She may not be as well known as Prof Haile Gerima”the celebrated US-based Ethiopian filmmaker and scholar” due to her age and recent entry into the African audiovisual media sector but 25-year-old Yetnayet Bahru Gessesse’s creativity is pushing her onto the podium where she will join the stars of filmmaking and become one of them. OGOVA ONDEGO reports.
Though trained in computer science, her passion and determination for filmmaking appears to be stronger than her attraction to computers. At the age of 23, soon after graduating from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, she scripted, directed and produced ALDEWOLEM (He Didn’t Call Me), a US$13,000 romantic comedy on the games that young, single, city-dwelling African women and men play but find they cannot extricate themselves from what they began as innocuous practical jokes using the now common cell phone.
A “Juliet-and-Romeo”-like themed film set on St Valentine’s Day, the success of the 108-minute ALDEWOLEM exceeded the expectations of many. In fact, it is still showing in cinemas. It was one of the top blockbuster movies in Ethiopia for more than three months in 2008. The movie is said to have received rave reviews in the media for what is described as its unique contribution to Ethiopian cinema. It wound up with nominations in four categories “best director, best writer, best actress, best supporting actress” at the 4th Ethiopia International Film Festival in 2009.
ALDEWOLEM, a film about four girlfriends trying to hook up one of their best friend’s cousin with one of their friends without his knowledge, is now a contender for the best African film prize at the continental 6th Africa Movie Academy Awards in Nigeria in 2010. It has also been accepted for screening at various festivals in the United States and the director who considers her foray into filmmaking a calling, is not only excited but is now confident that she has made the right decision in following her heart to the magical world of moving images. She is today on location in Addis as we file this article on her work.
I first met Yetnayet Bahru Gessesse in February 2009 at the Imagine Film Institute in Burkina Faso during the Pan African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO). She had been one of a handful Africans selected to participate in a two-month film-training workshop that also gave her the chance to participate in the making of the newsreel for FESPACO; she worked as a cameraperson, editor and director of different events and newsreel which was broadcast on television stations like RTB, CFI, and NTA and is still online at dailymotion.com.
“In the course of the training, I had the opportunity to work with great filmmakers like Gaston Kabore, John Lvoff, Fernand Damsereau, Bertrand Lenclos and Rod Stonemann, the director of Houston Film School, Ireland. Under their tutelage,” Yetnayet Bahru Gessesse says, “I made a short film, LIPSTICK, which was highly applauded after its selected screenings during the FESPACO period. It was also entered for competition at the Nigerian Entertainment Film Festival (NEFFA) in 2009.
But how did Yetnayet Bahru Gessesse get into filmmaking?
“I have always been passionate about movies and music. In my college days I got a call from a renowned Ethiopian filmmaker who asked me to sing a song for the soundtrack of his upcoming movie. That was my first inspiration for movie making,” she says.
But this is hardly a confirmation that she is called to make films, isn’t it?
“My driving force in filmmaking comes from the fact that I grew up watching lots of movies. Film serves as a great source of inspiration to me and it also broadens my horizon,” she says. “Renowned artists like Julia Roberts and Sophia Coppola have been inspirational to me because of their ability to transcend into the movie business and make their womanhood their strength. I never thought I’d be a filmmaker one day but after I started, I discovered that film is another aspect of human existence, which is so natural. It wasn’t planned but perhaps, it was a leap of faith.”
OK, that is well put. Hers is a leap of faith.
Yetnayet Bahru Gessesse continues: “Immediately after my graduation from College I decided to write a script, which posed the greatest challenge of my life. Finding the resources to cover the budget for the film proved very difficult. The only choice I had was to look for sponsors. Even finding them was very difficult because usually big companies and investors are interested in sponsoring filmmakers that have a track record in the business. Finally before I gave up, my parents consented generously to cover the film’s budget.”
She has little illusion that the absence of a film school in Ethiopia means that film practitioners have to learn through trial and error.
“Well, I had to start somewhere; and once I got started, perseverance, commitment and determination is getting me through.”
But Yetnayet Bahru Gessesse also understands the importance of certification or affirmation in one’s career. “My plan is to get a better education in a higher institution and be a better filmmaker and use the knowledge I acquire as a tool for showing the world where I come from. My driving force and zeal is to make a positive change in my country for a better tomorrow and film is the right tool for that adventure into Disney land of positivism.”
Though the number of films shot in Ethiopia are limited and largely produced by established Ethiopian filmmakers trained and mostly residing abroad, a few people, like Yetnayet Bahru Gessesse, are starting to make films. This is out of the realisation that film could play a major developmental role.
But this is a tall order in a country without the necessary film infrastructure with professional crews, equipment, knowledge and experience: “It takes a lot of courage to work in the film sector in Ethiopia where one works as a labour of love. The tax and the cinema renting fee are higher than the filmmaker’s returns!” Yetnayet Bahru Gessesse says.
The average budget of making a good film in Ethiopia is about US$25,000. Cinemas usually charge filmmakers US$700-800 per day to screen their work while a ticket price is US$1.25 per head.
For Yetnayet Bahru Gessesse, filmmaking is like a school that is full of lessons.
“From my experience as a first time director, I have discovered that directing and editing are very interesting aspects of filmmaking. The director sets the tone of the work place and takes all the positive energy film people bring to the work place and jacks it up even higher. The director creates a mental picture, based on the script, of what the finished film looks like. Working as a director and an editor will give you the opportunity to see the pictures and how to put them together and make them flow. Filmmaking is very challenging and it is not an easy job. But the satisfaction that a film maker gets when the audience reacts to what they see is beyond imagination. For me filmmaking is like watching your own child playing games that please everyone. It is a tool to communicate with people we don’t even know and share our perspective on life.”