This year, for the first time ever, Ethiopia has an entry in the official program: first-time director Yared Zeleke, an NYU alumnus, screens Lamb in the Un Certain Regard sidebar. Zeleke returned to his home country to tell a touching coming-of-age story that reflects the positive and negative facets of the aftermath of famine and civil war. Big trauma is mixed with tender moments and humorous scenes to give an insightful and fresh look at a country that the West mainly knows through big negatives.
Young Ephraim (Rediat Amare) is sent by his father to live with relatives far from his hometown. His mother has died, and his father wants to move to capital Addis Ababa to find work. So Ephraim and his inseparable lamb, seemingly his only friend, are uprooted and dropped off at his uncle’s. He isn’t very proficient at farming, and thus not a real help to his new family (much to his uncle’s chagrin), but he turns out to be very good at cooking (also much to his uncle’s chagrin). Before he can put that to good use however, he must first concoct a plan to save his beloved lamb, as it is placed on the menu for the next religious feast. And what to do with his cousin Tsion (Kidist Siyum), a rebellious teenager with big dreams, who clearly wants to get ahead in the world?
The story of Lamb is deceptively simple, and Zeleke shows a knack for letting the story unfold itself without unneeded directorial flourish. This makes the film an easy and pleasurable watch, even if it seems rather light in themes. But if you scratch the surface a little, there are some interesting things of note, particularly about the role of women in the household. The uncle may be the de facto head of the family; in reality it is the family’s matriarch in the form of the grandmother (Welela Assefa) who has the final word on most matters. And daughter Tsion is a young, independent girl, literate and intelligent, a representative of a hopeful future for women in Ethiopia. The film also doesn’t shy away from the trauma that his mother’s death has caused in Ephraim. Zeleke keeps these moments understated, a little too much perhaps, but we are seeing the world through the eyes of a 9-year old child, played by an amateur child actor no less, so the tendency to hold back on these dramatic moments might be a conscious decision. Ultimately, the core of the story is that of a boy and his lamb, and the small inner world of a child, even if it is set in the vast mountains of Northern Ethiopia. These grand vistas offer a good illustration of the boy’s solitude in these ‘foreign’ surroundings.
All actors in the film are non-professionals, and though this comes through in some stilted acting in more dramatic moments, both children in particular give fine performances. The dialogue feels natural (one has to wonder how much of it was improvised), and the semi-autobiographical screenplay (there are quite a few parallels between the lives of Ephraim and director Zeleke, who also wrote the screenplay) is a tender and ultimately hopeful look at displacement.
On the technical side, the film is more of a mixed bag. The lensing and lighting by DOP Josée Deshaies (responsible for last year’s competition entry Saint Laurent, amongst others) is striking and one of the film’s strong suits, and shot composition is a testimony to Zeleke’s good eye. On the other hand, some of the musical choices are a bit too on-the-nose and sentimental, and some of the peripheral actors are stiff.
Lamb is a film that would probably play very well at a children’s film festival, given its subject matter. And that is not meant as a knock on Zeleke’s work at all, but it does make it an outsider in the Un Certain Regard competition (besides being an African film, which is also a rare animal in Cannes), often a showcase for ‘difficult’, more decidedly arthouse stuff. It’s nice to see that there is still a place for small stories like this on the Croisette, and it will be interesting to see where the young director goes next. He shows a talent for storytelling and, flaws aside, has made a promising debut. African film is too under-represented, both in general and in festivals like this, too often falling back on a few familiar names, so it is exciting to see new talent coming up. Choosing this film was one of the few good things Thierry Frémaux did this year in terms of selection, even if people might think Lamb too inconsequential to be here, because it ever-so-slightly opens up a part of the world of cinema that is largely unknown, and can hopefully boost African filmmakers. There is talent there, as Zeleke shows, and they are willing to tell their stories. The world should let them.