Last week I had the opportunity to work with two young American Filmmakers who were in Addis as part of the Ethiopian International Film Festival. Working on behalf of the Public Affairs Section, I welcomed Producer Phil Hessler and Director Galen Knowles who spent the week in Ethiopia conducting workshops, leading discussions and hosting screenings of their film, “Far From Home” which deals with the complexities associated in an East African context through the story of a Ugandan Snowboarder! They were here supported by a grant from the State Department in partnership with USC as part of the American Film Showcase which builds upon “smart power diplomacy” and the mission of people to people engagement through film.
Part of the aim through our work with PAS at the Embassy was to encourage Ethiopian youth to share their stories through film, promoting conversation outside of the prescribed narratives associated within an Ethiopian (or even East African) framework. Clearly film (and in particular, Documentaries) is a powerful medium, yet one which has not yet fully been grasped here on the Horn of Africa. We want to encourage youth to share their stories which in turn helps to bring people of different cultures together through a common interest in cinematography and the power it holds. Original stories which each of us have are an influential tool to not only share our differences but to celebrate our commonalities.
Over the course of the week, I was able to work with Phil and Galen on two different occasions, once on Monday at the Addis Ababa University Film School and once again on Saturday at the Film Festival itself. Through each platform we were able to interact with Ethiopian youth who likewise view film as a means of expression, telling their personal stories within the context of the larger realm of their region, their country and their continent.
The AAU Film School is the only one in Ethiopia(!) and is a Graduate-level program as there is no Undergraduate education offered which addresses student interest in movie-making. Regardless though, there were numerous people in attendance, each with a clear vision and understanding of film and the important role which they play in sharing it with others. Phil and Galen hosted a screening of their movie before leading a discussion, ranging from the beginning concept to the ongoing funding to the final production. For those who were able to make it, the day provided insight otherwise unknown, with information directly from two filmmakers who were themselves living the experience in real time, happy to share their knowledge with others.
For Friday’s events we moved to the Oromia Cultural Center where the Festival was being held throughout the week, with other countries screening their works for inclusion as well. Sitting on a panel with Phil and Galen were respective Ethiopian filmmakers who addressed the issues from different viewpoints as it related to the country and the obstacles incurred within. Questions and concerns were raised by the audience pertaining to issues associated with the dichotomies between the U.S. and Ethiopia and the variances in realities regarding filmmaking. The underlying theme however of sharing your story, regardless of the circumstances, remained strong with the panelists and their message of encouragement.
Film, like music, eclipses boundaries which oftentimes language has a difficult time approaching. It speaks to larger audiences through a wider array of tools, enabling everyone involved a much deeper level of understanding than sight or sound alone can accomplish. In particular, Documentaries allow for a story-telling technique which gives unlimited credence to the subject while also encouraging knowledge and inspiration for those who are viewing it, recognizing the importance of the story while simultaneously fostering ideas of ownership over one’s own tale.
To play a small part in the Ethiopian International Film Festival was an honor for me, as it provided opportunities to see the power of educational and cultural exchange outside of the classroom, taking place on the larger canvas of society. It gave me motivation to continue to use film as a means of expression with my students, encouraging them to share their stories of challenge and success for others to see and hear, gaining strength through sharing and esteem in relating…
“Far From Home” can be rented or downloaded here: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/farfromhome/111690328