Ethiopia’s first success at the Cannes Film Festival tells a simple tale, but the film's director has set his sights on the world stage thanks to support from the French film industry.
Having successfully premiered “Lamb” in the director’s home city of Addis Ababa earlier this month, the filmmakers have turned their attention to their next important release: in France on September 30.
Earlier this year, “Lamb” became the first Ethiopian film selected for the Cannes Film Festival. It tells the story of a young boy, Ephraim, who is sent by his father to live with his extended family far from home. Ephraim’s only friend is a lamb called Chuni, but his uncle wants to slaughter it for a forthcoming religious festival, setting the clock ticking for this unlikely cinematic pairing.
From the earliest days of scriptwriting to the final days of post-production, this thoroughly Ethiopian cinematic rendition has overcome numerous challenges – thanks to the French film industry.
“When I first read 'Lamb' it was obvious to me there was an audience for such a film in France,” said Ghanaian producer Ama Ampadu, who lives in Paris and studied in France. “French audiences have developed a taste for African cinema through the works of African directors like Abderrahmane Sissako, director of ‘Timbuktu’. And when you delve into how these films came about, you will find a French component – it could be the financing, the crew, the world sales agent [or the] producers.”
“It’s not a commercial film, which I like,” said 33-year-old filmgoer Daniel Meles after the Addis Ababa premiere. “For my generation, it’s the first film to take us into the countryside, beyond Addis Ababa.”
“Lamb” began as a 20-page master’s thesis while director Yared Zeleke was a student at New York University film school. A professor later encouraged him to turn it into a feature-length version.
The script won a development fund award in 2012 from the Amiens Film Festival, leading to opportunities for a potential film, said Zeleke, 37.
Meanwhile, Zeleke and Ampadu began working with French producer Laurent Lavolé of France-based Gloria Films Production.
“When we pitched for funding, it was difficult convincing people to back a film with children and animals, and which we wanted to do in the mountains of Ethiopia,” Ampadu said. “But being based in France, I understand the industry and knew a lot could be obtained here.”
The script gained further funding from CNC Aide aux cinémas du monde. Then in early 2013 the film secured help from French distributor Haut et Court and French international sales agent Films Distribution.
“This showed potential funders there was a market for the film, and that once made, the film would get to audiences worldwide, including France,” Ampadu said.
Eventually the film secured its goal of a €1.5 million budget, primarily through European film organisations – half of them French – and through the EU-funded Africa, Caribbean and Pacific Cultural Sector programme. In January of 2014 casting began in Addis Ababa.
Ethiopia has a bustling indigenous film industry, but it took a multinational effort to make a film worthy of international attention, Zeleke said.
The mostly Ethiopian crew was supplemented with equipment and high-level technicians from France, Germany and Kenya, who brought essential expertise.
Another benefit of this type of collaboration is that local film crews learn from more experienced filmmakers, Ampadu said. This knowledge is then brought back with them to the local industry.
All post-production took place outside Ethiopia, including editing with a second French producer, David Hurst, in Bordeaux and Paris.
Despite its international influences, the film retains a quintessentially rural Ethiopian character far removed from the West.
The film's dialogue is in Amharic, accompanied by Ethiopian music. Homes have dirt floors, lack electricity and women cook over a small indoor flame. Days are spent engaged in subsistence farming and simple pursuits. Religious festivals are the main source of excitement (one notable scene features an electrifying communal dance).
And it all occurs against the backdrop of the majestic Ethiopian highlands, captured by French-Canadian cinematographer Josée Deshaies, who recently shot “Saint Laurent” and was introduced to Ampadu by French director Géraldine Bajard.
“Josée and I discussed how to tell a story that treads between realism, fable and fantasy, before finding the right cinematic language to capture it,” Zeleke said, noting that it helped that Deshaies was new to Ethiopia. “We knew she would have the unique perspective we wanted for this film.”
Ethiopia’s cinematic arrival?
"Lamb” follows in the footsteps of another internationally acclaimed Ethiopian film, “Difret”, which won the World Cinematic Dramatic Audience Award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival for its portrayal of the Ethiopian tradition of kidnapping child brides.
Could these successes herald Ethiopia's arrival on the world cinema stage?
“The art of cinema has yet to be fully realised in the country,” Zeleke said. “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.”
Because of its French contributions, “Lamb” actually qualifies as a French film, Ampadu notes, and thereby benefits from being part of uniFrance – the French agency that promotes French films worldwide.
At Cannes, “Lamb” was sold to Denmark, Mexico, Taiwan and parts of South Asia, among others. After its French debut the film will be released in Switzerland and in Germany by the end of November.
There are other film competitions to come. At the BFI London Film Festival in October it will compete for the Sutherland Award in the First Feature Competition. Then there is the Best Foreign Language Film category at the next Oscars – if “Lamb” gets selected.
“I just want to get through all this and not get any hopes up,” Zeleke said on the night of the Addis Ababa premiere.
“Maybe it’s my Ethiopian upbringing – we tend to be overly cautious and reserved.”
A scene from "Lamb". Photo courtesy of “Lamb” filmmakers
Yared Zeleke, director of “Lamb”, stood outside the Ethiopian National Theatre in Addis Ababa before his film’s premiere. Photo: James Jeffrey
Some of the film’s cast: (left to right) Rahel Teshome, Rediat Amare, Kidist Siyum. Photo: James Jeffrey
The inside of the Ethiopian National Theatre starts to fill before the premiere of “Lamb”. Photo: James Jeffrey
Another scene from "Lamb". Photo courtesy of “Lamb” filmmakers
Director Yared Zeleke is interviewed at the Ethiopian National Theatre before his film’s premiere. Photo: James Jeffrey.
Actor Solomon Teka, who plays the role of a monk in "Lamb". Photo: James Jeffrey