Gender and Ethiollywood: A Review of ‘Kezkaza Wolafen’ and ‘Etse Beles’

A Review of two films: 'Kezkaza Wolafen' and 'Etse Beles' (Courtesy image)

Tadias Magazine
By Meron Tesfa Michael

Updated: March 24th, 2007

New York (TADIAS) – Kezkaza Wolafen (2003) by Tewodros Teshome and Etse Beles (2004) by Kidist Bayelege are two blockbuster movies that were released by the recently blooming Ethiollywood film industry. By design, the women of Etse Beles are survivors, independent, and in charge of their destiny; while the women of Kezkaza Wolafen are mainly victims, dependent, and vulnerable, whose existence is defined by the men in their lives. Between Kezkaza Wolafen’s reductive and Etse Beles’ superwoman representation these two films brilliantly identified areas where modern feminism meets traditional values in Ethiopian society. While the commonality of these links is obvious, the interpretation articulated by the filmmakers’ depiction of gender roles draws one’s attention to the discourse of womanhood in contemporary Ethiopian society.

Kezkaza Wolafen is a story about an educated and professional young woman whose middle class lifestyle has been sustained by men who sought to marry her. First, we are introduced to the “bad guy” who financially supported the family because the young woman’s hand was promised to him by her late father. What is supposed to be evil about him is his insistence of marriage against her will, and his plan to avert her from her higher education, and impregnate her – in other words he symbolizes an obstacle to the idea of progress. Later, we are introduced to another man – the lover boy who rescued her from the bad guy. He helped her to finish school, found her a job in his company, provided for her family, and even taught her how to drive. The young woman of Kezkaza Wolafen is portrayed as a good student, obedient daughter, and loyal friend. She is also timid and passive; rage is not in her nature. At one point when the going gets tough, she is seen attempting to commit suicide.

Etse Beles is about the life of undocumented Ethiopian immigrants in America. The story revolves around a young woman and her three roommates – two girls and a guy. Disillusioned by the harsh reality of life as illegal aliens, where dreams are crushed and fantasies unfulfilled, these four turn to alcohol and drugs to fill the void in their lives. Before long, scoring, apparently a very expensive habit, becomes the highlight of their bleak existence. If you thought a marital fall-out, or being an illegal immigrant, or HIV positive are the worst things that can happen to these characters, you would be mistaken. For these four, once the habit kicks in, life spirals downward until they hit rock bottom and their miserable lives crumble. Etse Beles is about choices, adversity, despair and endurance. The main character is not an intellectual and she doesn’t represent any moral superiority. On the contrary, she lies, cheats, and steals. There is also no doubt that she is in charge of her existence, and blunt, brash, dauntless and dopey all at the same time, owns her virtues and shortcomings. In Etse Beles, when the going gets tough, the woman’s task is not to coil-n’-hope to die, but to play the card she has been dealt with and fight it out.

It is incontrovertible that both Kezkaza Wolafen and Etse Beles carry deep and valuable social messages by addressing human torments and dilemmas that are common in the community they are targeting. In both films male and female characters suffer from the consequences of their choices as well as from social injustice. However, the apparent difference between these movies lies in the degree to which roles are defined by the characters’ sexuality. Ethiollywood’s response to gender is not outright offensive, brutal, or degrading. Nevertheless, in most cases Ethiollywood films are full of subtle insinuation and stereotyping that are to the detriment of womanhood. In a social environment where there is no defined collective awareness that is guided by gender-just concerns, the message that movies convey may be crucial because they depict the institutionalization of ideas and meanings. Neither of the two films discussed here claims to be blatantly propagandist for one cause or another when it comes to “the battle of the sexes.” All the same, when viewed from a female perspective, it is clear that one is ostensibly progressive but conformist and the other truly but silently radical.

Subtle stereotyping, relatively invisible, is insidious because it is still demeaning and patronizing. In Kezkaza Wolafen, the heroine is mostly portrayed as someone striving for some sort of intellectual enlightenment, first as a university student and later as a professional woman. Such generous attribution is obviously an attempt to bring the stereotype of modern woman into the discourse. However, the unfortunate aspect of this is that the addition may not be as progressive as one could imagine, because the young woman’s own competency is never allowed to be established by her actions. For example, not once has she been allowed to take the higher moral role within her community. Rather, the source of her “progressiveness” is trivialized by her total lack of control over her destiny. In spite of all the effort made to glorify her as an intelligent woman, toward the end she is diminished by a Shakespearean suicide-plot over something that may or may not have happened – once again providing an opportunity for her lover boy to rescue her. The act of suicide instead of promoting fortitude, conveys the idea that she is an incompetent quitter, who is for someone in her social position, extremely naive.

The other danger of subtle stereotyping is its power to promote masculinity as a value. In both films the norm of male power is projected through roles of bosses, fathers and other authority figures. By depicting these male-roles as something to be feared, admired or sympathized with, honor and glory are linked to masculine identity. For instance, all of the young woman’s achievements in Kezkaza Wolafen are due to the intervention and generosity of men. This undercuts any notion that we could have had of her capability as a competent member of society, and we are led to assume that she is not an independent young protégé, but rather a person in need of protection and help. We may initially assume that this is a gender-neutral manifestation of the power-mongering that is common in traditional and underprivileged societies. But then again, the fact that in Kezkaza Wolafen the message ‘manly men control and protect their women’ floats effortlessly, and the fact that characters and roles were not allowed to grow beyond the customarily defined boundaries promotes the operating assumption that men are the real wielders of power and women are passive dependent bodies to be possessed.

On the other hand, Etse Beles, ingeniously questions this notion by offering an alternative reality, where there are no defined roles or boundaries and women are active participants in their own destiny. The women of Etse Beles do not claim to represent progressive or traiditional social roles. By distributing power and guilt equally among the male and female characters, by allowing the female characters to live in their own world, make their own choices, fail and survive on their own terms, the film weakens the force that promotes chauvinism.

While Kezkaza Wolafen invokes a superficial gestures towards progressive attitudes in women, in hindsight it is not as revolutionary as Etse Beles. Rather, it is a film that engages with the legacy of our socio-cultural chauvinism in a non-confrontational way. Thus, while Kezkaza Wolafen constructs a somewhat positive view of women, the overall image of victimhood and incompetence promotes existing ideas of woman’s disparate position in society. In contrast, Etse Beles – certainly not a 21st century feminist manifesto – is a breath of fresh air to this notion of womanhood. What is revolutionary about the main character of Etse Beles is that in the process of performing her roles as a sister, wife, daughter and girlfriend, the plot allows her to play the often forgotten but most vital role — herself. With no man to be blamed for her failures or come to her rescue, she is allowed to be a being with a soul – reckless, vital and competent – a woman determined to claw her way out of the pit she has dug herself into.

We watch movies because we find them interesting, not because we find them particularly useful or relevant to our personal lives. But then why should we care about the images portrayed by something that is purely meant for entertainment purposes and only requires a couple of hours of our time? We care because films are to society what candy is to our teeth — though sweet, a diet in excess will rot one’s perception of reality. Popular culture’s entertainment is escapism and voyeurism. Concern with popular culture arises when people realize that a movie is a snapshot of reality that is extracted, recast, and marketed. Even when we recognize them as unrealistic, continued exposure influences our view of reality.

In Kezkaza Wolafen both the heroine and the hero have close friends. These brilliant supporting actresses and actors party too much and are irresponsible in their sexual quests. From various dialogues we are made to believe that he does it for fun, and she is just a gold-digger. Later we watch the female character’s health deteriorate and eventually die of HIV/AIDS. On the same token, we are presented with a scene where the male character learns of his HIV positive status. Interestingly, rather than watching him die, within minutes of finding out his status, he declares that he is going to teach the public how to protect itself from the disease. While the idea of his transformation is commendable, the disgraceful death of the woman’s faith and nobility to him is open to a number of interpretations. Should her death be perceived as a woman’s due for flouting the code of social conduct?

The point here is that filmmakers are in a unique position to selectively appropriate gender issues contextually in conjunction with the dominant socio-political norms, and gender representation is open to the influence of competing tendencies, be it the market, cultural capital, communalism, or women’s empowerment articulations. However, with the shortage of female-centered films in the Ethiollywood, with the dearth of positive role models and the brute reality of hundreds of millions of women internalizing the roots of their own destruction, would not a film that plays down the negation within female consciousness be more useful? The danger with films like Kezkaza Wolafen is that a sympathetic representation leads the audience to empathize with, rather than question, such negations. It begs the question: Is Ethiollywood ready for strong, free, unique female characters?

Ethiollywood filmmakers are currently standing at the crossroads between modern feminism and traditional values and are confronted with two possible routes when it comes to designing our symbolic reality. Either they will challenge our attitudes with the possibility of a reality that exists outside past legacies, or reinforce the patriarchal chauvinism attitude that denies a woman’s right to be recognized as a proactive entity — with more options than suicide. Unfortunately, Kezkaza Wolafen is careful in looking after the comfort of its audience and misses an opportunity to articulate the forward-thinking that society would expect from its intellectual women. Etse Beles, while it certainly is not making any cognizant claims within a feminist emancipation context, by allowing the heroines to take center stage, allows us to take a peek at a world where women – even those that are social outcasts – have freewill and, somewhere between the good and bad, have an overwhelming desire to live onscreen.

My agenda is not to challenge the legitimacy of either one of these films on moral grounds. On the contrary, it is to uphold their efforts and to highlight the ways in which their formal preoccupations reflect the obsessions of the society which produced them. Filmmakers, without being obnoxious, can question these obsessions. Between these two films, to which category an Ethiopian woman identifies herself with is entirely up to her perception of self. However, promotion of stereotypes and symbols by drawing from a ready reservoir of gender differentiating myths and legends is not going to help anybody, especially when it is projected by a medium that is considered egalitarian, secular and, in many ways, larger than life.

About the Author:
Meron Tesfa Michael is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science. Her area of research interest includes the politics of gender identity, ethical partiality, and social stratification in new-fangled democratic states. She lives in Harlem, New York.

1 Response to “Gender and Ethiollywood: A Review of ‘Kezkaza Wolafen’ and ‘Etse Beles’”

  1. 1 Ezana Mar 27th, 2007 at 1:46 pm


    I enjoyed reading a film critique as presented by Dr. Meron Tesfa. Her analysis of both films in terms of gender politics is really amzaing. I love to see more Ethiopian writers dwelling on that same issue and more. I must say it is a good begining for a country/community whose filmmakers are yet on their craddle. However, I also would hope to see film critique based on cinimatography, sound, performance, wardrobe, graphics, location and so on.

    Have a blessed day.


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