Michael W. Thomas’s “Popular Ethiopian cinema: Love and other genres”

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The flourishing Ethiopian movies have been tagged as poor quality, quickly produced, and lacking originality, and complexity. Despite the criticism from some viewers and professionals, there is no denying the enormous popularity of video films in the country and the diaspora. The productions are generating a certain amount of scholarly attention, too. Michael W. Thomas, a postdoctoral fellow at SOAS University of London, is the co-author of a previous book, Cine-Ethiopia: The History and Politics of Film in the Horn of Africa, published by Michigan State University Press in 2018. To this new project, he brings equally honed skills as a historian, scholar, and critic.

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Having married an Ethiopian woman he met when he came to the country to engage in voluntary work in 2010, Michael since then made many journeys back and forth, researching the country’s film industry. He also combined his academic research with practical work to make the local cinema more accessible to western audiences, including facilitating Yidnekachew Shumete Desalegn’s Amahric film Nishan to be screened at the Glasgow-based festival and working together with the same director to produce the documentary Cinema Addis Ababa (2022).

Based on the author’s 2019 dissertation, Popular Ethiopian cinema: Love and other genres, which the author says is the result of courtship, curiosity, and falling in love, traces the historical development of Ethiopian film, and the current trend shaped by the merging forces of old traditional beliefs and of economic innovation. The work delivers an introduction to what has been happening in Ethiopian cinema over the last two decades and an exploration of the principal players, actors, directors, and professionals working in the fiction-making industry.

In the introductory chapter, the author recounts some of his own early experiences with the Ethiopian cinema, with warmth and pride, telling how the cinemas of Addis Ababa provided “the safe spaces” for the young love with his future wife. He describes his experience of watching his first Amharic film Yanchiw Léba in Matti Multiplex in 2011, which he said was totally different from any other experience of cinema he had previously encountered. “The first difference was the delay to the film starting. This was not a deliberate delay; there were no adverts or trailers playing, the only thing being projected was a bouncing DVD logo hurtling back and forth across the big screen. Had someone forgotten to press play?  Nearly thirty minutes passed but nobody seemed too bothered; people continued their conversations with each other or on their phones. Finally, the screen flashed blue and the on-screen ‘play’ signal indicated the start of the film. Were these delays the norm and symptomatic of the lack of formal structures governing the dealings of the creative industries in Ethiopia? Or, perhaps just an example of a different set of expectations regarding the construction of time in Ethiopia? “

The book is divided into three parts, the first devoted to the history of film production in Ethiopia; the second to defining the features of “yefiker film/love film”,  the rise “assikiñ yefiker film/humorous love film”,  violence and order in the “lib anteltay film/suspense film” and the “yebeteseb film/family film”; and the third to the industry and promoting, producing and perceiving of Amahric film genres. The ubiquitous ‘fiker‘/love as an organising principle in national Ethiopian culture and, by extension, Amharic cinema, provide the focus for various perspectives, which at once are more straightforward and more difficult to flesh out.

Despite the decline of cinemagoing in the western world, cinematic production has increased dramatically in Ethiopia in the last three decades. The book asks why this might be and, in so doing, analyses the actual state of Ethiopian video films. As he shows, the Ethiopian video film is a form of national popular culture in the face of dramatic changes; privileging more commercially viable works over more experimental works.

At the center of this book are genres of a selection of the important films attached to the different terms which the author says are expressive of the commercial and critical level of success the films have achieved in Ethiopia. He describes the major Ethiopian film genres and how they reflect the social and cultural concerns of audiences. “The ever-present nature of fiker (love) in popular Ethiopian cinema is most obvious when observing Amharic descriptions of film genres. Fiker can accompany any genre appellation associated with film, acting as a central catalyst in the system of Amharic film genres,” he writes. The author shows how in the screening schedules of privately-owned cinemas “genre terms become more visibly attached to films as the genre is commonly the second piece of information about a film after its title.”

Whereas the story world of the yefiker film is characterized by the restrictions and hurdles concocted by the dangers of terrible fate, other systems of power, inequality, hierarchy, in Michael’s analysis, the assikiñ yefiker film offers a safe passage through these same obstacles for its heroes where inventiveness, quick-wittedness, and goodwill help overcome differences which in the yefikir film are only resolved after danger, pain,  suffering are surmounted.

Other interesting details emerge, how for example women are represented in greater audience numbers than men in Addis Ababa cinema halls. Unlike another researcher’s description of how women attending cinemas in Kano are considered prostitutes, a popular Amharic anecdote in fact paints the cinema as a more female space as it explains that while men watch the English Premier League, women go to the cinema, writes the author.

Part of the pleasure of this book is that the author has clearly spent eons interviewing numerous key figures, and watching and analyzing different types of film production and along the way getting a fairly good understanding of Ethiopian culture. He adeptly synthesizes the Ethiopian film industry by offering new and localised perceptions and exploring specific films from global film studies perspective. The author doesn’t fail to point out most of the film’s low production values, often hackneyed and unoriginal scripts. He rather stresses the need for African film and media studies to look beyond the critical discourse that has lingered through the scholarship for decades and learn from the pleasure and popularity generated by popular video films in diverse African contexts.

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