Interview: Yemane Demissie Talks About His Latest Film on Haile Selassie

Above: Episodes in the Life & Times of Emperor Haile Selassie was screened at the Schomburg on Thursday, May 26, 2011.

Tadias Magazine
Events News

Updated: Friday, May 27, 2011

New York (Tadias) – The 8th Annual Sheba Film Festival featured the New York premiere of Yemane Demissie’s film Twilight Revelations: Episodes in the Life & Times of Emperor Haile Selassie. The screening took place at the Schomburg Center on Thursday, May 26th.

The documentary, which features rare archival footage coupled with exclusive interviews and firsthand accounts, takes a fresh look at the mixed legacy of one of the most controversial African monarchs in modern history. Emperor Haile Selassie is widely admired abroad for his memorable appeal at the League of Nations in 1936 during the second Italian invasion of Ethiopia, as well as for his continental leadership role in the 1950′s and 1960′s during the decolonization of most African countries. History also remembers him for his administrative failures at home and for presiding over one of the most archaic land tenure systems in the world. Although credited for his commitment to establishing modern institutions and nurturing a new class of academics and professionals in Ethiopia, he is also criticized for his prolonged neglect of reform voices and the unsustainable poverty of the vast majority of his people – which would eventually bring about the abrupt and unceremonious end to his rule.

Below is our recent interview with Filmmaker Yemane Demissie who is also an Assistant Professor at the Kanbar Institute of Film & Television at NYU.

Yemane Demissie. (Photo via NYU)

Tadias: It is clear that you’ve made a conscious effort to tell a balanced story. The film documents the highs and lows of the Emperor’s reign. Why do you think people remain fascinated by Haile Selassie almost four decades after he was deposed by a popular revolt?

YD: Apart from the five-year intermission during the Italo-Ethiopian War, the Emperor was in power from 1916 until 1974. That is long enough to make it possible for two generations of Ethiopians to be born and come of age during his reign. But in addition to the length of his sovereignty, his significant national and international contributions, his personality, and his leadership style contribute to the fascination. In the end, however, charisma is never the sum of the parts.

Tadias: The documentary also touches upon the more human side of the person. We hear from some of his family members about his role as a father, other interviewees discuss his daily routine, such as his regular early morning physical exercise, etc. You also incorporate some fascinating images that capture the Emperor in private moments. What do you most want people to take away from this film?

YD: That nearly six decades of leadership cannot be reduced to a triumph, [such as] the 1963 establishment of the OAU in Addis Ababa, or a fiasco, the 1973 famine. That a lot more research is wanting since there is so much we don’t know about the Emperor and his era. I also need not point out that it’s impossible to convey six decades of leadership in 58 minutes, the length of the documentary. That empathy is crucial if one wants to learn.

Tadias: One of the most dramatic moments in the film comes during the 1960 coup attempt against the emperor while he was traveling abroad. We know that you have dedicated a whole movie exploring this subject. Can you tell us a bit about the coup, its leaders, and why the revolt was a significant historical event?

YD: In December 1960, General Mengistu Neway, the head of the Imperial Bodyguard, his younger brother, Ato Girmame Neway, the intelligence tsar, Colonel Workeneh Gebeyehu, and a circle of their supporters attempted to overthrow the Emperor while he was on a state visit to Brazil. When the coup d’état failed, the leaders executed most of the government officials they had detained — including the acclaimed patriot leader, Ras Abebe Aregay — and fled. Ato Girmame Neway and Colonel Workeneh Gebeyehu died before they were captured and their corpses were hung publicly. General Mengistu Neway was taken captive. He was given a trial in which he expressed himself openly. A copy of the trial transcriptions can be found at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies. At the end of the trial, he was found guilty and condemned to death.

For a number of years before the coup, a not insignificant number of the intelligentsia had began to express its discontent and frustration, albeit it discretely, with and about the imperial administration. These young people believed that the Emperor and his administration were, at best, dithering, or at worst, blocking the political, social, economic and cultural changes that they deemed were essential and overdue.

The coup was a significant event for many reasons. I can think of two at the moment: First, the lack of significant civic bodies or institutions, such as independent press, political parties, professional associations, labor unions, in which differing views and proposals could be discussed openly and seriously and then implemented or rejected, encouraged the belief in force as the only path to change. Second, for many of the educated young men and women who came of age immediately following the coup d’état the leaders of the putsch became champions of change.

Tadias: Even though the film consists of several interviews, we do not see the face of the interviewer, and except on two occasions we don’t hear the interviewers voice either. How would the film be different if the audience had heard the questions? How did most of the interviewed individuals react off-camera to the questions?

YD: I used “chapter headings” before each “episode” to make sure that the topic at hand was not confusing. The only time you heard the interviewer’s, my voice, was when its absence would have caused confusion. Had I included my voice, the chain-like flow of the narratives would have been shattered. Many of the responses were selections from much longer explanations and anecdotes. Part of my job as the editor was to distill and synthesize. This approach is not unusual in documentary filmmaking.

Tadias: In the last scene you actively interject and ask a follow-up question. What spurred this break in style?

YD: I decided to use that section because it was moving and powerful. Since Ato Mamo Haile, the interviewee, asked me a question directly, breaking the fourth wall, I had to reply. If I had technically muted my response the segment would not have worked. After experiencing a film in which the subjects addressed an invisible person off camera for about 56 minutes, the shift, with Ato Mamo addressing the camera directly, becomes noticeable and affective. By breaking the fourth wall, Ato Mamo poses a question not only to me but to the viewer. That was why I switched styles.

Tadias: Were there any rules you set for yourself about what you would or wouldn’t discuss on camera?

YD: I wouldn’t say rule but approach. There is vast amount of literature about the Emperor and his era written primarily by journalists or scholars who specialize in that time period. Since that information was readily available, I targeted primary sources or first hand accounts from individuals whose observations were not as readily available.

Tadias: What were some of the biggest challenges in making this film?

YD: One of many [challenges] was constructing a narrative when so many of the key participants were killed by the military junta or have died of old age or poor health without leaving any record of their work or observations.

Tadias: Why did you name the film “Twilight Revelations”?

YD: I hope the answer to that question becomes evident after a viewing of the film.

Tadias: Thank you Yemane and see you on Thursday at the Schomburg Center!

If You Go: (This event has passed)
The 8th Annual Sheba Film Festival
The New York premiere of “Twilight Revelations”
Episodes in the Life & Times of Emperor Haile Selassie
Thursday, May 26th, 2011 7PM (Admission: $12)
The Schomburg Center (515 Malcolm X Boulevard, 135th St)
Director Yemane Demissie will be present for the Q&A session following the screening.
Click here to watch the trailer.

17 Responses to “Interview: Yemane Demissie Talks About His Latest Film on Haile Selassie”

  1. 1 Mahder May 25th, 2011 at 4:03 pm

    Sounds intriguing. Looking forward to seeing the film. Thanks for your documentation of history. Will it by any chance premiere in other parts of the country?

  2. 2 Abebe Haregewoin May 25th, 2011 at 4:57 pm

    I am surprised and delighted to learn about the brave attempts to put into film the life and times of one of the titans of the last century, Emperor Haile Selassie. Those of us “baby boomers” who spent most of our formative years during his reign, saw him growing up as infallible and appointed by God. We invoked his name and swore by his name. He was ubiquitous and venerated presence. This was reinforced by society, the church, and his historical role in world affairs such as his speech at the League of Nations. Indeed he also managed to romance the world to view him as the most venerated leader to come out of Africa. But by the time the sixties rolled in and the winds of change that were sweeping revolutions, liberation movements and the voices of socialism percolated in our heads, [our image] of the emperor started to evaporate and melt away. The failed coup to overthrow him was a shock and also a clarion call both for the emperor and the people on what was to come. In reality, most of us were not sure what the change would have been if the coup had succeeded. But the hanging of the corpses of the perpetrators of the coup revealed savagery and his dark side. With time it became clear that the emperor will refuse to abdicate his so called “god-given” right to rule as he sees fit. Emperor Haile Selassie had a long and complicated life and knew how to manipulate power. But, at the end, he was not [quick enough] to adapt to the changing environment around him and the world. History has now recast him in a different light. He is no more the hated monarch but an important, if not the most important, player in the dramatic and long history of the Land of Sheba. Hope this film will present us with more fuel for our love/hate relationship with one of the most significant personalities of our times. Thank you Demissie.

  3. 3 Tazabe May 25th, 2011 at 9:41 pm

    Born and raised outside of the mother land my linkage b/n my Ethiopian and Jamaican brothers and sisters has been Ras. Did I say blood tie. That’s real!

  4. 4 Tsehai May 26th, 2011 at 12:07 am

    Why is history researched and thought by hard working people like this filmmaker and professor? If I may answer my own question, it’s so that humanity doesn’t repeat the same mistake as those who came before us. But the bigger question is have we learned anything from 20th century Ethiopia, Haile Selassie and even, for that matter, Mengistu Hailemariam, who berried Haile Selassie under his office for seventeen years? BTW that’s some sick and crazy stuff requiring its own horror movie. For me though, the answer is NO! I am afraid we Ethiopians are bound to repeat the same mistake because we have no sense of the human limitation, as individuals and as a country, that all things in life, good, bad and ugly, must always come to an end, as sure as the sun rises each day. In order to assure our continuity as one people, we must first establish that as human-beings each one of us has our unique limitations. dir biyaber anbessa yasser. That’s the secret.

  5. 5 Phoebe May 26th, 2011 at 9:31 am

    Great interview!

  6. 6 Welansa May 30th, 2011 at 3:45 pm

    Quite an interesting film! It gave us a small glimpse into the Emperor’s life, character, interests, losses and faith.

    I was surprised by a few items:

    -the high regard that the men had towards W/O Senedu – a woman that was appartently way ahead of her time
    -Interesting fact cited by W/o Marta Gabre-Tsadick regarding Ethiopian immigration to the US – I was blown away by the fact she cited about 1966 – a fact that suggests that life in Ethiopia was not all that bad.

    There’s a lot to this 56 minute film…..I’m quite glad I had the chance to see it.

  7. 7 Mimi May 30th, 2011 at 8:43 pm

    I did attend the screening also. I would say it is an honest movie with a pro-Haile selassie bias.

  8. 8 Mimi May 30th, 2011 at 11:11 pm

    Sorry, its me again. By the way, I found Bulcha Demeksa’s interview to be the most informative in terms of his explanation of the imperial regime’s economic troubles. I found it totally shocking that soldiers and teachers were going unpaid for months and months because the country’s treasury was pretty much bankrupt.

  9. 9 Ras Mitat Jun 1st, 2011 at 12:27 pm

    Ababa Janhoy Lezelalem yinuru! Ethiopia Tikdem! Enashenifalen!

  10. 10 real Jun 7th, 2011 at 4:07 am

    I hope this film will screen in the Bay Area.

  11. 11 syoum gebregziabher Jun 8th, 2011 at 1:21 pm

    Congratulation for the job well done. Hope you will expand the twilight of other leaders as well.

    It has been a historical reality of our significant leaders and personalities to go through “ a period or condition of decline following growth, glory, or success”. They all reach the twilight of their life!

    This is the period we all have to go through in our lives between susnset and darkness.

    Is there a wisdom and sagacity for one to recognize the sunset before the darkness and remain at the sunset?

  12. 12 Senait Jun 11th, 2011 at 3:27 pm

    Dear Tadias,

    Thank you. Wonderful interview. I look forward to watching the movie some day! Keep up the good work!

    Senait from Texas

  13. 13 Abee Jun 30th, 2011 at 8:10 am

    This was nice beginning by Yemane Demisse. As he stated in the interview it is hard to finalize 60 years of great work in one hour documentary. As I said though it is great work. The second part should be interviewing foreigners. Time is running down but great people like Queen Elisabeth II should also include in the least.

    Please join this facebook group which is dedicated to his majesty Emperor Haile Selassie I. Over 600 pictures included in this group including some interesting documents. Join the group and learn more about Ethiopia’s last King.


  14. 14 Samuel K Jul 24th, 2011 at 11:58 am

    If anyone could do justice to the Emperor’s story, then it is only Yemane who could do it. The interview itself is great; he does not pass judgement. He lets us do it. As decades have passed and we had witnesses two of the worst and inadequate leaders Ethiopia has ever seen, History is treating the Emperor much kindly than the lost revolutionary generation did. Just ask any kid who Emperor Haile Selassie was and they talk about almost a mythical and benevolent figure.

    I look forward to seeing this movie. All the best for Yemane. His greatest movies are yet to be made.


  15. 15 Alemu Aug 11th, 2011 at 8:50 am

    As a memeber of the younger generation, I can’t stress my respect and love for Janhoy enough. He did great things in difficult circumstances. We were lucky to have had such a figure our lives and I can see a wave of renewed admiration from those of us in our teens and twenties.

  16. 16 I-Search Nov 17th, 2011 at 10:09 pm

    Enforced by the barrel of a gun, and character assassination, Communists, and miss-educated fools, imposed a culture of conformity on the people of Ethiopia; and denied us a differing point of view for a long time. Your documentary’s humble presentation is refreshing, and above all, reconnected us with our past. You are not only telling the story of the Emperor, but through H.I.M, also included the pioneers of modern Ethiopia and its people. I encourage Mimi to see the documentary beyond the animal farm mind set.
    Regardless of, our interest to see a production like this, we should be aware that film requires vast amount of money and time. I encourage Ato Yemane, to set up a bank account for the next project, and I am confident many people are willing to fund the brother.
    Big Up!


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