Anbessa: A Beautiful Story of A Child’s Escape Into Imagination As A Coping Mechanism For Displacement
We spoke with Italian-American director Mo Scarpelli about ten-year-old Asalif and the magical world he creates to cope.
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Ten-year-old Asalif and his mother have been displaced from their Ethiopian farmland by the construction of a condominium. Now living on the divide between a new and ancient world, they are reminded that their country's big dream of "progress" is not for them.
Land developers come knocking and Asalif feels his mother's fear of further displacement.
On the other side, ferocious hyenas lurk in a dark forest and local farmers speak their lore. To fight back against all that threatens his family, Asalif transforms into a lion (anbessa in Amharic). His newfound power takes him to places he never imagined inside and out of the condo until finally, Asalif must shed the lion persona and find the strength that resides in him as a boy, in order to deal with the tides of change and violence that are usurping his family, his country, and his own identity.
In conversation, Italian American director Mo Scarpelli's, Okayafrica's Ciku Kimeria discusses this stunning observational work that is a caring portrait of those cast aside by the process of modernization.
What was the motivation for telling this particular story?
In 2015, I started roaming around an unfinished condominium complex on the outskirts of Addis Ababa. I was curious for perspective on how a rapid development scheme was playing out on an individual level, especially in a culture so historically resistant to outside influence. On the edge of miles of these empty uniform buildings outside Addis, I met a boy who was – in his own ways – confronting "progress" as it steam-rolled his world. Pushed from his previous farmland home, he was now squatting in a makeshift house on the outside of one of the biggest condominium complexes in East African history. He was living between two realities (old and new) and actively trying to find his place in a world that seemed to constantly remind him that the new promises of modernity are not meant for him, or people like him. Asalif's imagination and openness captivated me. While he and his mom had recently been displaced by the condo's construction, he is not a victim. Asalif believes he can take on the condo, and the world, when he channels the strength of his favorite animal (the lion). I discovered how crucial this symbol was for him, and this made me confront how much of the modern world rejects not only people who don't obviously fit into the capitalism tapestry, but also rejects tradition — symbols, fantasy and other age-old ways of confronting our inner selves. Asalif still embodies these things, while also adapting and trying to benefit from the new.
This theme of "outsiders" or those who have been left behind is very important in this film. Tell us a bit more about this.
On the surface, Ethiopia seems to benefit greatly from globalization. However, rapid "progress" is actively leaving millions like Asalif out of the picture. While Anbessa is set in Addis Ababa, the ways gentrification, industrialization, and capitalism push so many out of the success story are universal. But Asalif has deepened this respect, informed and challenged my own views of how good intentions and sleek narratives of modernity and "progress" are vastly more complicated than they seem. There is a quiet violence which modernization is impressing on all of us.
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What was most surprising/fascinating for you when working on Anbessa?
The boy himself - Asalif. I wanted to tell a story of someone living between the new and old world and how they are experiencing it. He brought in so much depth into the story because of the fairytale aspect of how he sees the issues his family is facing. He spins elaborate stories in order to deal with the intense forces of change and domination that are threatening him and his mother. He's in this old world of having been a child growing up in farming who now finds his family displaced and squatting in an in-between place close to the condos under construction, finding new discarded gadgets and meeting children from different social classes who make him feel sad about his family's circumstances. He doesn't fit in in either one and he creates his own reality.
What were the main challenges in the process of making the film?
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I focused most of my fundraising in the US, but eventually realized that projects such as this - creative non-fiction filmmaking, is not of interest to most US funders. In addition, the whole film is in Amharic, with subtitles of course, but it's not your regular commercial film. They prefer topical films – they want a film on displacement, or on how development is leaving people behind. As such, this observational work following a child as he goes into his fairytale world to confront his issues was not an easy one to sell. Anbessa is also a film that raises more questions than the answers it generates. Again, it's not easy to get grants in the US for such work. I was fortunate though that eventually I was able to come up with the funds to make this intuitive film.
How was the reception?
It's been quite positive with most of the success being outside the North American markets where the film's non-commercial nature is not an issue. Festivals including hotdocs 2019 and the Berlinale International Film festival have also been great for us.
Where can people watch the film?
It's available online for free on Afridocs.
Photo: Movie still