Home > Cinema > Michel Papatakis-A pioneering Cinematographer

Michel Papatakis-A pioneering Cinematographer

A year ago I was researching on the early days of Ethiopian cinema hoping to produce a story for a paper that I was freelancing then. In the course of working on it, there was a name that kept emerging: Michel Papatakis.

His was a success story in pioneering the Ethiopian cinema by realizing the potential of the film medium to both entertain and inform society. Not only did he run his own production company, he also wrote, directed, filmed, and edited his own films. The major one was Guma (Blood Money) that he produced around 1974 but he has also many documentaries to his credit.

aWhat is it about Michel that has made him a pioneering force in Ethiopian cinema, yet never appropriately acknowledged in his own land?

Probably it is because of his quiet, self-effacing nature and the simple life he has been leading for almost two decades. He avoids film premiers and any conferences. But if you had a chance to talk to him, you would see a friendly man and a pleasant one to deal with.

When I headed to his place a month ago, I didn’t have his phone number and I had no ways of telling him that I was coming. I was prepared to be turned away. I knocked on the door. I waited and raised my hand to knock again, when suddenly the door swung open. The man who answered, with his head held high, his eyes intense and penetrating, extended his hand in formal greeting, ”I am Michel Papatakis”. I was amused. I was waiting for a servant or helper.He is a bright-eyed old man of about 80 .He had a faded sarong wrapped around his body. He ushered me in to his living room. He was warm and welcoming, he readily agreed to the interview.

After the getting- to know- each- other-chit- chat, Michel related to me the goings in his long career. He spoke slowly in his controlled way.

 He says he sets out as a film director to serve the public, not his own interest. A vigorous advocate for the oppressed and underprivileged, Michel says his guiding principles are working “in favor of the public, stand for the prevalence of justice”.

His father, Asterio Papatakis was a forceful, charming man who had a large house, servants and a hotel called Majestic House. His mother, Wro Wolete Amanuel Woldeyes was a heroine and patriot who rallied along with the Ethiopian resistance force to kick the invading Italian army out in 1936.She was awarded a medal for her heroic deeds that Michel treasures a lot to this day and displays it in his apartment’s wall.

Arts and cinema attracted him form an early age.”At the time Ethiopia was invaded by the Italian army, I was of school age. But I didn’t have the opportunity to get formal education. It was rather my father who taught me at home. At the time, my father had a hotel known as “Majestic Hotel” which also had a cinema hall.   Because of that, I had the chance to regularly watch movies starting from the age of six. I used to observe vision and motion of the films with utmost attentiveness. That’s been the beginning of my attraction to the profession.” He recalls.In spite of his interest in joining the profession, he couldn’t realize his dreams for there was no film school in the country. 

Thus he left for France where his older brother lived. It was a formative step: leaving country and seeking a new identity.”There I began to work as an assistant for a theater and film production enterprise which was then employing some famous producers.”The great cultural tradition of France appealed to him and he had a chance to see and study modern film industrial development trends.

Michel also gained enormous experience in stage management, while he was working in the theatre and film production there. 

At the time, the Ethiopian Embassy in Paris had requested him to work in his own country as a stage manger at Hager Fiker and Haile Selassie Theatre on a contract basis for six months.  It was 1963 and Addis Ababa was gearing up to host the first summit of the organization for African Union. Professionals who would stage cultural songs and theatres were required. Michel agreed and came back to Addis. He completed his stage works and got a medal for his” highest quality work” before he went back to France.

A few years later, Michel had the opportunity to meet Emperor Haile Sellassie at a cocktail party in the Ethiopian Embassy where he advised him to serve his country as “France has many professional in the field.” An offer that he accepted merrily. 

But finding job at home wasn’t easy. Like so many artists, Michel suffered from finance-related stress, despite his reputation.

Some years later, he managed to get a scholarship to Moscow, partly because of his contribution in recording cultural songs and dances in the Hager Fikir Theatre in slides.  

 There he attended and completed a masters program in film directing. He completed the course in just five years, two years in advance than he was required too.Upon his return, he couldn’t find any job in the field and he had to struggle to eke out an existence. He decided to do it more independently. 

His big break came when he produced and directed his 35 mm color film, Guma (Blood Money). He recalls how the idea came about. “One day I was standing at our house’s gate when a handcuffed man came begging when I was a little child. I rushed inside and asked my mother why he was handcuffed. She said that he might have killed someone and said “Let God protect you from committing such crime.” It was that event that inspired me to write the story.The film was released in 1974 and got a warm reception from local and foreign audience.

While the film was premiered, Empeor Haile Selassie and his daughter, Princess Tegnanework was present. The princess was impressed by the work and asked him how come he hid his talent for such long time for which he responded by saying, “I had been telling every body but in vain.” Then the princess asked “Then what exactly do you want to keep going?” and Michel said,”Money, money, money,” that made both her and the Majesty laugh.It was immediately after the commencement of Guma that the Majesty went to his palace and soon after deposed by the military.

The film was shown at the Tunisian Cortège Film Festival and was chosen as a winner but he never got the chance to attend it as he got the invitation letter long after the event.

During the Derg, he produced several documentaries, like the 1978’s “Tigil-Dil-Dil-tigil” a 16 mm, 105 minutes long documentary, chronicling the defeat of the Somali expansionist army of Ziad Bare and “Ethiopia’s Past Burden and Future Prospect” that he produced in collaboration with the Czechoslovakian Television Agency.There are other notable ones like “The Konso, African People”, “Form Pre History to Adwa”, “Is this life After all?” and his most recent project  “Ethiopia: Past and present”. The films established him as the country’s foremost cinematic voice.

Michel’s legacy lives on in the success of a new breed of leading film makers, including Haile Gerima, Solomon Bekele and many others.

As Prof. Haile Gerima once said in a magazine interview “Michel is one of the most salient examples in the country’s cinema history.”   

(Michel was accused of the Red Terror after he came back from the Ogaden war and was imprisoned for two months.He told me that the photo above was taken two hours after his releases.)   

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Categories: Cinema
  1. E
    March 24, 2008 at 11:18 pm

    Thank you, thank you. This is a very informative article. I have heard about Michel before but not in such a detailed manner. You are a wonderful writer.

    I just have two questions:

    1) Why does the name Papatakis sound Greek or Armenian to me?

    I am just curious. I still respect and admire him as pioneer Ethiopian.

    2) How do we find his works? Is there any documentary film or photography that is dedicated to his contributions to the arts in Ethiopia?

    Thank you

  2. E
    March 24, 2008 at 11:32 pm

    Oh, by the way:

    There is also another film director called Nico who has the same last name as Michel.

    Here is what I found about him on wikipedia:

    Nico Papatakis, or Nikos Papatakis, (born 1918) is a Greek film director. He was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

    Films he made:

    Les Équilibristes (1992) aka Walking a Tightrope (English title)
    I Photographia (1987) aka La Photo, The Photograph (Australia: festival title)
    Gloria mundi (1976)
    Oi Voskoi (1967) aka Les Pâtres du désordre (France), Thanos and Despina (USA), The Shepherds of Calamity (Europe: English title), Oi Voskoi tis symforas (Greece)
    Les Abysses (1963) (as Nico Papatakis)

    and on the IMDB website:

    Nikos Papatakis: born 1918, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
    Trivia: Parents are from Greece.

    After fighting against the fascist Italians in Ethiopia, he lived in Libanon, Greece and finally emigrated to Paris in 1939.

    In 1957, he went to New York for political reasons, where he got to know John Cassavetes and became co-producer of his movie Shadows (1959).

    I was wondering if Michel by any chance happens to know Nikos.

  3. Arefe
    March 25, 2008 at 5:57 am

    Thanks for the comment.
    I failed to mention that his father, Asterio Papatakis is of a Greek origin.
    His feature film, Guma was screened at the Ambassador film for this year for the millennial celebration. Some of the documentaries could be found at the libraries at ETV and the Alliance here in Addis.

  4. E
    March 25, 2008 at 6:27 am

    Thanks Arefe! I did suspect that his father is of a Greek origin but I was not sure.

    What is the best way to contact Michel? Email, postal address or any other means you might be aware of? I am very desperate to get to know and communicate with him.

    I can let you know through email why I am interested in getting his contact address.

    Please reply me when you can. Thanks.

  5. December 25, 2010 at 6:57 pm

    i am a french american photographer who knew michel in paris in the eighties now lives in barcelona spain

  1. March 24, 2008 at 2:11 pm
  2. March 24, 2008 at 2:21 pm

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