Yared Zeleke was one of only two African directors to have appeared in the Cannes Film Festival’s Official Selection this year. Although his film Lamb didn’t win any prizes, it won over the critics and made history as the first Ethiopian film to be shown at the festival. Alecia D. McKenzie was there to see it.
Yared Zeleke credits his becoming a filmmaker partly to his grandmother who told him stories when he was growing up.
“She was renowned for her great storytelling,” said Zeleke, who was born in 1978, as Ethiopia was experiencing ongoing famine and internal conflict. “I loved listening to her stories, reading other stories, and now sharing them. Some people say I’ve inherited her thirst for storytelling.”
Zeleke’s first feature, Lamb, is dedicated to the memory of this grandmother, whom he was named after, and most people would agree that it’s a fitting tribute. The movie was chosen for the Official Selection of the 68th Cannes Film Festival held in May, and this was the first time that Ethiopia was represented at the prestigious event, held annually in the southern French town.
“I’m really fortunate to have been selected,” Zeleke said in an interview. “You don’t write or direct a film thinking it’s going to Cannes or anywhere really. You just try to do something honest with yourself first, and then after years of hard work and process, if it’s finally accepted and selected on the world’s biggest stage – it’s incredible, it’s such a gift. And I’m just also so really proud to represent Ethiopia, and be the first filmmaker from there. But it’s a story for everyone and viewers have told me that they connect with it.”
Although Lamb did not achieve any of the festival’s prizes, it received glowing reviews from the international press, who praised its poetry and insider portrayal of Ethiopian culture. Critics said the film gave an authentic depiction of the characters rather than being made by someone on the outside looking in.
Slated for general release in France later this year, Lamb tells the story of nine- (or ten)-year-old Ephraim (Rediat Amare) and his beloved pet, a sheep named Chuni that belonged to his mother. The animal follows Ephraim around like a devoted dog, and he speaks with her as to a best friend, although her response consists mostly of “ba-a” and a sheepish look. The audience learns early that Ephraim has lost his mother in the current drought, and, to survive, his father has decided to take him to stay with relatives in a remote but greener region, an area of striking natural beauty but increasing poverty. Ephraim will have to stay there while his father seeks work in the city, without any clear idea of when he might return.
The relatives don’t really have enough to live on, and they aren’t totally happy to take on an added burden, but viewers can identify with their motives as Zeleke does a skillful job of characterisation. He convincingly depicts the main members in the family: the strict farmer uncle who thinks Ephraim is too girly (the boy likes to cook), his wife who’s overworked and worried about her thin, sick daughter, the generous and witty grand-aunt who tries to keep the family in line with a whip, and an older girl cousin – Tsion – who spends her time reading scientific papers and with whom Ephraim eventually bonds.
Soon after arriving in their midst, Ephraim is told by his uncle that he will have to learn to do as other boys: he will have to slaughter his pet sheep for an upcoming traditional feast. This news pushes Ephraim to start devising ways to save Chuni, and that forms the bulk of the storyline, while the film subtly highlights gender issues, the ravages of drought and famine, and the isolation that comes from the feeling of not belonging. Throughout it all, viewers get beautifully shot views of the magnificent rolling hills and the forbidding forest, which could be seen as additional characters in the movie.
Lamb was filmed in northern and central Ethiopia, with French-Canadian cinematographer Josée Deshaies effectively capturing the country’s mountainous and rugged landscape. When Zeleke was asked why he chose this setting when he grew up in urban Addis Ababa, he responded with a laugh: “Well, look how beautiful the land is! How could I not, as an artist and a human being?”
He added that he also wanted to “tell stories of farmers”, as his previous degree (before his masters in film from New York University) was in natural-resource management for sub-Saharan Africa. “I even pursued an agri-economics masters [in Norway] because I always wanted to work with Ethiopian farmers. Eighty-five per cent of the population are farmers, and I wanted to tackle the biggest issue facing our country,” he said. “But in the end, I made up a film about them instead.”
He said that as he became unhappy with his studies in agri-economics, he started questioning himself. “My grandmother’s stories were deeply embedded in me, and one media for writing and story-telling is film and I’ve always loved film,” he recalled. “So I asked myself: if I were in Ethiopia at the time, and if it was as prosperous and peaceful as Norway, what would I be doing with my life? Would I be working with farmers? No, I would be telling stories and finding a way to connect with people.”
That realisation took him to New York and to NYU, and he drew on his creative skills to write the screenplay for Lamb, as his own background is so different, he said. “I’m from the city, from central Addis Ababa. I never had a pet, and I don’t know how to cook, I can’t fry you an egg. So a lot of it is my imagination. I grew up with these stories, and I’m primarily a writer. And as a writer, it’s stories that I have in my head. But the theme is close to me and my childhood.”
Besides the landscape, viewers also learn about the make-up of Ethiopian society. We find out in passing that Ephraim is half-Jewish through his mother, whom the relatives refer to as “Falasha”; but Zeleke said that this was not at all meant to signal division, as Ethiopians generally do not identify themselves by religious affiliation. In fact the Christian relatives all seem to have admired the mother. They attribute Ephraim’s skill at cooking to her teaching, and some of the most moving moments are centred on food – feeding and being fed by a loved one.
“In this context, ‘Falasha’ is not derogatory, although it can be,” Zeleke explained. “Ethiopian Jews prefer to be called ‘Beta Israel’ [House of Israel], but in Ethiopia they were called Falasha and the word is still used… Ethiopians don’t identify themselves by religion.”
The film comes, however, as international attention focuses on the plight of Ethiopian Jewish immigrants to Israel, and their reasons for leaving Africa, which include famine and persecution.
Lamb also has a scene showing a young Muslim girl praying, and the film makes a statement about peaceful co-existence as the girl agrees to take care of Chuni for Ephraim. “We’ve lived together for a long time, and we’re Ethiopians first,” Zeleke emphasises. “It’s really about cohesion, and for me it’s celebrating our togetherness.”
Another striking element of the film is how sympathetically women are portrayed, although Zeleke said that this was probably done more “semi-consciously” than on purpose. “A lot of the writing process for me is intuitive,” he said. “But I was raised by strong and beautiful Ethiopian women, such as my grandmother … It’s a homage to these beautiful Ethiopian women that shaped me.”
In Lamb, Tsion – played by Kidist Siyum – is shown as smart and knowledgeable, but her love of reading is considered useless by the family since it doesn’t help to get the back-breaking household chores done. Ephraim’s ability to cook and sell samosas at the market is seen as more practical, drawing attention to some of the burdens of childhood in poor countries. The title could even be taken as a reference to how the world treats its youngest and most vulnerable inhabitants.
Tsion is eventually pushed to make a sad choice, leaving Ephraim more alone than ever, but the film ends on an upbeat note, with the possibility of acceptance and the discovery of the characters’ innate decency. As a first feature, Lamb is a remarkable debut for Zeleke, but it hasn’t been an easy road. For filmmakers in general, getting financing is always a tough issue, but it’s even more of a challenge in developing countries.
“It was a full-time job,” Zeleke said. “It was really challenging to try to raise both the trust and the money for a film with not just a boy and lamb, but with animals and children, in Africa, in Ethiopia.” He added that it was the “strength of the script” that attracted sponsors including the Brussels-based African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States.
Zeleke said casting took about five months, during which he saw about 6,500 candidates, half of whom were children. He found 14-year-old Rediat Amare in one of the many public schools the film team visited in Addis Ababa. “It was a long and arduous process to find this kid, and voilà,” Zeleke laughed.
The film is produced by Slum Kid Films – an Ethiopia-based company that Zeleke co-founded with Ghanaian producer Ama Ampadu. “The company was initiated by Ama and I, two young ambitious Africans – one from the west and one from the east – who wanted to do something that would be challenging but really from our own point of view. Nothing cliché, something honest.”
Zeleke was one of two African directors in Cannes’ Official Selection this year, the other being veteran filmmaker Souleymane Cissé, who presented O Ka (Our House) in the festival’s special-screenings category. This section comprises films shown out of competition that the selectors believe are noteworthy. In comparison, Lamb was shown in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard category, which highlights daring, innovative, off-beat works.
Like last year’s acclaimed Timbuktu, though in a different way, both films call attention to current issues in Africa, highlighting the impact on the population – whether of drought or conflict – and the daily struggles that average people have to face.Timbuktu’s Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako was also in Cannes in May, as head of the jury for the short film and Cinéfondation (film school) categories. At a side event, Sissako spoke of the importance of funding and supporting art and culture.
“There can never be a film too many, or a student too many,” he said in an appeal for young filmmakers to be assisted. “It’s great to see young directors at Cannes and other festivals, directors from Ghana, from Nigeria and other countries who don’t normally have the chance for funding. There is a responsibility to protect culture, and it’s our duty to do so … it’s the young who know the future, and it’s the young who will make the future.”
As a director, Zeleke says he also feels a sense of responsibility in his work. “You want to be honest and to really connect with people. And it’s such a gift when you can do that,” he said. “It’s really an honour to be following in the footsteps of someone like Sissako, who has been very supportive in Cannes. I hope there will be more African cinema to come. And I hope that this film, just like Timbuktu, opens more doors.”