‘When I speak to a lot of people they say, “if you work hard, you’re going to be in the western market,” but you know, I’m not a westerner. I’m an Ethiopian.’
This was 26-year old filmmaker, Semagngeta Aychiluhem, reflecting on what it is that he, and many other artists in Africa, are trying to convey through their work. As a producer, director and scriptwriter, his work ranges from comedy and satire (TV) to social themes via his film shorts.
We met earlier this year in a north London café, where we bonded over some ‘not as good as Ethiopian’ coffee and spoke about his central mission to tell local and national stories internationally.
In the UK for the first time, Semagngeta’s trip followed a previous proposal for a ‘new arts’ grant that he didn’t get.
‘I wasn’t disappointed’ he says. ‘The panel loved the idea and wanted me to develop it further, so they supported me to come here to see the contemporary culture of the UK.’
Even before he left Addis Ababa, he’d made collaborative inroads with a southwest-England-based composer,Joe Hill.
‘A friend of mine lives in Bristol’ Semagngeta explains. ‘She posted about my film on a creatives’ Facebook group and Joe contacted me. Most of the people I’ve met in my career, I met online.’
After listening to Joe’s work, Semagngeta had an innate sense that a two-way collaboration involving digital tools and platforms would enable him to expand on a specific theme. Dreamsis the resulting film and collaborative project title.
‘Everyone has dreams’ he says, ‘but what affects our ability to reach them is the thought of not having resources. We wanted to show people that you don’t need to have everything; you just have to work towards it.’
Plans between the two artists are to shoot with their cell phones, and to use the same devices to compose the film’s music.
‘I haven’t had a lot of sessions with Joe but his sounds are very experimental and one thing I really wanted was to have a fresh ear. Sometimes I don’t want to know too much.’
Dreams will run for a maximum of 20 minutes and will complement Semagngeta’s growing portfolio. ‘I’ve made about 12 films so far’ he says. ‘A lot are also experimental, but not in the western way. ’
By this he refers to his often 1-minute-only shorts with ‘cheap lighting that can still look like Netflix productions.’
Visual imagination and projected ambition are embedded in Dreams, with these themes taken almost literally from Semagngeta’s personal experiences.
‘I’m actually an airline engineer’ he says, with some pride.
It’s an area of design expertise that he excelled in, as early notions of being a filmmaker took a predictable back seat to family aspirations. The airline route wasn’t just his dad’s dream, it was also a broader, societal desire for success that went way beyond his immediate household.
As a child, Semagngeta loved films, but had no idea you could actually make one. ‘I thought it was just something you could see’ he recalls, ‘especially in Ethiopia. We didn’t have many Amharic movies, but we saw a lot of Hollywood. A lot of Jackie Chan. That was our favourite. I didn’t know I was a director then, but even though we couldn’t understand the language, I would try to mimic everything with my friends. We were very particular on seeing the action bits.’
Hollywood had kick-started an early passion; as had Bollywood. ‘We had video houses’ he recalls. ‘These were small spaces where people would put up film poster adverts. You’d pay about 50 cents and there would be a normal TV, packed with a lot of people and a guy sitting next to [it] translating the Indian. Literally singing and translating.’
All good fun, but to his father, movies were an unnecessary distraction. ‘He thought they would put me off my study, but I convinced him that if I watched movies to learn English, I could read more. He trusted me, so if you went to our home, you’d see a lot of VHS cassettes.’ He laughs at this memory.
However, having been ‘told’ he had to be a pilot, he studied mechanical engineering – becoming one of the top scorers in his class. With resourceful thinking, Semagngeta was quick to turn this educational arena into a perfect creative outlet. With free wi-fi and fast connections during the night, he started a three-year period of self-taught movie making.
‘I’d download everything I needed and then have it in the daytime when I’d also do tutorials in Amharic.’
This routine, plus his guerrilla-style filmmaking … ‘a friend had a friend who had a brother who had a Samsung’ … meant his films could be shot by phone as part of his creative strategy.
Throughout this time, there was never a desire to replicate films from the mainstream industries he’d grown up watching, but instead to work towards creating a robust film foundation in Ethiopia.
The local to global route for Semagngeta’s storytelling developed a few years back with his 2016 film My Happiness. A tale of sexual violence within a family, this three-minute short reflects many of his scripts, which are based on hard-hitting topics – race, life, love, identity – all infused with comedy. My Happiness has since made its way to seven international festivals including Silicon Valley African Film Festival, Slum Film Festival(Nairobi), Festival Internatiozionale del Cinema d’Arte as well as a showing at this year’s European Film Festival.
So far it’s film shorts and TV direction – produced through his companyGuzo(meaning journey) – rather than longer form movie making that’s been his focus.
‘We do a lot of auditions and have a library of tapes’ he says of his team and collaborators, many of which are sourced through Telegram– Ethiopia’s version of WhatsApp.
Trying to avoid the trap of getting overexcited about making a feature with no real money behind it, there’s far more focus on the essence of what his company name stands for.
Also, it’s technology that Semagngeta sees as a natural driving force for his output.
‘I think my films are influenced by how modern our society is becoming,’ he says. ‘Also, being Ethiopian we have never been colonised and so we have our own culture. My films are affected by all of this.’
He’s been at his craft just about long enough for his family to have a deeper understanding about it; but they’re perhaps still in the early phase of fully absorbing his career.
‘My father still says, if this film thing doesn’t work out can you go back to the airline?’ he says. ‘This is because when my parents see the things I’ve done on TV, it’s usually around 26 minutes of sitcoms, so they think I have a 26-minute job. Not something that took two years to make.’
This is a reflection of Ethiopia’s older society, and the fact that filmmaking hasn’t yet become a mainstream industry. Although there are many more cinemas in Ethiopia than there were a few decades ago, the market for Amharic films is still small, and people aren’t generally going out to see movies.
Semagngeta: ‘I think really, the creative industry in Ethiopia is like a 17-year-old-boy. A blossoming teenager. A lot of people my age are in different creative sectors now. Music, fashion, brands, photography… Even the official photographer for the Prime Minister is from our generation. A lot of things are going to happen in the future.’
Right now, the film sector in Ethiopia doesn’t have a central identity – or a collective name, ‘ …and I don’t want it to be a “Wood”’ says Semagngeta, referencing the three biggest powerhouses.
Keen to continue to pass on the knowledge he started disseminating while at college, his main interest is in the creative groundwork that will help the country’s arts scene mature.
‘One thing I really want to see in Ethiopia is a creative space where people can sit, talk to each other and also have free internet. EverythingI know about film comes from online’ he says.
This statement comes after having visited the Barbican Centre’s performance space in London as well as the multi-arts Watershed (Bristol), where the levels of digital accessibility in both venues made an immediate impression.
‘All you see when you walk into these places is a lot of creative people working,’ he says. ‘That also creates collaboration. Imagine if I had that kind of place in Addis. It would be amazing, but it’s not something that could be done by an individual. It has to be collective, and the government has to be on it.’
And it’s not just the ministry. The commercial world is also implicated.
Semagngeta: ‘In Ethiopia there’ll be a lot of companies that will say they had 71million birr of profit in a year, but yet they wouldn’t have even 0.1% of this to give to the creative industry.’
Despite ongoing internet blackouts, there’s still optimism around changes in political thinking, which is the result of powerful digitally-led revolutions that have happened in the last few years.
‘Social media has forced the government to take notice’ says Semagngeta, ‘and things you see on the screen can start to change the way people think.’
Photography by Gad Kiflom and Biniyam Dejene