Ethiopians were not acquainted with cinema, in general discouraged as “cinema is the work of the devil” by the clergy.

However, the makers of Hirut defied all odds and launched their modest project that wins the eyes and heart of movie lovers so to say. There is nothing significant written about Hirut; No review, no analysis and no lengthy description. The reason is clear; we don’t have a national film academy or a tradition of film criticism. Making film in Ethiopia is both a long and short tradition. It is a long tradition because Ethiopia is one of the leading countries in Africa to start producing a modern movie, if it is said, Ethiopia is not the leading country, Hirut is a proof of it. From 1966 to roughly 2000, the Ethiopian film industry was in a pause mode and no significant achievement was made by local film producers.

The surprise fascination of Hirut had reverberations may be taken as a bolt from the blue. No one expected that the film could have such an impact, even though it was shown in a version made better by modern editing technology. Even Diaspora Ethiopians who are here in Addis were awestruck by the film. These are people who came from America and western countries, where film is a staple of daily or weekly life. They know what it takes for a movie to be good. These are people who spent decades in America and know well what kind of movie would strike a chord in them.

The impression we got from interviews of Ethiopians at Sheraton who were gathered to enjoy the film, was impressive. One woman from the Diaspora even went as far as suggesting that she may be tempted to take the film to America and around the world, so that Ethiopians can see what they were able to produce 57 years earlier. Another member of the audience, probably a film producer, said, “After seeing Hirut, I have the impression that we done nothing substantial until now.”

It has taken around 40 years for the Ethiopian film industry to show a sign of life, as local films were produced first in small trickles and then followed by an avalanche starting from the last decades of the 20th century. According to recent information, “Hirut Abatua Manew” was the first feature film produced in 1966 by the Ethiopian director and producer Ilala Ibsa. Gumma, which was produced by Mitchel Papatakis in 1976 was the second film introduced to the Ethiopian people.

“The first two feature films in Ethiopia were made with the standard of motion picture [35mm black & white film]. Did you also know the first cinema hall, Cinema Terrace, was built in the city of Addis Ababa by a Frenchman called Mr. Terrace. Nevertheless, the public then named the place ‘House of Satan’, for cinema/film was perceived as some sort of sorcery or magic.”

Hirut Abatua Manew? (Who is Hirut’s Father?), is an Ethiopian love story in Amharic with an English subtitle, considered by critics and films connoisseurs as the first modern movie in Ethiopia, and was produced and presented to the small movie audience back in 1965. Back then, the Ethiopian cinema scene was dominated by Hollywood productions and Indian romantic and melodramatic films, long before Bollywood burst into the international scene, movies like Waqt, From Tokyo with Love, Mother India, and many others were the talks of the town. American actors like Kirk Douglas, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davies and the late Sidney Poitier captured the imagination of young movie goers.

Cinema Addis Ketema and Cinema Ras deep in Merkato, Cinema Ethiopia and Cinema Empire, as well as the defunct Cinema Adwa in Piazza were the meeting points for young and urban movie fans as well as modern Ethiopians who associated modernity with going to the movies and dancing to the tunes of Elvis Priestly.

The few people who might have seen Hirut at the time of its production are certainly older folks who may not remember what the film was all about. The new generations of movie fans have no idea about it. They may not believe that Ethiopians could produce such a fascinating film with such archaic tools of the trade and with a laughingly little money they could use for the film. That was indeed the infancy of Ethiopian film industry.

For cultural chauvinists in the global film industry who may not believe that Ethiopians and Africans in general cannot produce interesting films, Hirut may be the answer. For the local people who have been fed with a heavy diet of foreign or Hollywood films all their lives, they may be angry for missing Hirut for so long, stuck as they were in the cultural impasse of Western movies that glorify the greatness of Western civilization and undermine African culture.

Politically, this may be taken as a turning point in the Africa-Western cultural relationship that will certainly go through a certain kind of revolutionary change. Africans have very fascinating cultures and traditional practices from which the best films in the world could be produced.

Yet, the general poverty of the continent, and the ethnocentric misperception of the African cultural elites, with a few exceptions, have so far undermined the emergence of the genuine African films that reflect the suffering, pains and glories of Africans in their fight against colonialism and neocolonialism. This is an opportunity for Ethiopian and African film makers to leave behind the cultural garbage of Hollywood and European film companies that polluted the African mind and perpetuated their cultural domination as a tool for their hegemonic ambitions.

Africans have had writers and filmmakers like Sembene Ousman, whose works always reflected the aspirations of the African people. In Ethiopia, we have movie giants like Haile Gerima and Solomon Bekele Weya who have already proved their mettles but could not go forward at faster pace because of the global domination of Hollywood and the racist film establishment that is discouraging them to fully put their talents to the services of the African people. The African film industry, has untapped potentials for growth. According to a recent UNESCO estimates, the African film industry has the potential to create more than 20 million jobs and generate a combined GDP of more than 20 billion dollars annually. For now this huge potential remains simply a potential.

The Ethiopian film industry has a long history of existence although its achievement does not match its longevity. According to Wikipedia, “The cinema of Ethiopia was introduced in 1898, three years after the first world film was projected on 25 December 1895. However, the growth rate was critically declined as a result of ongoing sociopolitical instability. Over decades, the Ethiopian film industry was associated with cultural, religious and national background under pressure of its leaders, advanced historical and documentary films.” Hoe to make the film industry live up to its potentials is another topic for discussion.

For Ethiopian filmmakers this is a turning point for them to leave behind their strenuous efforts to mimic Western-style film making, and start to look for genuinely traditional and African themes and stories. It is only when they return to their past and try to revive the good and the best in their traditions that they can produce a truly classic film. Film is a proven instrument for changing people’s perception for the better.

It is a potent tool for bringing about the revival of the rich and lost history of the country. Haile Gerima made “Sakofa” a film about slavery in order to show the cruelties of a system that served as the basis for the enrichment of white America. Hope many classic films could be made out of Ethiopian history, ancient and contemporary. How many traditional Ethiopian tales and stories could be turned into fascinating movies? It would be better to leave the answer to this question to the experts. For now, let us start by treating “Hirut Abatua Manew” as our classic movie that might inspire others to do the same or even surpass it.

The January 29/2022

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