An image from the documentary of the subject Yeshi Kassa.

Making ‘Grandpa Was An Emperor’ helped Yeshi Kassa come to terms head on, not only with her identity, but also with the complex legacy of her great-grandfather.

Photo courtesy of Constance Marks Productions.

The Complicated Family History at the Heart of 'Grandpa Was An Emperor'

In the documentary, the late Emperor Haile Selassie’s great-granddaughter, Yeshi Kassa, goes searching for answers about her painful past, as well as that of her home country.

It took almost a half-century to tell the intricate story that forms the crux of ‘Grandpa Was An Emperor,’ the riveting documentary directed by veteran American filmmaker Constance Marks (Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, Green Chimneys). This multi-generational saga goes back to Ethiopia in the year of 1974 when the imperial ruler and spiritual leader of the Rastafari movement, Emperor Halie Selassie was deposed in a violent coup. The majority of his imperial family was either massacred or sent to prison by the Derg, the military Marxist-Leninist junta comprising mostly junior officers that seized power.

Yeshi Kassa, the great-granddaughter of the deposed emperor, has carried this brutal story with her all her life. With Grandpa Was An Emperor, she finally gets the chance to tell it. And what a story it is.

Premiering to warm reviews at DocNYC, Grandpa Was An Emperor is executive-produced by Cynthia Erivo’s company, Edith’s Daughter, and is now available for rental or purchase on iTunes/Apple TV and Amazon. The film is at once a sprawling saga, an act of remembrance, a historical lesson and a correction of the record. Kassa, who now works as an office manager in New York City, embarks on a cathartic journey of self-reflection as she attempts to wrestle with her identity, as well as the family legacy in Ethiopia and beyond.

She shares her recollections of spending time with the emperor, painting a picture of a devoted family man and ruler who beheld his right to rule as divine. The film delves into Selassie’s legacy; the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, his failures in addressing the Wollo famine that killed an estimated 200,000 Ethiopians, the student uprising that preceded this, the and the eventual coup that led to the emperor’s fall from grace. While many historical accounts wrap things up at this point, Grandpa Was An Emperor dives deeper into the fallout of the coup, and details from a personal perspective how the imperial family was impacted by the change of guard.

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Through Kassa’s eyes, Marks details Selassie’s confinement and subsequent death, the lengthy imprisonment of the members of the royal family, including Kassa’s mother and grandmother, as well as the “Black Saturday” extrajudicial executions of 60 former high officials of the imperial government, including Kassa’s father. “It was our story from our perspective,” Kassa tells OkayAfrica via Zoom from her home in New York City.

She continues, giving passion to her voice: “One of the things that upset me was the Derg people were writing books and giving interviews but at no time did any of them mention His Majesty or the Imperial women who were old when they went to prison, and still kept there for 15 years. No rationale as to why they killed the 60 ministers and academics, or what happened to grandpa. There was an ignoring of what they had done. There are also lots of Ethiopians who were impacted by Derg very negatively and lost more family members than I did. There was literally no one telling our side of the story.”

Kassa says her family had been mulling their own side of the story, if for nothing to set the record straight, at least. They were yet to decide on what format would be best–a book or a film– when Kassa happened to meet Marks by chance. The two women had volunteered to participate in the annual count of New York’s homeless population. “We started talking and I just fell in love with her [mission] to tell the truth,” Marks reveals before adding, “She asked if we could be friends, I said, ‘Yes, of course.’ Within a couple of days, over tea, she told me the story. I suggested more people may have exposure to a film. One thing led to another, and I told her I was a filmmaker. She didn’t know this. The family asked me if I could help them tell their story and it was a privilege and honor, and I was only too happy to do it.”

An image from the documentary of an old photo of Haile Selassie\u2019s family.Yeshi Kassa can be seen as a child in this old photo with her great grandfather Emperor Haile Selassie.Photo courtesy of Constance Marks Productions.

Still, it wasn’t a matter as simple as that. Balancing the interests and reservations of multiple family members scattered around different parts of the world proved to be a delicate undertaking. And there were also the sensitivities around dealing with some members not wanting to talk. Since leaving Ethiopia, the Imperial family – or what was left of it – had largely avoided political maneuverings or occasions that would dredge up long-buried memories. The wounds still run deep. Kassa’s mother, Princess Seble Desta, who was, herself, a working royal and often accompanied the emperor on official trips, had turned down several interview requests in the past.

But because Marks’ relationship with Kassa started with a genuine friendship, it was easier to get the family to trust her and her longtime producer, Corinne LaPook. “The thing that won us over was that they took so much time to know my family; my mother and siblings,” Kass says. “It was also partially that my mother was ready to make the film at that time in her life. My mother really felt that Corinne and Connie [Constance] would be good to help us tell our story the way we wanted it told. Because a lot of times when people come to us, they have a political or social agenda.”

Consent was an ongoing negotiation, with the production team making concessions when they needed to. Marks says she did not shy away from asking the tough questions and sometimes pushed the family members to uncomfortable places, but she was always gentle in the asking. During one of the visits to DC, Princess Seble Desta — who passed away in January this year — agreed to film on camera. Kassa recalls: “My mother spoke for a long time that day and watched some upsetting clips. We got back to New York and my sister called on her behalf saying that my mother had even more things to add. That’s when we realized that we all were very comfortable with them.”

An image from the documentary of Yeshi Kassa\u2019s late mother Princess Seble Desta.The documentary features interviews with family members, like Yeshi Kassa’s late mother, Princess Seble Desta, who spoke for the first time on record about the coup of Emperor Haile Selassie.Photo courtesy of Constance Marks Productions.

Filming started in May 2015, with a pandemic pause before eventual release. During this time, people grew up, graduated school or started families. Kassa found some of the shoot demands challenging but soldiered on bravely. Speaking with members of the Derg was particularly uncomfortable for her. In what is perhaps the film’s most memorable scene, Kassa is seen threatening hell through an interlocutor to former president Mengistu Haile Mariam upon learning there was a possibility of his return to Ethiopia from exile in Zimbabwe.

Kassa talks more about her pain, tearing up visibly at the recollection. “The most difficult part for me, because I had genuinely avoided it, was going to the Red Terror martyrs’ museum in Addis Ababa, and seeing countless pictures of people who had died during the Derg, and the boxes of bones. That was very tough to do.”

“It was awful for me as well,” Marks corroborates. “Yeshi knew she wanted to be there to see it, but it was so painful. At this point she is my friend, so it is hard to feel like you are responsible for encouraging somebody’s pain, even though it is the right thing to do.”

When completed, Marks showed the film to the family with the slim expectation that she would be asked to make some changes. It was important to her that her primary audience be satisfied with the story going out into the world. “Our first audience is the family and if they’re not happy, that’s not to say we’ll recut it and change history,” says Marks. “If there is something offensive or problematic, we would work with them to find another way to do it. But there were zero requests for changes, which is awesome.”

An image from the documentary of a photo of women standing and holding a Vigil for Ethiopian Women Political Prisoners sign.Through Yeshi Kassa’s eyes, the documentary also details the lengthy imprisonment of members of the royal family, including Kassa’s mother and grandmother.Photo courtesy of Constance Marks Productions.

Grandpa Was An Emperor has been liberating for Kassa as it has helped her come to terms head on, not only with her identity, but also with the complex legacy of her great-grandfather. For the longest time she denied herself any relationship with Ethiopia, and actively avoided any discussions about the past because the emperor remains such a divisive figure among Ethiopians. Making the film opened her up to academics and historians who offered more measured, researched interventions.

Kassa has found such thoughtful interrogations of Selassie’s legacy rewarding, and is now in a better headspace to embrace the good and reflect on the bad. She is particularly pleased by the African Union’s eventual acknowledgment of Selassie’s role in Pan-Africanism, as symbolized by the 2019 unveiling of a statue in his likeness in the African Union headquarters. Selassie was a founding father of the AU’s predecessor organization, the Organization of African Unity.

Kassa and Marks have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support that has come their way since the film’s premiere. Even though they haven’t screened it in Ethiopia, the diaspora community has been welcoming of the film, with each screening provoking a kind of reckoning in which people have been emboldened to share their stories. Kassa is proud of this, and expresses her gratitude: “A friend of mine said to me that a lion tells its own tales. I am glad we were able to tell our tale.”