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Cinema Africa: Yared Zeleke On Making 'Lamb', The First Ethiopian Official Selection At Cannes

Okayafrica sits down with 'Lamb' director Yared Zeleke, whose debut feature became Ethiopia's first-ever Official Selection at Cannes.

Yared Zele, the director of Lamb - ©Adrian O. Smith


In the first installment of Okayafrica's new Cinema Africa series, Neyat Yohannes sits down with 'Lamb' director Yared Zeleke, whose debut feature became Ethiopia's first-ever Official Selection at Cannes.

Yared Zeleke is the Addis Ababa-born director responsible for the very first Ethiopian film to be an Official Selection at Cannes Film Festival in its entire 68-year run. His debut feature film, Lamb was screened in the Un Certain Regard category for 2015. It follows a boy on a quest to reunite with his father and to save his beloved copper-colored ewe from being slaughtered. With the lush backdrop of the fecund Northern Ethiopian hillsides and seemingly simple stories that unfurl to expose nuanced narratives, Lamb reveals a side of Ethiopia not often seen by the rest of the world. Zeleke has been busy globetrotting for festival season, but he took a break to talk to Okayafrica about his critically acclaimed film.

Neyat Yohannes for Okayafrica: How did you decide on Lamb for your first major project?

Yared Zeleke: Basically, it’s my childhood. I left Ethiopia at age ten and despite the war and the famine and the political chaos going on at the time, I had a fairytale of a childhood growing up near Merkato in Addis Ababa. My family and community protected us kids from the horrors of the time, so all I remember is so much good food and affection and colorful personalities and the holiday festivities.

I just left behind this really happy childhood for a so-called better life in the U.S. At age ten, I left by myself, on a plane, to go meet the father I didn’t know who was in the U.S. at the time and had escaped Derg. That was the end of my childhood; I left behind everyone I knew and loved. I carried that with me all these years, and so, when I decided to do a story about a boy who’s lost his family and is living in a new hostile environment, the theme is very much my life story—even though I never grew up on a farm and I don’t cook or anything like that.

Lamb doesn’t spend time explaining Ethiopian customs. It just drops viewers into the mix to observe and comprehend for themselves. Was this intentional?

Well, you know, that’s interesting. I wouldn’t say that it’s intentional. When I did the story, first, I wanted to be honest with myself. I wanted to do an honest story where everything felt like it came from a real place. And then, as far as the thought of an audience, that was secondary. I did think of an audience in certain moments, and when I did, I thought of both an Ethiopian and a Western audience. That, by the way, continues to the editing process. Because there are some things like the lekso, the crying scene--that's a complete mystery to outside people. It's really confusing. And actually, the original cut was very dramatic, like a real Ethiopian lekso, but I had to really reduce that scene because along the way, you have to think about which audience you're addressing.

However, because I was trying to do a story fundamentally about a boy dealing with loss, I just sort of followed that story. The context happens to be in this part of the world--you see what I mean--and so, that's why I think maybe you get a sense like it is what it is. I won't explain everything. But at the same time, I don't want to leave it as too much of an enigma either. It's about trying to find a balance between yourself and a Habesha audience and a worldwide audience, it's a balance.

The film may focus on a community with traditional values but there’s definitely some gender bending present. Ephraim has a knack for cooking and Tsion would rather flip through a newspaper than tend to domestic duties. Is this a nod at progress? How did you come to incorporate this study of gender roles into the film?

A nod at progress, yes, that's exactly what it is. I'm really proud of Ethiopia in general terms because I know it was really problematic not long ago and things are getting better. And of course, historically, one good thing--among the dark things--that Communism brought to the country is gender equality. But the thing is, it doesn't matter. Our poverty is forcing us to seek aid from quote unquote developed countries, which do impose certain progressive policies both environmental and gender, etc. so there are reasons why it is becoming what it is. But I'm really proud, the country is making progress.

You know, I've gone to so many Q&A's in so many countries and the gender question comes up all the time. Most Westerners assume that Ethiopia is patriarchal and I've said that it depends on the ethnic group and the tribe you come from. It also depends whether it's rural or urban. And of course it's much better in the urban places, but it's not black and white. And for a lot of Ethiopian cultures it's your age, not your gender, that garners your respect and power. And that's why you see mama the way she is [in the film]. They sort of impose this cliché idea "Oh it's Third World so it must mean men rule everything” and I'm like no, we're not exactly Arabia, you know. We're a Judeo-Christian culture, mostly. We really stand out in the region. I tell audiences about how Ethiopian Airlines is the only one with an all-female crew. Like with female technicians, hostesses, and pilots. And I get people clapping like crazy when they hear that. Most people, even educated people, are quite simple in their understanding of that part of the world.

Ephraim and Chuni in Lamb - ©Yared Zeleke

How did you choose Chuni’s name and what was the process of selecting the lamb to play her like? Was she challenging to work with?

So first, the easy part, the name. I had several names for her before Chuni. She used to be called Qey, which means red. As well as Carrot, because in the previous version [of the film] she loves carrots. But then, I came up with Chuni, which means "dear" in Amharic--a term of endearment. So I figured, that's really nice. It's not a common name, you don't say it to a person that often, and dear is like so sweet. The French producers didn't like the other names for various reasons but they all liked Chuni and we settled on that. That was actually a big issue in the script, believe it or not, because they wanted something an international audience could find sweet [sounding] too.

As far as the lamb, I chose the Gonder lamb because one, we were shooting there and two, because they're so beautiful. They're all this like copper, auburn color. They're like strawberry blondes, all of them. You know, Ethiopians take their beauty for granted but they're so special. It was easy to get lookalikes. Everyone thinks I just chose her for her color but I'm like, no, it's a Northern Ethiopian breed. So I chose five and what we did was, we brought them in a truck to Addis Ababa--I don't know how they survived--and luckily we found a big space for free, where we could raise them and protect them and have them close enough to the boy, so that he could individually train them to have them become attached to him because if you keep them as a herd, they behave like a herd. Naturally, one female will be dominant and they all follow her. Probably, Chuni might've been the dominant one because the whole shoot, it was only one lamb because she was just simply smarter than all of them. So I'm really happy about that. I try to share that as much as I can, it's just one lamb. It's really incredible, we were really lucky. I mean, we always had the other four on set but she was just so consistent. But it's very difficult to work with animals; it's very risky and I'm not sure I'll ever do it again.

The cinematography is gorgeous and the rural Ethiopian hillsides make for such a beautiful shooting location, but I imagine it must’ve been difficult. Was it jarring for the locals to stumble upon a film set in their village?

It's very interesting because there's such a big difference between the highlanders and the lowlanders. They're both Gondere, the same religion, the same ethnic group and everything so I don't know why, but the lowlanders--which, luckily we were only there for three days for the beginning of the film where the boy comes from--they were more temperamental and really gave us hell. They were suspicious of us [and thought] that we might be Protestants or Pentecostals or something like that.

Luckily, the majority of the shoot was done in the highlands and they were like, as cool as their climate. It's incredible. They were just so sweet and so curious and so eager and always smiling--you know that Ethiopian smile--and it was very beautiful. I mean, it was like a blessing. It was a beautiful shoot; very difficult, with almost 10,000 meters and so much fog. It's a very risky film, oh my God, but here we are!

Ephraim and his parents in Lamb - ©Yared Zeleke

While Lamb is universally relatable, I’m sure it possesses a nostalgic quality for those who grew up in Ethiopia. How have your loved ones back home received the film?

They really appreciated it. One uncle, who's not very educated and is not really exposed to this type of cinema ever, he said, “you told many stories in one.” So I guess he meant it was layered. "It seemed so simple, but it was so full of stories," he said. And another [relative] said that I told her childhood story. So yes, it's been very beautiful. They sort of understood the depth. My family, they're not educated for the most part, but they understood the depth and really connected with it and felt so saddened by it. They were really touched.

But I have to tell you, CNN has a show called Inside Africa and they did a half hour show on this film. They went to Gonder, where I shot the film in this village you asked me about before, and they took them on a bus and showed it to them on a screen. That was my dream, I wanted to do that one day when I had time and money, which it seems like I never will because I don’t know the next time I’ll go to Ethiopia. They basically did what I wished to do one day, which is they screened it for them. At the end of the program, you should see what they say. It's so beautiful. They said, in this beautiful proper Amharic, what they felt about it and that was probably the best thing anyone could ever say to me about this film. More than any review--which have been good, I've been lucky--and more than any audience, what I heard from those villagers, that means the most.

Are there any filmmakers—or non-filmmakers—who have particularly influenced your work?

It runs the gamut to be honest. It's all over the place, in terms of the people who've influenced me. I would say, for example, Robert Bresson, he's a French director, Stephen Frears, he's a British director, Shekhar Kapur, an Indian director. Lorraine Hansberry who wrote A Raisin in the Sun. Mulukken Melesse, is probably my favorite Ethiopian musician. He's very haunting in his lyrics. I have influences from all over. Tolstoy, it's all over, it's too long.

What were you doing when you found out Lamb was an Official Cannes Selection?

I was editing, believe it or not, the sound of the film with the German sound engineers in Paris. You know what's weird? We turned Lamb in late--as you can see, we were still editing it--and so because we turned it in late, in the official announcement, it wasn't announced. No one knows this. We thought we were out. This is like the story of my life, I'm always the last to enter everywhere. So I had sort of given up hope and I was like, it wasn't meant to be and it's fine, but it's an honor that it was even considered. So I thought that I didn't get into Cannes.

I've never told this to any press, no one ever knew this, but it was days after the official announcement. If you actually look it up in the official announcement, it wasn't there. But my film and a film from Colombia that's also getting buzz called Embrace of the Serpent, they both came in late and the president of Cannes was asked, "How come you accepted the Colombian and Ethiopian films so late, like two or three days later than the others?" and he said "Because they came in late." But clearly, now, they're both doing like really well, and we have the same distributors and everything and we were both in Palm Springs recently and in Norway together. We've become friends, that director and I.

Do you have any future projects in the works that we can get excited about?

Yes! Thanks for that question. So the previous film was about childhood, Lamb. And the next film is going to be about youth and it'll have that frenetic, chaotic energy of youth. So it'll be a lot faster and madder and crazier than Lamb in a way. But it's really about these brilliant, beautiful but struggling, Ethiopian youth that are taking on dangerous journeys for a better life elsewhere. But I'm not going to do the cliché. I'm not going to do the "Africa: victim of poverty and war, we are suffering and miserable, etcetera" [angle]. I'm not going to do that. I'm going to do something with my signature, as my friend calls it.

My next film is partially about class, by the way. It begins with the upper middle class family in the city. I mean, people were shocked to see so much green in the mountains in Ethiopia--they thought it was a flat desert--so I think when they see this new one, with the new bourgeois in Ethiopia, it will also shock them. It's not the image they have of Ethiopia, so it'll be interesting to see the reactions around the world. People don't even think the middle class exists in Ethiopia so they're in for another surprise, I think.

Neyat Yohannes is an Eritrean-American freelancer who’s from LA, but just moved to the Bay. You can follow her twitter @rhymeswithcat or check out her portfolio here.

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