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  • A Brief Overview of Ethiopian Film History

    1. A Brief Review of Ethiopian Film History

    1.1 Introduction

    Ethiopia has been labeled possessing a long history of three thousand years and more. At various times, its governors and rulers had played their roles in shaping the geographical, cultural, historical, religious etc. -all aspects of the country. As a result most of the status quo today is, to a great extent, the legacy of our past history. That is why the growth and development of film production and practice go back and forth for the past hundred years. As a matter of fact the film art and technology had been introduced to Ethiopian almost as equal as to Europeans, but still the industry is in its infant stage.

    1.2 Early Cinema Development from Minilik II- Haileselassie I

    Emperor Minilik II of Ethiopia

    Cinema was introduced to Ethiopia only three years after the world's first film ever was projected in Paris in December 28, 1895 by the Louis Lumiere brothers. Following this big historical moment the first film screening in Ethiopia occurred during Emperor Minilik II reign at the palace. , Dr. Berhanuo Abebe(2003) In an article appeared in 'Annales d'Ethiopie ', a French journal on Ethiopia, he wrote that in 1898, a Frenchman from Algeria brought one of the first cinematic artifacts to Ethiopia, and sold it to the Italian minister Ciccodicola, who presented it to Emperor Menilek of Ethiopia as a gift. (Arefayine 2006) By looking back to the historical happenings at the time of Minilik one can come up with a wild guess, like other imported technologies of the time the clergy had heard about the inventions of film technologies and had a lot of interest to get the Cinematograph. According to the two most prominent Historians Dr. Berhanuo and R.Pankerest books before the first public film screening occurred in (1909- 1910) the majesty watched several films in his palace almost for more than a decade.

    Some of the scholarly written works mentioned the year the public introduced to film is 1923 which means after 26 years of the first cinematograph arrived in the country. Rather 1923 is the possible year the first cinema house owned and built by Ethiopians. Dr. Berhanou, further elaborate this point, there was a film house called 'Pate' owned by MM. Baicovich from 1909 -1910. People were stunned by this magical invention for the first months but soon they turned in different. A French historian, Merab, in his 'Impressions d'Ethiopie (1922),quoted by Dr. Berhanou, said, 'people apparently didn't like to entertain themselves.’ Also Dr. Richard Pankhurst (1968), a distinguished historian with several publications and books to his credit, in his widely-acclaimed book 'Economic History of Ethiopia' further strengthen the above point, about another attempt made in 1909-10 by some Armenians, but the project attracted only temporary interest, and was soon abandoned. (Arefayine 2006)

    The clergy, who were very powerful and influential, intensely opposed to this new medium. By the people who are resistant to modern technology associated cinema to the devil’s work. This is attested by the naming of the first cinema ʽYeseyetan Betʼ (The Devil’s house).Which was opened in the year 1923.According to, Encyclopedia Aethiopica,Vol. I (2003), in the early days cinema, cinema houses were called 'Ye Seytan Bet', (House of Satan), a definition which well suited the technological “devilry ˮ of cinematographically combined images and movement. The introduction of this magical medium to Ethiopia was quite different in its historical and political context when it compared to the rest of Africans. Film brought to most of African countries following the foot stapes of their colonizers. According to Chris Prouty, Ethiopia and Eritrea are one of the more documented countries in the African continent. The first Ethiopian movie au de Menilek was made in 1909 by a French man, Charles Martel. The history of cinema quiet different from the rest of Africa in many aspects most of African countries literature, theater and cinema is a colonial history which was introduced through colonial imposition, Ethiopia was introduced to cinema through the natural course as other agencies of modernization-railway, postal, modern education, telephone, etc were popularized in the country. Emperor Minilik II is credited to the introduction of cinema to Ethiopia. (Abebe 2009)

    Apart from introduction of film technology and screening, Arefayine, in his article points out the most important progressive phase in the history of Ethiopian film. The first film known to be produced in Ethiopia was a short 16mm black-and- white film, produced by a certain Tedla on the occasion of Empress Zewditu's coronation day in 1917. Similarly Chris Prouty mentioned the first Ethiopian movie au de Menilek was made in 1909 by a French man, Charles Martel. Which is a few year earlier than Arefayine, therefore by taking these two references in to consideration it is possible to conclude that film production in Ethiopia was began at a maximum of 10 years after film medium introduced to the country. In November of 1928, Empress Zewditu of Ethiopia crowned Taffari Makonnen as King and Heir to the Throne of Ethiopia. The Production of film in Ethiopia continued during the Reign of Hailesselassie I with a film in his coronation.


    Emperor Haile Selasse I and Empress Menen with their children at the time of their coronation. November, 2nd 1930.

    Following this historical moment, documentary films on different issues featuring historical sites, developmental activities were produced. During Italian occupation in the years between 1936 and 1941 the Italians exploited the power of film medium in the glorification and promotion of their culture and politics. They built movie houses in Addis Ababa, Dessie, Dire Dewa and Jimma.

    1.3 Socialist Derg and Ethiopian Cinema


    After Hailesselassie I following the popular revolutionary outburst of February 1974 against the archaic and oppressive feudal monarchy the military dictatorship Derg tried to nationalize or the existing commercial cinema's into People's Cinema with extreme censorship in place. Ek (2009) briefly explains a first steps in formulating the Ethiopian film industry was taken over thirty years ago when the country provided the set for the filming of Shaft in Africa in (1973) and the local production Gouma in (1975) by Michel Papatakis.

    Photos of Michel Papatakis

    Until 1974, there were many cinema halls in the country and American and Indian movies have been popular. During the Derg era it is worth to mention that with the nationalization of the Cinema houses, there was a small period that only Russian films having a communist message were allowed to be screened. In that period due to the nationalization of all cinema houses the number of cinema houses, instead of showing progress has gradually decreased. This period in terms of quality and content of production a number of films were produced including a film entitled “Harvest Three Thousand Yearsˮ which features the bitterness of the life of the peasantry under the feudal system was produced by a renowned film director Haile Gerima in 1976. Since then he directed several other films. He is Ethiopia's most proficient director and exporter, who have made seven films including Sankofa (1993) and Imperfect Journey (1994).There were also films produced by Ethiopians such as Guma (Vandeta), and Hirut. Following this, the film production section established under the ministry of culture and sports affairs, produced another film entitled “3002ˮ

    Haile Gerima Prof. UCLA

    According to a survey study of culture and Media in Ethiopia (February 2003) the Ethiopian film industry that focused on production of documentary films continued with the establishment of Ethiopian film center in 1978.The center then replaced by the Ethiopian film corporation(EFC), which was established by Proclamation No.306/1986(7). Derg established Film Corporation for the purpose of one for news and socialist propaganda; and the other for art productions. These institutions were able to produced 27 documentaries all together. Apart from these documentaries two feature films entitled Behiwot Zuria and Aster were produced. In the period of the HaileSelassie and Mengistu a number of films produced by Ethiopian filmmakers projected as nostalgia along the lines of social changes. According to Pfaff (2004) the thread that runs through Haile Gerima's Harvest: 3000 Years (1976) and Imperfect Journey (1994), Salem Mekuria's Deluge (1995), and Yemane Demissie's Tumult (1996) is a project to revision the foundational narrative of a 3000 year Solomonic Ethiopia in light of the experience with feudalism and a failed revolution and their legacies. "Harvest: 3000 Years" casts a critical glance at the ways the feudal state under Haile Selassie, especially, manipulated legend and myth to perpetuate allegiance to a glorious past that was able to keep the vast majority of Ethiopian peasantry under feudal control. Made at a moment of transition between the end of the feudal regime and dawn of the revolutionary regime of Mengistu, Harvest contests and subverts the reigning feudal narratives and also anticipates the still unfinished struggle against the postfeudal era. Tumult, for its part, revisits the 1960s failed attempts by students, in alliance with segments of the military, to topple Haile Selassie's regime. The film eloquently provides a solid foundation for better understanding of the continuing struggles in contemporary Ethiopia. This is also what Salem Mekuria accomplishes in Deluge, which revisits, from a more personal point of view, a more recent moment in 1970s and 1980s Ethiopia under the reign of Mengistu Haile Mariam. Mekuria's second major work, Yewonz Maibel (Deluge, 1995), is a moving personal journey back to the post-Haile Selassie Ethiopia and the 1978-79 bloody moment of the Red Terror campaign of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam of Ethiopia against his opposition.

    1.4 Film Industry in the Cotemporary Ethiopia

    After the fall of the military government by the democracy fighters Ethiopian People’s Republic Democratic Front (EPRDF) in 1991, there is almost no film production was takes place for a decade. Consequently in January 1999 the government totally dissolute the former more fruitful Ethiopian film corporation by proclamation No.151/1999.After the dissolution of Ethiopian Film Corporation some of the members of EFC subsequently formed the Ethiopian film Association which is currently named Ethiopian Film Production Association (AFPA). This period due to the advent of video technology the video films became popular in the world and some of the African countries like the Nigerians Nolly wood boost and flood the film word in a massive number of video productions. In contrary Ethiopian film industry is struggling with the past and the present sociopolitical hangover. Though, the numbers of produced films are too small from the view point of the huge socio-cultural heritage of the country. There is actually a dramatic development in the film production sector of Ethiopia in the last three decades. (Masersha 2009)

    According to Masresha the film sector in Ethiopia has gained momentum in 1985 when films began to be produced in Amharic language and simultaneously accessed to the audience via CDs.

    2. Conclusion and Recommendations

    Ethiopian film industry has experienced a robust growth over the past couple of decades. But still the industry faces various kinds of challenges. It consists of many small producers working with a tiny amount of capital; it therefore has not been able to build its own spaces-studios, theaters, office complexes and remain nearly invisible in the Addis Ababa city space, apart from film posters and the films themselves displayed for sale as cassettes or video compact discs. The current growth and development of the industry is shapeless, it is not institutionalized, and it is full of untrained individuals who thought that film making is a profitable business area and a people who have a passion and interest. In addition to this there are no educational institutions who train qualified film makers. Apart from this there are so many studies on different areas of film practices in the west, Australia, China, India, Japan and few African countries like South Africa and Nigeria. Generally, there is the significant absence of research on third world films specially those of Ethiopia. In order to accelerate the growth of film industry which is the most beneficiary sector to the countries economical and cultural development specially the government must take an immediate action in the following three critical problems.

     Professional associations should be organized and be free to work without any political, social and economic influences, so that they can serve to create favorable conditions for to be rightful beneficiaries of their creative works.

     Due to drastic development of ICT and cyber technology the nature and scope of plagiarism and violation of copy right law became a major problem even in the most developed countries. Therefore The country in order to be beneficiary; and to exploit every possible opportunity from this sector to the countries future economical and cultural development, to take one step ahead the growth and development of the film industry the government has to take a major action and to be put in to effect the copy right law.

     The last but not the list recommendation is both the government and the private business sectors should work aggressively to reduce the dominant academic and technical knowledge and skill gap problem of the industry .Most of the current Ethiopian film industry problems are a collective problems over come by the absence educational institutions. Therefore the government must look back to the educational policy and curriculum and take possible actions in order to encourage the private business sector to be active participant in the sector.


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