The Women Blowing Up Ethiopia’s Film Industry

Filmmaker, expert on the Ethiopian motion picture industry, and professor Eyerusalem Kassahun. (ZPS)

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Successful Female Writers, Directors, and Producers Set the Nation Apart From Hollywood, Bollywood, and the Rest of World Cinema

Among the many stories about Ethiopia’s long, multifaceted past and politically complicated present, an extraordinary transformation that has received less media attention is the dramatic leap forward in its movie industry. Before 2004, Ethiopia was producing only a few movies from time to time. But, by 2015, almost 100 locally produced new features were hitting the theaters in its capital city, Addis Ababa, each year. Local television has also grown and diversified.

Behind the rise of Ethiopian cinema is an even more remarkable tale of the women who—as writers, directors, producers, and scholars—were leaders in this transformation.

The prominent role of women in the industry may set Ethiopia apart from most other countries. Across the globe, from Hollywood to Bollywood, film and TV industries have been dominated by men. In the United States, the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University and the website Women and Hollywood have shown that only 12 percent of directors, 20 percent of writers, and 26 percent of producers are women, even though 51 percent of audiences are.

In Africa, the 1960s-era founding manifestoes of cinema institutions, such as the famous FESPACO festival in Burkina Faso, are committed to decolonization, racial equality and women’s empowerment; so, in principle, they are more progressive than the United States. Nevertheless, the history of African cinema is generally recounted as a succession of male directors, like kings inheriting the FESPACO throne: Ousmane Sembene. Souleymane Cissé. Idrissa Ouédraogo. Abderrahmane Sissako. The pattern has stuck despite proactive efforts, beginning in the 1990s, by festival organizers and institutions such as the Centre for the Study and Research of African Women in Cinema to empower African women to make movies.

So, what is different in Ethiopia?

On frequent visits in recent years, I’ve met with some of Ethiopia’s prominent filmmakers as well as professors of film and theater history at Addis Ababa University. They’re well aware of what the movie industries are like in other parts of the world and point out that Ethiopia, too, is no paradise for women. Sexism and gender disparities in financing and lending to entrepreneurs remain pervasive, despite the nation’s constitution prohibiting discrimination. And while no agency in Ethiopia has analyzed the issue of gender in the media industry, my own informal survey of the lists of films licensed by the Addis Ababa Bureau of Culture and Tourism indicates that the gender ratios are similar to the United States.

What’s different in Ethiopia is women’s influence and success in the movie business. In a highly competitive industry where many people never make more than one movie, women have consistently enjoyed more enduring success as writers, directors, and producers. Films made by women have tended to do better at the box office and have won many trophies at the nation’s annual Gumma film awards.

Quite a few of the “firsts” in Ethiopia’s cinema history were accomplished by innovative women. After the nation transitioned away from the Derg regime, under which film and television were financed and controlled by the government, the first person to risk privately financing an independent movie was Rukiya Ahmed, with Tsetzet (directed by Tesfaye Senke on U-matic in 1993) about a detective solving a murder case.

The Women Blowing Up Ethiopia’s Film Industry | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian
Arsema Worku. Courtesy of Steven W. Thomas.

Later, one of the first movies to make the switch from celluloid to video was Yeberedo Zemen (translated as Ice Age) by Helen Tadesse. She originally intended the movie as a situation comedy for Ethiopian TV, but, after a contract dispute, she decided to re-edit the episodes into a single movie. In 2002, it was the first Ethiopian movie shot on VHS to be exhibited in a theater, and it sparked a revolution in the nation’s movie industry.

With the switch from celluloid to VHS, and subsequently to digital filmmaking, local cinema culture blew up, with films growing in number and diversity. Many women seized on the new opportunities to follow Tadesse’s lead, and a number quickly became industry leaders.

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