Solomon Bekele -A life time commitment for Cinema
By Mulugeta Gudeta
Sigmund Freud says that childhood experiences lurk behind the personality development of any adult. The same could perhaps be said about a child’s early inclinations for his career choice later in life. Solomon Bekele is a typical example. As a child he was so obsessed with his father’s camera that he secretly indulged in that not-so childish hobby of taking pictures without much success of course. Yet this early experience contained the seeds of a career that has now become a life-long commitment for the mature Solomon: the motion picture
Born in 1945 in the part of Addis Ababa known as Lideta area, Solomon went to the then Tafari Mekonnen and Haile Selassie I secondary schools. In the early 1960s we find him first in Germany, then in England and France at the University de Paris VII where he graduated in literature and linguistics with distinction. Shortly afterwards his childhood obsession resurfaced and led him to the famous Ecole National de Cinematography Louis Lumiere Paris, where Solomon studied the techniques of script writing, camera, editing and feature film directing, Professor Allain Aubert, a serious mentor, exerted a strong influence on the young Ethiopian student whom he encouraged to study feature film directing. His study in literature ad linguistics was of much help in story telling and dialogue, two vital ingredients of movie making.
Meanwhile, Solomon directed his earlier productions such as Rotten Existence (1970), The Situation of African cinema (1972).He also wrote four film scripts not filmed until now, namely Leben zu durfen, ein Gluck: (1973) Hellopia (1974) Speak to Me Tomorrow (1976), Abeka (1985). He participated in more than a dozen film festivals where he presented his films and served as a member of the jury in many countries such as the United States, Iran, Burkina Faso, Belgium and Czechoslovakia. He is also founding member of the Pan-African Federation of Film makers and was its official representative in Germany from 1970 to 1972.
1983. Solomon Bekele, the fully formed and mature film director and script writer returns to his country after a 22 years absence. Upon his arrival, he experienced what he called a culture shock. The society he knew in his younger years had undergone visible changes, though not for the better. He nevertheless decided to stay in the country and persue his dream of making more feature films He started with a series of documentary films based on local themes. He experimented with Beruh Tesfa (1984). Women in Ethiopia (1985), struggle against Drought (1984-85) and many others. He thus found his own niche at the Ethiopian film corporation from where he launched the up hill struggle to direct “ASTER” the first 35 mm color, feature film produced by the Ethiopian film Corporation, currently a box office hit in the capital. It was a tough fight indeed requiring steadfastness in the face of censorship, bureaucratic humdrum, budgetary constraints and a near total misunderstanding of the intricacies of film production in the country. He was indeed obliged to walk a tight rope without a net.
The shooting of ASTER which is based on Solomon’s screenplay started in 1990. After the shooting and editing was completed further work on the movie was however interrupted for a year and a half because the film should be sent abroad for post production work. Foreign currency was also another problem. The authorities were not much enthusiastic about it because ASTER had no political or propaganda value. But Solomon was never discouraged. He was determined to prove that tenacity and hard work were real assets in such a new, neglected and hardly known artistic medium. It took almost two years of round the clock work to bring ASTER to the screen. The film was finally premiered on August 4th 1992 in Addis Ababa.
I asked Solomon where the Inspiration if not the idea for ASTER came from. He smiled and told that the idea germinated while he was abroad, in Paris to be more specific, as a result of his casual observation of the life of a Parisian couple whose marriage did not work for many reasons. He later on brought his general observation into the Ethiopian social milieu of the early1960s. The result is a superbly captivating screen drama that continues to delight the local movie fans.
Aster is of course a low budget film that cost barely half a million birr of initially estimated 700,000 birr to produce it. As Solomon made it clear to me, the film would cost to the tune of 2 million dollars I f it were produced abroad. ASTER is being shown three times a day and after its 104 days (i.e. at the time of this writing) there are still long queues at the Ambassador Theatre. This is something un usual as the director told me because the local audience usually turns to imported movies. The Ethiopian audience, Solomon observed, is a mature and sophisticated one because of its exposure to foreign films for many decades. “According to my experience which I gathered during the 31/2 months screening of ASTER, the audience here can respond with surprising sensitivity even to the most un conventional structure and approach. ” Solomon related.
What rather came as surprise tome was the fact that Solomon does not earn anything from the box office income. He only earns his regular salary while, according to the conventional practice in the movie making world, he should get form 10 to 20 percent of the production cost only for directing. I asked him the reason for this. His answer is no less surprising. Said he, since moviemaking is a new phenomenon in this country I’ll have to prove my worth first and maybe next tie I may earn what I deserve…… He has indeed proved his worth with ASTER judging from the critical acclaim he enjoy us both from the audience as well as from film connoisseurs.
“Alow me to take this opportunity to thank those people who supported me when I was sometimes desperate during the process of the film production” Solomon said.
“What are your plans for the future:” I asked him?
“To make more and m ore feature films” Solomon answered smiling, “I have two film scripts which are ready for filming. One of them is called Hellopia, a script based on the 1961 attempted copu against the late Emperor, a combination of historical facts plus imagination”
“Whom among foreign film directors do you particularly admire:”
“Orson weles, the Irish-American director of “Citizen Kane”, Elia Kazan and Luis Buneuel among others.”
“And among the a ct ors?’
“Anghony quinn, Sidney Poitier, and Dustin Hoffma”
“What does it take to be a good actor?”
“Talent, education, dedication plus hard work.
“Any advice to potential Ethiopian actors or film makers?”
“They will have to watch as many films as possible. Reading fiction and technical books also helps. Theoretical plus practical knowledge of the trade.”
It was getting late in the evening and Solomon prepared to leave after flashing his characteristic smile. As we left the room where our encounter took place, the impression that particularly lingered with me was the fact that despite his achievements in the trade, Solomon is still an engagingly simple, modest and energetic man with a bright future ahead of him. He finally told m e that he is married and has a three year- old daughter.
(Mulugeta Gudeta is one of the most productive and prolific wrtiers of Ethiopia.Educated at the French Lycee in Addis and with a B.A in Political science from Addis Ababa University, He has written around 11 Amharic books and has worked fro the national daily ,the Ethiopian Herald for more than a decade and has also worked as a freelance journalist for various English weeklies like the Sun, the Daily Monitor, the Ethiopian Journal and recently for the Fortune, where he was wrting social and political commmentaries , with the pen name, Yoseph B.He wrote this profile for Yekatit magazine,a publication of the Ministry of Information that apeared in Dec,1992.)