The 11th Hour and and The Newest Amharic Movies
The last two years seemed promising for Ethiopian cinema. Despite the lack of training, resources and rampant piracy, cinemas have found fertile ground and are coming with large number. The arrival of digital has brought financial and technical freedom to the bold and daring independent filmmakers. We are still far from having anything called, Hollywood, Bollywood, or even Nollywood but with so much demand and big money to make, filmmakers are recognizing the need for a dependable flow of new films.
The 11th Hour, which was premiered at Sheraton Addis on May 18, 2006, is a case in point. Though it never lives up to the huge publicity and hype it has made, it is one of the most interesting and poignant movies to come out in the recent years.
One of the people who have attended the inauguration ceremony was President Girma Woldegirigis and on the occasion it was said that it is one of the first big budget film to have been produced here.
While the material forming the basis for the 11th Hour can’t make any claims of originality, the film gives every reason to think serious material could be handled here. Contrary to sentimental love recurrent in most Amharic films, the 11th Hour chose to depict the love and sacrifice of a father for his daughter, a risky thing to do in terms of financial gain.
The opening scene takes us to Hamar, one of the country’s tourist attractions, where the principal actor (Solomon Boggle), a young photographer is hunting down Hamar girls to take pictures. He manages to find one but also a pretty and nice-looking girl from Addis (Danawit G/egzabher) who were there on a visit. And that becomes an encounter that later leads to marital affair.
The image of Hamar with nude women and erected breast leaves you exhilarated but also with wonder on what importance it would have to the story, until we see the gruesome murder that the photographer took picture.
For the next thirty minutes, the production has overreached itself trying to depict diverse issues as a pleasant-but-uninspired marital romance, promotion of beautiful fashion and automotive disaster at Zebra crossing.
It only starts to make sense when the principal actor’s young daughter is diagnosed with heart problem and the doctor said that she needed an operation available only abroad. Though the main character makes a good living by Ethiopian standard, getting 300,000 Birr is an impossible task. He makes every effort to raise money.
The struggle in the story is an experience for many Ethiopians, where 500,000 children are born annually with heart disease. And the only alternative is to send these children where such services are available. This is where thee film looks a dramatic advertisement for the Children Heart Fund of Ethiopia whose cardiac hospital construction is still left in limbo.
All the same, the central theme of the film – that people will do whatever is necessary to protect what is dear to them- is conveyed in a moving and singularly effective manner.
With regard to camera technique, sound effect and light, The 11th Hour could set standard. The acting is excellent; especially the young Bersabeh Melaku delivered a wonderful performance. She is natural and believable.
So, can we dare to say this is one of the films that proves Ethiopian cinema is finding its own voice and style? For those who follow Ethiopian cinemas closely, this could be one example among those arrays of aesthetically and thematically diverse films to come out in the recent years.
As is the case with the 11th Hour, the new young filmmakers are finding new ways of depicting the socio-political aspects of the time, traditional versus western influence, the dichotomy between urban and rural life, unemployment, the position of women in a male dominated society, the cohabitation of poverty and wealth with cinematic dexterity.
Another film that came out last year, Journey to Lasta, with an American resident writer-director, had more American touch and standard presentation, with its theme on members of Ethiopian Lasta Sound Band trying to eke out a living in L.A while pursuing their reggae passions.
Tatek Tadesse’s now classic 2003 “Gudifecha“, had a deeper exploration of social issues, targeting at the sinister and corrosive effects of marital infidelity, bigamy, incest and the widely held Ethiopian practices of keeping family secrets. It is the story of a young child from poor peasant family adopted by a middleclass family and his adoptive sister. Their seemingly a brother-and sister relationship into a love affair is both clandestine and exciting, when they realize that they are not biologically related.
Some say that the recent Amharic movies films are not necessarily reflective of the whle Ethiopia. Most of their charters are drawn from middle class people than the common man. They tend to portray the most Westernized Ethiopians, those who boast of Western ideologies and have perceivable ignorance about their Ethiopian heritage. Lahra smith, an American Researcher who reviewed the film Gudifecha for The Ethiopian Review of Books wrote that the wealth, education and social position makes them worlds away from the average Ethiopians. But the other serous issue in which the new Amharic films generate quite a bit of ambivalence is the question of originality, with constant allegations of adaptation from American movies. The 11th Hour has much resemblance the Hollywood movie John Q, in which Denzel Washington plays a devoted father, whose son needs an emergency heart transplant operation that he can’t afford and his insurance won’t cover. Both films have the same articulation of subject matter and theme, the same development of character to the extent that showed some motivation and a resolution of conflict. In both stories, the characters use a permissible and impermissible ways to keep their kids alive.
There was another recent film whose originality could be put into test that was released a little earlier, in February 8, 2006, Sara. It is a story of young girl who loses her mother to heart failure and has to live with immoral middle-aged stepfather who has sexual affair with her, a gain similar story to the famous film Lolita, based on Vladmir Nobokov’s novel. It is about a divorced professor who marries a widowed landlady in order that he might pursue the woman’s 14-year-old daughter. In both films, the stepfathers make desperate attempts to keep the affairs in the dark. In both films, it is their teachers who managed to realize that there is something going wrong in the private life of the girls. Towards the end of the movie, both girls got married to young men who came out of nowhere. The glaring similarities in the two films don’t seem to be accident.
There should be nothing wrong in adapting big American film to suit our local needs. But once Ethiopian movie producers fail to acknowledge the source from which the movies are adapted, they lose trust and lose empathy that we otherwise would have extended to a blossoming industry. Directors have to make it a point mentions the works that are influenced them or they get inspiration from.
Otherwise, the 11th Hour and the newest Amharic movies though made with a shoestring budget give hope to the new Ethiopian cinema that aspires to seriousness and higher level, and will find a willing audience.