Ethiopian Films News

Reviewing International Short Film Festival Images That Matter

By Musumi Roy Chowdhury

The International Short Film Festival Images that Matter held from June 14-19 in Addis Ababa presented over a hundred short films, and one long feature film, Desert Flower on issues concerning development, diversity, conflict and human rights. The five films screened on the first day, “Lezare,” “Person to Person,” “Welcome to Womanhood,” “Coffee and Allah” and “Fond de Teint” screened these themes to a large audience.

Zelalem Woldemariam’s remarkable film “Lezare” (“For Today”) featured the story of a day in a boy’s life in an Ethiopian village. Unable to earn money by begging, he takes part in a tree planting project to receive the coin he will buy his bread with at the day’s end. Irony and reversal moves the plotline as the boy loses and finds the coin in the earth, digging up the saplings he planted, and at the very hour the girl from the bread store reaches him with a piece of bread. The film ends with the boy holding the coin before him in a proud gesture. Besides the story, rich with irony as well as its powerful message, the village scenes, imagistic and poetic, framed from the perspective of a child, gives the film its richness.

Wim Wender’s “Person to Person” on micro-credit and how media reports on people from Africa shows the history and impact of micro-credit on the lives of millions from the global South. The idea of micro-credit was not conceived in Harvard business school, but by Professor Mohammad Yunus from Bangladesh. Conceiving of micro-credit, i.e., small repayable loans given to women to start their own business, he changed the lives of thousands of women and transformed communities. When the government banks would not support him, he used the website to spread the word of micro-credit. Thus began the story of micro-credit as global solidarity supporting economic empowerment all over the global South, its message being that poor people are not the problem but the solution.

Micro-credit changes the stock frames of poverty and victim hood that the media uses to tell the stories of women from the global South. “If we want to reach people we can’t just be bad news” says an African woman who marvels at where the stories of being an engineer or teacher in Africa have gone. But for the news media to change there must be diversity in the news rooms, and especially so in BBC and CNN that frame the world. In the film, it is the dialogue between the South Asian man and the white British woman that puts micro-credit on global news.

“Coffee and Allah” by Cima Urael from New Zealand is about an Ethiopian girl who is an immigrant in New Zealand. A burkha clad devout Muslim, she has a penchant for playing badminton. The film breaks with many stereotypes of immobility, lack of individuality and disempowerment of the covered Muslim woman as we see this girl in blue playing badminton all by herself in the fields and in her unhindered communication in Amharic with the uncomprehending man at the coffee shop who wants to befriend her. Coffee, the signature product of Ethiopia is the connection between her home (where she does a coffee ceremony) and the world outside, i.e., the coffee shop where she buys her coffee. The film ends with the man in the shop writing with cream “allah” in Arabic on her coffee and her singing bismillah as she holds the coffee cup between her hands. A film that breaks many stereotypes operative in today’s world, it cannot completely do away with stereotypes either in its brief depiction of the Indian couple mentioned in the cast as Mr and Mrs Indian!

Louise Mendy directed “Fond de Teint,” a sensitively treated film on race relations in Europe and perceptions of difference in the human psyche, looks at how children create meanings of race in the classroom and how children born from inter-racial marriage come to terms with their racial identity. One creates negative meanings through metaphors, and children know early enough how to use such metaphors effectively against one another. But it is in inter-personal relationships and friendships that the force of such linguistically created meanings of the other might break. Holding each other’s hand in the playground and chit chatting, brown would no more come to mean “ka-ka,” but the beautiful colour one’s own mother aspires to be in all her sun-bathing.

Charlotte Metcalf directed “Welcome to Womanhood” which captures images of women from all over the world in diverse situations of disempowerment, putting many issues concerning human rights and gender on the platter. Many of the images are powerful, though some conform to stereotypes because some images are not broken into storylines.
The next four days of the festival saw scores of films on subjects addressing diversity, human rights, gender issues and development. Some of the most remarkable among them were “How can it be?,” “The story of Panshim Beka,” “La Pelote de Laine,” “Cinta,” “May,” “A Bike Ride,” “Miss Cristina Lost her Memory,” “Civil, but not Civilized” “Le Sifflet,” “Metaphore du Manioc,” “Tiya’s Dream” and “Island of Flowers.”

Meera Nair directed “How Can It Be?” It looks at gender equality from an unusual angle as it tells the story of a young Indian Bengali Muslim woman living in London with her husband and child, who decides to leave her loving and loyal husband for an uncertain relationship with a married man. Living with her husband while she loves another man, she calls adultery. The film ends not with a conclusive closure, but with the young woman in a cab journeying to an uncertain future, as the words from the letter she has left for her son resonate: Where I am going there is no one. I can call your name. But I leave for reasons of integrity, honesty, and the right to adventure. One day you will understand . . . ”
Fatma Zohra Zamoum directed “La Pelote de Laine” is a story of a North African immigrant family in the French suburbs. Mohammad brings his wife Fatiha and his two children to live with him in France, but he continues to lock them up despite Fatiha’s pleas and protests not to do so. Often he resorts to physical violence as her protests get louder. Prisoners in their own house, Fatiha finds original ways of communicating with the outside world. She exchanges food and other gifts by way of a pulley system from her balcony with her French neighbor downstairs and one day she acquires a key from her with which she opens the door and takes the children to the playground. Fear and paranoia of immigrants and family violence come together in this film set in the 1970s.

Jan Kounen directed “The Story of Panshim Beka” set amongst the indigenous people in the Pacific islands, is about maternal mortality. Besides having evocative images in black and white of indigenous community life, the film conveys the tragedy of maternal mortality in the death of the young woman, Panshim Beka. Like many other films of the festival “Panshim Beka” captures images of cultural difference even as it tells a story concerning gender and human rights.

Steven Winata directed “Cinta” set in Indonesia treats love in a world of difference. It’s a love story between an Indonesian Chinese named A Su and Siti, a Muslim woman, and a scar from an old community conflict that comes to wound the present and pose an impediment to their relationship. Wai Ha directed “May” tells the story of a middle aged Chinese widow in Singapore, and how she grapples with her new job at the fast food restaurant and her economic situation. The non-English speaking, reluctant to work as cleaning maid, May’s friendship with the Americanized young Chinese male worker at the fast food joint makes a difference in May’s life and helps her cope with her work. The short films set in diverse cultures and contexts of relationships bring to the viewers the lives of people in stories of conflicts and friendships from around the world.

Bernard Attal directed “Bike Ride” set in a small town in America. It is a charming short film about a bike ride taken by a father and his young adolescent daughter who bond during the ride as they talk about people, life and their divided family. Along such lines of diversity is also the Brazilian short film “Miss Cristina Lost her Memory” by Ana Luiza Azevedo about the friendship between a young bicycle riding boy and an old woman repairing her fence, as she complains about how old people are treated as infantile creatures. “Civil, but not Civilized” made by Greek director George Tarabay about a young disabled man who lost his hands in an accident and his continuing relationship with his wife, brings to the audience the daily struggles of disabled people and how the world perceives them. “Le Sifflet” (“The Whistle”) by As Thiam from Senegal (a film from the Tarifa African Film Festival) is the story of Samba and his wife Coumba, two blind people who take a walk through the green belt of the city and encounter the magical, a whistle which restores the eyesight of Samba and Coumba. But once he gets his eyesight back, Samba wants to go his own way and leave his age long companion on her own, when this happens they both lose their sight again. A parable, a story, a world of magic, a slice of life, “The Whistle” brings to the audience the magic story itself and its power to cast spell on the old and young alike.

Many of the films showed quirky situations, quirky characters and brief unexpected encounters across differences. “Metaphore du Manioc” (“Metaphor of the Cassava”) by Lionel Meta from Cameroon about a woman who has lost her bearings and thinks she will go to meet her husband in Denver, U.S. by car, and refuses to get off the cab she has boarded in Cameroon brings the reality of the madness that living between two worlds can breed.

“Les volets” (“The Shutters”) by Lyece Soukhitine and set in France, is about Jeanne, a girl from a film crew, who is asked to go into a house whose shutters are closed and ask the inhabitants to open them for a film shot. Jeanne walks into a house of mourning where African immigrants mourn the death of their white pastor. Jeanne cries in that emotionally charged close door setting, and comes out feeling a trifle lighter. The shutters are lifted after she comes out, but the crew doesn’t need the shot anymore.

Development and social responsibility was a major theme of the festival. Abderrahmane Sissako directed “Tiya’s Dream” on a day in an Ethiopian boy’s life, Brazilian director Jorge Furtado’s “Island of Flowers,” an ironic treatment of waste generation in the modern capitalist economy and those who come to survive by consuming waste, and the award winning young Ethiopian filmmaker Toefik Hussein’s brilliant “Gareta” (obstacle) about the lack of playgrounds in Addis Ababa and the plight of young boys, were among the best of such films.

The International Short Film Festival “Images That Matter,” struck a new hopeful note in Addis Ababa’s world of creative arts and education for social change. Workshops on film making and panel discussions made the event all the more enriching for Addis’s film makers and students. Cinema is an effective tool used in many parts of the world to open people to diversity. Hopefully the city will see many more such festivals, with increasing participation by university students and its staff members.

Source: Capital Newspaper