Ethiopian Women Filmmakers Tell Their Stories
Documentary filmmaking holds a special place in the history of African women’s cinema. In 1972, Senegalese filmmaker Safi Faye became the first sub-Saharan African woman to make a commercially distributed feature film when she directed “Kaddu Beykat”. The film, a mixture of fiction and documentary, depicts the economic problems suffered by Senegalese village farmers because of agriculture policies that Faye says rely on an outdated, colonial system of groundnut monoculture. Faye would go on to direct several documentaries often focused on rural life in her native Senegal.
African women who have taken documentary filmmaking to new levels come from across the continent and handle a wide range of topics. The films show an Africa that is not often seen, according to Beti Ellerson, director of the Center for the Study and Research of African Women in Cinema. Ellerson, who teaches courses in African studies, visual culture and women studies in the Washington, DC, area, is also the producer of a 2002 documentary, “Sisters of the Screen: African Women in the Cinema.”
Much has changed since Faye’s early Senegalese films. The emergence of the Internet, social media and crowd-funding platforms such as Kickstarter now offer a new generation of African women documentary filmmakers the tools to realize their visions. To learn of the challenges and opportunities facing African women filmmakers, AllAfrica’s Genet Lakew and Rahwa Meharena asked three women – Salem Mekuria,Rahel Zegeye and Sosena Solomon – to share their stories. They represent two generations of Ethiopian documentary filmmaking.
Salem Mekuria – The Challenge of Funding
When I left Ethiopia some 40 years ago to attend college in the United States, I had every intention of going back. But plans changed and I stayed to build a film career and family.
Despite my love for science, neither the science department nor the faculty at Haile Selassie I University, now Addis Ababa University, were ready to accept women in the field. It was a very difficult place to be. I was considered an anomaly, along with other female students. An exciting scholarship to study in the U.S. presented itself to me and I jumped at it.
Although I arrived at the height of the civil rights movement, I had no historical knowledge of the African American experience. But I find one of the motivations for me to make films is curiosity. Exploring African American subjects was my way of acknowledging the struggles of this community, which paved the way for opportunities for me in this country. I got a chance to work at a television station in California. From there, I moved to Boston in 1981 to work at WGBH television, a member station of the Public Broadcasting Service.
My first film was “Our Place in the Sun,” a 30-minute documentary that looked into the history of African Americans on Martha’s Vineyard Island off the coast of Massachusetts. Over time, I started shifting my focus to explore Ethiopian history, people and places because there are fewer people of African descent telling African stories. Films like “Sidet: Forced Exile,” “Deluge” or “Ye Wonz Maibel,” “IMAGinING Tobia,” “Ruptures: A Many Sided Story,” and “Square Stories” were all made in this spirit.
I am no exception to the perennial challenge independent filmmakers face: money. Efforts to raise funds are particularly harsh on Africans who make films on African subjects. I wish we could educate our people to want to be interested in investing in these films. If we do not succeed in doing that, then I have no idea where the future of funding is.
Before 1993, I did not plan to go into teaching but it’s very difficult to make a living as an independent filmmaker. My teaching position at Wellesley College gives me the flexibility to take a couple of months off every year, which I often use to travel to Ethiopia.
I’ve been lucky enough to earn various fellowships and grants to conduct research, fund my films, and provide exposure for my work. The Fulbright Scholar Award allowed me to spend a year in Ethiopia researching historical women leaders, which I’m hoping to make into a screenplay. I shot “IMAGinING Tobia” as a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.
Partly as a response to financial limitations, I began using triptych video installations, which use three different screens to show a film, designed to give the audience an interactive viewing experience. I also no longer use dialogue in my films, meaning the people in them don’t talk so I’m mostly presenting my stories in images.
Distribution is not any easier. Two of my films are at Women Make Films, a nonprofit organization that distributes independent films made by and about women. But I primarily self-distribute my films when people, schools and international organizations request them. Museums and galleries, and festivals are great ways to showcase and promote my work. Most recently, “Deluge” and “Square Stories” were shown at Film Africa 2011 in London.
At the present moment, I’m writing grant proposals in hopes of securing funding for a new project about a Nigerian human rights lawyer and women who are dealing with Sharia law in northern Nigeria. If I succeed in getting the money, it will be the first single channel documentary I will make in 14 years.
Rahel Zegeye – Fantasy Versus Reality
Ten years ago, my plan was to jet off to Beirut in search of domestic work without telling my family. My military veteran father was unemployed and our family had to pinch whatever pennies we had. Besides, there were limited opportunities to continue my education after high school, especially without high grades and test scores.