Of Lambs and Life in Ethiopia – An Interview with Yared Zeleke

The Un Certain Regard sidebar at the Cannes Film Festival historically has been a breeding ground for young talent, and often features several debut feature films. Last month’s edition was no exception, and one of the late entries was Lamb by Yared Zeleke, the first Ethiopian entry in the official selection ever, a reminder of how African cinema is perpetually underrepresented at big festivals like this. The film, at once both universal and regionally specific in its thematics and storytelling, focuses on Ephraim, a young boy whose father sends him to live with his uncle and aunt, far away from his hometown, after the death of his mother. His only friend is his lamb, and he will go to great lengths to ensure that this last connection to his old life is not taken away from him. Set around a touching central performance, Lamb paints a picture of Ethiopia that is rarely glimpsed in the West, giving fresh insight into the struggles, but also the uplifting spirit of day-to-day life of Ethiopians. We had the chance to ask director Yared Zeleke about the development of the film, its future, and how his own past is connected to the contemporary Ethiopia of the film.

Lamb deals with the displacement of the central character, Ephraim. In the press kit, you draw parallels with your own life story, being displaced during the rule of the junta after the military coup in 1974. How common is the situation of Ephraim still in Ethiopia, and what are current reasons for displacement, given the current relative political stability?

Although there is more political stability in Ethiopia today compared to the time I grew up in, the country remains economically fragile. The combinations of population pressure, hyper-capitalism and stagnant standard of living, among others, continue to cause all sorts of upheavals for families. That includes the separation of kids from their parents, be it the vast rural to urban migration (that is also happening on a continental scale) or the immigration abroad to find a more sustainable income. These realities are the reasons why Lamb is very much about Ethiopia today as it is an examination of my own past.

Besides the parallels to your own life, what were the other reasons for wanting to tell this particular story?

As stated before, I wanted to capture a glimpse of contemporary Ethiopian life with all the changes happening in the country as well as forces still holding it back. I am trying to say to fellow Ethiopians and the world that while we may be poor in some regards, we are very rich in others. That while some of our traditions are not helping to improve our lives, we don’t have to discard all of our cultural customs. We can, for example, re-examine the tradition of not listening to the views of the youth while we can continue to have reverence for the experience of our elders. I also want to show Westerners that Ethiopia is not a land of famine. Rather, it’s a country with an abundance of natural resource. However, the farmers that constitute the majority of the population still struggle due to various factors that are both local, such as deforestation, and international, like climate change.

Despite Ephraim’s grave predicament, there is a certain tenderness and optimism to the film. Even if it doesn’t shy away from the consequences of his tragedy, the film is in general rather light-hearted. Was this a conscious choice, and if so, why?

I grew up in the slums of Addis Ababa during a time of war, famine and instability. Yet most of my childhood memories are magical. My neighborhood was full of colorful characters. Despite the difficulties, I do not recall it being only a place that is destitute and full of despair. Yet when I see some of the mass media images of that part of the world I ask myself: where is the love, intelligence, kindness and beauty? Africa as a whole has a major PR problem. And I think it’s high-time to reassess these African misery stories. Ephraim is not a victim. The story is not a tragedy. In the face of the hardships, and they are big ones for such a small kid, he proactively seeks to overcome them. That will to live makes the character much more interesting, complex and human.

There is an important role for women in the film, specifically the grandmother and the rebellious teenage daughter Tsion. They defy the patriarchal structure of the family whenever they can, despite the uncle, Solomon, being the head of the family. Was there a specific reason to write these roles the way they were written, exuding a streak of feminism in the screenplay?

Clever, funny and beautiful Ethiopian women raised me. The film is an homage to them. Despite the patriarchy in many aspects of Ethiopian culture, there has always been strong-willed women who held families and even the nation together. Emama represents those women from the past. Tsion represents the Ethiopian woman of the future. She wants education before being wed-locked, yet she does not necessarily throw away all her identity.

Can you explain a little about the casting process? As I understand, all actors in the film are amateurs, but especially the two young leads have a wonderful naturalist air about them. How did you find them?

From January to June of 2014, we auditioned around 6,500 people of all ages and background for the various characters in the story. The priority was the seven main casts, three of which were kids. So my main assistant Terhas Berhe and I went to dozens of schools in Addis Ababa in search of the right children for the roles. In addition, we walked around the streets approaching people, putting up flyers, advertised on the national radio, and so on.

But before I begun casting, I had made a list of the characteristics needed to play the protagonist, Ephraim, including having the ability to tap into his emotion; being wounded by some childhood trauma, but still knows how to love & be loved; no fear of the camera; no fear of foreigners behind the camera; can handle the physical and psychological stresses of a feature film production full-time.

Radiat Amare possessed all of these features and more. He was tough, generous and funny. He withstood carsickness and the cold climate of the high elevation to give a most honest performance at every take. Within a month, he learned enough English, French and German to crack jokes with the international crew. Radiat just radiated joy!

From all the cast, Kidist Siyum was the one whom I knew at first sight to be the right person for the rebel teen role. This is after having seen hundreds of high school girls. And throughout the shoot, Kidist distinctly evoked the lioness that is Tsion.

The press kit lists most of the crew as French or German, including Bertrand Bonello’s regular DoP Josée Deshaies. Can you tell how that came about?

The majority of the crew were in fact Ethiopian. But as there are not many high-level film professionals in the country with the type of experience needed for this production, some crewmembers had to come from abroad. In addition to the 7 French and 3 Germans, there were 2 Kenyans and 1 Belgian.

My Ghanaian producer, Ama Ampadu, introduced me to Josée Deshaies. The director Geraldine Bajard had recommended Josée to her. When I saw Josée’s work and then got to meet her in person, it became clear to me that I could collaborate with her to create a cinematography that would be as distinct as the geography of the shoot. She and I discussed a lot about how to tell a story that treads between realism, fable and fantasy, before finding the right cinematic language to capture it.

Upon arrival in Ethiopia, Josée said she saw nothing of the cliché Africa in the country. The fact that she had never been there before was a plus for Ama and me. She was a neutral Canadian in a country with not much ties to Europe. We knew she would have the unique perspective we wanted for this film.

Lamb was hailed as the first Ethiopian entry in the Cannes festival. With the international acclaim for your film and last year’s Difret, do you think we are on the brink of the emergence of Ethiopian world cinema, or will most productions still be mainly aimed at the home market? How did you go about getting funding for a project like this?

Ethiopians yearn to see images of themselves and their stories on the big screen. That is why they flock and fill up most of the movie theaters in the cities. However, the art of cinema has yet to be fully realized in the country. The film industry needs development in all areas: financial, technical and artistic. Until those huge needs are met, most productions will remain at the local level.

To find funding for a film with children and animals based in Ethiopia was no easy task. It was a combination of the screenplay winning many grants as well as the brilliant hard work of my producers that enabled Lamb to come alive.

Lamb first won a script development fund at the Amiens Film Festival in 2012. Ama and I had already started working with our French producer, Laurent Lavolé (Gloria Films Production). The script then gained funding from the CNC Aide au Cinema Du Monde.

In early 2013, we were lucky to secure a French distributor, Haut et Court, as well as international sales agents Films Distribution. I am extremely grateful and indebted to both for believing in the project at such an early stage, and for their incredible kindness and constant attention. During that year, the project was part of the Cannes Atelier de Cinefondation. There we met our German partners, Johannes Rexin and Bettina Brokemper (Heimat Film).

From this moment right up to the beginning of the film shoot, the project secured funding from the following institutes and regions: ARTE/ZDF, Doha Film Institute, Vision Sud Est, Sorfond (via our Norwegian co-producer Alan Milligan of Film Farms), the French-German mini treaty, and La Region Aquitaine, via our Bordeaux-based French co-producer, David Hurst (Dublin Films).

Being in the official selection in Cannes has given Lamb a lot of exposure. What’s next for the film?

In Cannes, Lamb was sold to Denmark, Mexico, Taiwan, Turkey, South Asia, amongst others. We already had French, German, and Swiss distribution before Cannes. Negotiations are underway with other territories as well. The film has also been fortunate to be selected to other A-list Festivals, which will open up other markets. It is not easy to sell a film from the African continent, especially in dialogue that is not European, so this is fantastic! I hope Lamb will continue to do well so as to open doors for the future funding of filmmakers from the continent and also for the distribution of their work. The connection people (from all walks of life) have had so far with, first the script, and now the film is a testament to my dream realized.

What is your personal ambition, both short and long-term? Will you continue to tell the stories of your home country, or do you wish to expand your view at some point?

A good story connects us as human beings regardless of where it takes place. Currently, I have two scripts in development. One based in my home country and the other in the Western world — could be Paris or New York. Both stories differ in concept as much as they do in geography. We shall see which one is made first.

For the far future, I still retain my dream of restoring some of the indigenous forests in northern Ethiopia.

Photo credit © Adrian O. Smith