Saturday, June 21, 2008

A conversation with Eritrean filmmaker Ambessa Jir Berhe

Ambessa jir Berhe

Issayas Tesfamariam: Can you tell my readers about yourself?

Ambessa Jir Berhe: I am an independent filmmaker based in Washington DC. I was born in Eritrea where I spent my early childhood and came to America through Ethiopia. When I think of it now, the seed of my film making career started as far back as Mendefera, Eritrea. Since I was very little, I have always loved films. I used to be very determined to see all the films shown in the local movie theaters even though my family thought movies were a distraction for my education. They never allowed me to watch as much as I desired hence I was a handful and obsessed with movies. Somehow I always found a way to watch all the movies in town at the expense of getting the whooping from my mom for staying late at the movie theaters watching new Indian films.

At the same time, I was equally intrigued listening to my grandmother and relatives storytelling’s; mainly during their visits I use to stay up all night listening to their stories about the villages and the bandits. From a young age, our people manner and methods of imaging the stories had me fascinated.

All throughout my education and especially in Junior high, I watched numerous movies and dramas while remaining an avid reader as well as short stories writer. However I never really seriously considered film making until I was in college after going through my freshman year in complete confusion, where I had the opportunity to discover my true call. From then on, I didn't even hesitate to pursue my objective because I knew in my heart that I was making the right decision for my life. Since then, I was able to graduate from Scottsdale Community College majoring in Motion Picture Production, continued studying film production at Howard University to finally obtain both my BA and MFA in film production.

Since I had to support myself, I had odd jobs as I continued to write, direct, and edit short narrative films like Africa (1998), Wondering (1999), My Fate (2000), Spice my What? (2001), Last night (2003), Shigara (2005), and Shikorina's Date (2006), A-Weight-With-Words (2007), Fragmented Lives (2008). Those films have been screened at the South West Film Festival, The Eritrean Film Festival in Washington, D.C., Prosperity Media College Film and Video competition, Paul Robson Award, Rosebud Film Fest, and DC Shorts Film Fest and Regal Cinema.

Issayas: What do you think of Eritrean films and Eritrean filmmakers?

Ambessa: This is certainly a hard question to tackle because talking about Eritrean films, I can only sound very pessimistic simply due the number of years I have spent studying film and my strong opinions. After many years of studying films, I am very critical of any film mostly those bad Eritrean films. It truly irritates me. Well, please let me warn the readers that this part of the answer might be critical, thus might be considered offensive or outright arrogant but if you want to know what I feel about Eritrean films, here it is:

To me filmmaking is a very serious medium, which allows us as filmmakers, storytellers and individuals to take on a responsibility on how we can project our own stories.

With Eritrean films, this misconception of producing quality film is only becoming impressive in technical terms but doesn’t mean that Eritrean films are improving or progressive. Quality and content have to be integrated for the film industry to grow. Of course when it comes to production quality in terms of clarity of image and sound, Eritrean movies have improved, though the value of the crisp high definition (HD) or digital video (DV) image is useless if the cinematic language and story telling is absent. This is what I call a waste of time, money and talent.

I allow myself to address the issue of content because story telling is firstly about content regardless of the medium. I have been examining most of the Eritrean films since the Independence of the country. In the early nineties, the content was all about the Ethiopian occupation and the effect on Eritrean people. Then in 1998 came the war, and most of the films switched to stories about “Weyanies” and their evil deeds. Unfortunately the last four to five years, it seems Eritrean filmmakers are mostly repetitively cliché love stories. I am unsure of the outcome for the next ten years though I can affirm that it is lacking a voice. I haven’t seen any Eritrean filmmakers with a unique voice, doing something interesting and revolutionary.

Although I feel like Eritrean films need to obtain their identity first before entering the International arena, even if I hear from friends why Eritrean films are not recognized at the international level. I do believe Eritrean people have a strong identity, but I don’t see it translated into our films. As people we have our own culture and tradition and complexities. We have our own storytellers who entertained us for centuries, telling our own stories through our own methods from generation to generation. It seems that our generation has disconnected and lost the traditional way of story telling. I remember growing up, my mother, my father, and my grandmother used to tell us the Eritrean stories, about the legends and mythology and they all had a unique way of telling it.

Our fathers, grandfathers and grandmothers didn’t have radio or TV to entertain them, rather each village if not family, had storytellers to provide historical stories, fictitious tales, fables, riddles (Tsintsuway, hinkil hinkilitey) complex poetry, jokes and messages oriented stories towards kids. They use to seat under the tree in the middle of the village and tell each other mostly unpreserved stories. Every ethnic group in our country has developed a way of telling stories and here we are with our generation that has forgotten the traditional way of storytelling. The irony is that the tradition and the culture is still around us dictating our daily existences.

This change is mostly due to our contemporary storytellers who are busy trying to be modern (what ever that is), they never developed those authentic stories and storytelling’s. For me if we start from there, our uniqueness will be really authentic and based on our reality.

I will give a simple example about love. A young man is in love with this young woman and he approaches her after such an ordeal refusal, finally she agrees to go out with him and one day he goes to her neighborhood to take her out. He couldn’t knock on her door because he is afraid her mother will catch him so he sends one of the neighbor’s kids to call her and she comes out to tell him to follow her from a far. So she starts walking towards the Lovers’ cafe on the other side of the corner street, and her lover follows walking one block across her in parallel and at every cross-section, they waited for each other until they glanced at each other from a block away to continue towards their destination. For the people who saw them, they were a block away from each other but for them it’s like walking side by side. When they get to their destination in a secluded area, they are able to seat together and enjoy the company of one another. To me this story will tell every thing about the society those lovers live.

In this day and age, the filmmakers are just copying Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks love stories with complicated plot into Tigrinya, with
Celine Dion’s and Whitney Houston’s soundtrack on the background, which has nothing to do with our concept of love and the intricate habesha relationships. When you finish the film, you have no idea what the hell is going on. Now, it doesn’t mean that young Eritrean don’t express their love openly, which they really do. Nonetheless they do against the strict culture and tradition and no one is delving into that complexity and exploring it. I feel as storytellers we don’t yet have the core grip so I feel as an Eritrean filmmaker a need to bring out in our films, stories that are from our own experiences. We must also have ways of telling a story.

Another example is to look at the Iranian film industry, which is so respected around the world. Iranian filmmakers usually tell a story about their people, their traditions and the complexity of their culture as well as the modern world. They are very successful despite their difficulties with censorship and religious restrictions.

Therefore to me, until we recognize our older storytellers and are able to transfer their method into cinema we will be making a Tigrinya remake of Hollywood romantic movies. In fact it is also the problem with other African countries.

Issayas: What is your short film about? (Note: two clips from "Fragmented Lives" are presented at the end of the conversation).

Ambessa: “Fragmented Lives” is a 30 minute professionally produced short film. The story is about an Eritrean family in America. The story follows a young Eritrean American (played by Senai Medhani) who finds out that his father had left his troublesome younger brother back home in Eritrea when they went for vacation. As the film progress we see the effects of the abandoned little brother issue and how it manifests in the family and their different reactions toward that action. The mother is torn between her children and her husband, which shakes the already fractured Eritrean-American family that is already falling apart. The father is firm in his decisions. The older brother refuses to accept his brother’s abandonment thus confronts his father and decides to bring him back. The story is merely a glimpse of our problems as immigrants and dislocated people, though at the heart of the film the principal subject matter are communications and families.

All pictures courtesy of Ambessa jir Berhe

Behind the scenes : "Fragmented Lives"

Ambessa and Rob "Fragmented Lives"

Jordan Tesfay and Senai Medhane "Fragmented Lives"

Actor Senai Medhane

Actress Jordan Tesfay

Filmmaker Ambessa jir Berhe

Issayas: What do you think the role of Eritrean filmmakers (who studied film in the Diaspora: like you, me and etc.) be in the improvement of Eritrean films inside Eritrea?

Ambessa: I would've said enthusiastically yes we would help improve Eritrean films because we studied film in some university. But the reality is that we are very few and un-organized, scattered around the world doing our little film projects here and there. I don't know if the improvement of Eritrean films will come from the Diaspora Eritrean filmmakers. I think the improvement has to come out from the Eritrean filmmakers who are writing and directing in Eritrea right now. The Diaspora filmmakers are not making a Tigrinya film every month most of us in the Diaspora spend years to produce and get a project off ground.

As Eritrean filmmakers in Diaspora we can share the knowledge we acquired over the years and give film production workshops. Also we can crate an organization, start sharing ideas, information, and collaborate with promising local filmmakers. Well first we have to get a hold of our big egos in both ends and learn from each other. My believe is filmmakers who say they know everything about filmmaking, should stop making films. You learn a new experience from every film you make regardless of your prior experience.I think as Eritrean filmmakers in Diaspora if we tell our story properly and one at a time that should be a contribution.

Issayas: There are lots of Ethiopian films ( in Amharic) that are coming out, what do you think of them?

Ambessa: I get this kind of question all the time, except it is usually stated differently. People would ask me to compare between Eritrean and Ethiopian films. Some people get a kick knowing one side of film is better than the other side.

My mom told me this saying, if I remember correctly. A peasant was asked to choose which bandit is better, between a ruthless bandit from his village and a cruelest bandit from his neighbor’s village. His answer was ኩሎም ሓደ ኩሎም ሽፍታ kulom Hade kulom shifta (all the same, all bandits). So every problem that I stated above about Eritrean films also applies to Ethiopian films.

There are few Ethiopian filmmakers out side the Ethiopian film industry making interesting films. One of them is Haile Gerima a world-renowned Ethiopian filmmaker, he is making films that are internationally acclaimed and even used for film studies in universities. I might add that I have been fortunate enough to study under him and became his film student. As a filmmaker and storyteller he has tremendous influence in my progress.

Issayas: Film is a visual medium. Do you think there is a lot of dialog in Eritrean films?

Ambessa: What dialog? Every Eritrean film that I've seen is dialog- driven. I would’ve been ok if the dialog that I've seen on those films is real to life, but it's not. To me everything is spelled out and acted like a theater play. Which is also very dangerous for audiences, because audience stop participating in the story and wait for the filmmaker to spoon-feed them in a dialog format.

Film is a visual medium there is now way around it. Now if we are talking about soap operas then it’s a different question. I will demonstrate with a short scene written both ways with a lot of dialog and with limited dialog and more visual action.

An Example of dialog -driven scene.


ABEBA and KESHI TESFATSION are eating enjera.

Please eat. You haven’t touched your food.

Bless you my child. I am eating.

Let me add some stew. You didn’t even touch
in front of you.

Abeba adds more enjera and stew

It’s enough. I have enough.

You have been out side all day. You must be hungry.

Bless you my child. Bless this house.

Abeba adds more Siwa.

You are not drinking enough. Didn’t you like the
test of my siwa.

Its good. It’s testy.

Abeba's ten years old son MERON comes and stands at the door wanting to eat but couldn’t say it. Keshi Tesfahtsion sees him.

Come eat with us Meron.

No, he just ate his lunch.

He is a kid he can still eat.

Son, go out side and play with your brothers.

Meron walks out.

Now lets see the same scene, but visually driven with limited dialog.


ABEBA and KESHI TESFATSION are eating enjera. On his side of the trey it’s getting empty. Abeba sees this and adds a fresh enjera on the top of it.

She adds more stew on it. Keshi Tesfahatsion tries to stop her grabbing her hand holding the spoon full of stew.

It’s enough my child.

Come on eat. You must have a long day.

Abeba puts away the spoon and adds more Siwa on the almost full Keshi’s glass. Keshi Tesfatsion picks the glass to stop her from filling it all the way.

MERON Abeba’s ten years old son comes into the room. He stands at the entrance and looks at the food they are eating.

Keshi Tesfahatsion catches Meron looking at the food and he feels uncomfortable.

Abeba catches this and she gives Meron the evil eye, which translates that you will be in trouble after the guest leaves the house.

When Keshi Tesfahtsion looks at her she immediately softens her look and smiles like nothing happen.

Meron understands the danger of this situation and he is terrified. He starts backing out.

My son Meron, come eat with us.

Abeba furiously looks at Meron. Meron looks at the ground.

I am full. I just ate.

Meron runs out of the room.

I have more freedom and weapon to tell my story the way I want, if I make sure the story is communicated visually.

As people ,especially Habesha people, we don’t say what we really mean. If we must communicate a scene through dialog we should make it as complex as our daily lives and give the audience something to work with.

Before I end this question I have another example about telling story through visual method. When I was young ,my mom asked me to read a letter she received from a relative. I start reading very loud until I reached the third paragraph, suddenly I stopped reading. Little did I know the letter was carrying a bad news. The bad news was about a death of a sick relative. I remember standing there speechless and couldn’t continue with the letter. I knew that person was a very dear family to my mom so I couldn’t dare tell her his death. My mom could read my body language and she didn’t have to ask me what is on the next paragraph. She knew exactly what it was and she started crying uncontrollably.

If I decide to put this scenario in a movie, I am not going to waste time stating it with a dialog. The actions and reactions between me, my mom and the letter are there, all I have do is apply them into the film. So life is full of visual stories, as filmmakers we just have to look deeper than the surface and bring them alive into our stories.

Issayas: Ambessa, thank you for your time and your thoughts. I hope to see more of your works on the screen.

Ambessa: You're welcome.

Two clips below from "Fragmented Lives"

Friday, June 20, 2008

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Rainbow International School. Asmara, Eritrea

Before I went to Eritrea six months ago, a friend of mine asked me to look into Rainbow International School, which is located in Asmara, Eritrea. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to visit the school at that time. However, I searched and inquired about the school after I came back to the United States. I also had a chance to talk to Professor Asmarom Legesse (when he visited the United States in May 2008) who is the chairman of the board of managers who run the school. It would be redundant for me to go in detail here (since the information can be obtained from their website), but suffice to say that the school is owned by parents who run the school through a board of managers. Their motto reads, "every child matters." This is a brief introduction to the public about a school run by parents.

The url of the school’s website is:


The pictures are courtesy of Professor Asmerom Legesse.