Theme, setting and others
I am not trying to pass a cut-and dry judgment but write some personal observations about most of the films that I watch over the past few years since the emergence of the ‘new’ Ethiopian cinema.
Titles:- Not few titles are in an exotic English or Anglo-Amharic vernacular; a lame endeavor to attract foreign spectators. FBI, City Boyz, Bermuda, Laundry Boy, Guantanamo, Mister X , Ladies first, Made in china, vacation from America, et cetera with other Hebrew versions like Emanda, The Land of Moriam, Macbel, Hamawiw, Ruhama are not uncommon to Ethiopian film industry.
Stories:- Thematically most of the films are filled with similar and familiar stories. Stories engrossed with rich-poor romance, alien murder stories, thrillers with western-like brutal scenes, inconsiderate erotic relationships between protagonists and other actors, ‘hey, look these bastardized versions of our jokey protagonists and giggle!’ films are fashions of this film industry.
It is now becoming a general trend to include comic stories in every Lucywood films as if the society is addicted to mass-giggling. But the truth is that stories are deliberately made entertainment centered since their production costs are cheaper and could easily generate profits and re-investable funds. Films which showed us novel directions and tried to create counter-cinematic movements like Teza and Ashenge could not stay in cinemas for weeks. The rationale behind can be recapitulated in Teshome’s remark: ‘In cases where counter-cinematic movement has occurred the existing national industry has been able to ingest it’. Haile Gerima, the director of the film Teza, also maintained his strong belief on financial capacity as a decisive factor for the cinema world.
Film themes like the clash between the rural and urban, traditional versus modern value systems very rarely appeared on the screen and encounter the same problem of ingestion by entertainment culture of the Lucywood. Very recently a film called Balageru appeared on cinema which tried to depict the intelligence and innocence of rural life against the moral decadent urban life and I personally applaud such an effort made by the film makers for their attempt to join the ‘remembrance phase’ of Third World films. Themes of films which make their foundation on folklore and mythologies are unthinkable.
Here, I am talking only thematically but the above exemplary films also lack the excellence when it comes to style. They still deny the necessity of spatial orientation and prefer the western type of temporal orientation. In fact in Teza only, long takes and wide shots are used in order to tell the spectator that the land seen is not a mere landscape but a complex interaction of man and environment. They are still way behind in providing alternative film languages. The usual film setting is generally dissociated from natural landscapes and extremely attached with artificial dwellings: spectators frequently watch characters packed in cafes, restaurants, offices, gymnasiums, supermarkets which are found in multi-storage buildings.
Costumes:- Costumes and dressings are totally outlandish; make up specialists are simulating Hollywood versions of costumes. Sometimes one may get shocked when he/she looks Halloween masks or Santa Claus dressings at a scene which shows a celebration of Buhea or Gena. Now the film maker is not playing his role of story telling and is no more a ‘coupler’ as Professor Abiyi Ford named it. He forged this decisive role of connecting the people with their past, present and future and conjured through his cinema that these people are enjoying a life which is devoid of history, lived-experience and dream of their own.
Character representation:- Women are mostly portrayed as players, ‘gold-diggers’, imposters; thoughtlessly co-modified and eventually become cash machines. Such bizarre depictions give the audience a wrong attitude of societal misogyny which is as strange as the Halloween mask or the Santa Clause beard, and an emulated cliché of Hollywood ‘blond ambitions’. Romantic scenes are becoming too explicit and wholly eroticized. A female body is sacred in our society and sex is more of a ritual than physical exercise or Gena Chewata and our kids who are looking at such films would not discern between the concept of sex and severe wrestling, for it is pictured as a war between two people, not a sacred unification of heaven and earth at the microcosmic level.
Hollywood breathless repartee scenes are often used by our romance film actors to eventually make the girl give up to him which is very offending to our society to the extent that it is femininizing the role of the male in the hierarchy of the society. The physiognomic, physiologic and character selections of these film actresses are deliberate appropriations to a western model-woman of wide mouthed, straight haired, skinny and long legged, rapid chatterer, you name them… which even included those who are married characters in the film. For instance, the cultural regulator, ‘the set woyzero’, lexicon to express a modest and sober married Ethiopian woman would be badly insulted with such frequent simulations, and subsequently those qualities are becoming the newly established criterion to judge and to be judged. Thus, contrary to what was stated as a norm before, like ‘በማተቧ ልዳኝ/ Bematebua lidagn’ , the aforementioned new outlooks are entertaining and becoming a part of our conceptual dictionary.
Such settings and thematic trends are characteristically ‘phase I films’ in which ‘foreign images are impressed in an alienating fashion on the audience’ and ‘texts and rules of grammar are identical to conventional practices’ according to Teshome Haile Gabriel’s methodological divisions of Third World films. This mimicking, he articulated, will make the audience alienated because the spectator is unable to find himself/herself in the images. But what Teshome could not tell us is that the society/the spectator could even be addicted to mimicry and took such mediocre films as a normative to evaluate other films. That is why we often hear the mass despising Teshome’s ‘phase II’ films as boring and worthless films while smoking those ‘phase I’ film spliffs.
Contrary to the culture of story telling by the griot, the story told is not of the people but of other people: it is clearly a sad and hidden inferior intention of the screen play writer to make the audience fetish with the foreign environment, to merely label his own habitation as a hostile environment and to look at his own home in contempt and disdain. Such attempts are breaching the established social structure. This can simply be named irresponsibility and I believe that such irresponsibility is predominating the Lucywood world because unlike the traditional story teller or the griot the possibility of the film maker to present himself in person to the audience is restricted so being behind the curtain gives him the advantage of carelessly breaching the rules and regulations of the society for he made his new world called ‘Studio’. He is no more inside the society but in the studio and is subject to sense of false self-perfection and eventually contempt against the society itself.
Such attitudes affect the distribution process of films because the film maker excludes the poor and make the rich his sole end-user; a typical spirit of Lucywood films which are principally made to make money. Films are often seen in large cinema halls and the average entrance fee is more than the daily income of the poor. So, we can claim more often than not, the richness of this society is found inside ‘the not acculturated mind’ of the poor but unfortunately the poor is economically and hence psychologically moved by the rich. Consequently, the rich poor is obliged to become the poor rich; a ‘modern’ conception of modernity in this country. We should not necessarily be a Marxist to notice such class favoritism in the cinema of the Third World.
Sometimes such selective distributions could ironically be one means of saving the society from sad imitation of others’ consciousness. Franz Fanon in his very interesting book Black skins, white masks wrote this imitation as ‘…an uprooting, disembodiment and calculated withering of a civilization; a cultural genocide.’ Some times I say ‘thank heaven!’ that there existed such a discriminating distribution of ‘our’ Lucywood industry.
Producers are frequently seen boasting about their newer versions of cameras, lighting systems and white film experts(often said came from Hollywood), and following such showing offs the audience usually talks about how our films are improving very much. The producers’ unscrupulous strategy to simply make the audience bogged down in ‘visual wizardry’ is now properly working. Such dramas are clear manifestations of the lack of any knowledge of making Third World films which never cares for the essential part of the subject matter. They can be cattle drovers like the man who wrote Tarzan and never set a foot in Africa but ridiculed Africans. They are the black versions of Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Producers become wittingly deaf and dump when they listen to such matters as context, Grammar, theme, social relevance, new languages of filming but hyper-active on technical achievements of the films they made. In fact, producers are film makers here; not only film makers but actors, screen play writers and so on and so on. They are the investors, the directors and the criticizers of their own films which made them ‘self-proclaimed artists’ who impost as if they are introducing new visions while perpetuating same old models and familiar stories disguised in special effects and technological voodoos as Haile Gerima articulated it.
Condemning conventional critic as ‘paid mercenary, swordsman or modern samurai for the highest bidder(Haile Gerima,1986)’ will be ridiculed here when the film maker showed up as a critic himself. It is a kind of black humor, a game of little kids and a sign of the end of a story of one country. This ‘modern griot’ tells a story which he is always obsessed to justify it. There is no place for Haile Gerima’s ‘The activist’ in Lucywood. Period! Now film productions are equivalent to shoe, cloth, candy and other mere industrial productions: it is not, in any meaningful sense, an industry which shapes the intellect of a society but the tummy of the film maker.
Lucywood is, by and large, a mere field of investment, a money making machine but not ‘nothing more’. Because It is also the principal channel for damping Hollywood culture of cinema. Like Pfaf who criticize Hollywood jungle dramas as celluloid depictions which misled and misinform the American spectator about complex realities of Africa, Lucywood films are also typical mis-informants who had the courage to use Billy Holliday’s blues and jazz for their soundtracks in a countryside adventure comedy.
Kenneth M. Cameroon who wrote an important literature called Africa on a film: Beyond black and white criticized different films which are made by racist Hollywood film makers and writers. For instance, he disapproved the portrayal of Egyptian priest who prays in what looks like a small town church(in ‘She who must be obeyed’), the racist depiction of Masai people as cannibals and the film’s anachronism(in ‘King Solomon’s mine’), the utterly mindless(which is purposely done) attack of Arabs and Africans on Tarzan; as if there is no any distinction between them and the wild beasts in the jungle(in ‘Tarzan’), et cetera. However, what about when the Africans themselves misrepresent their own self and environment? It is much broader than we think it is. Film critic will not suffice such questions. Arguments would necessarily include historical details, social-psychology assumptions, cultural discourses, philosophical inquiries and ultimately end up with a severe headache. Before that I have to end up flying over Lucywood and reconnect my soul and flesh to start my usual ordinary life.
Lastly, what I nearly forget to mention was that to my utter surprise and disgust the national television of Ethiopia(ETV) has started showing the cartoon version of Tarzan for the kids! Hallelujah!
- Abiyi Ford, From the Fireside to the Screen: Towards the Synchronization of African Cinema with African Culture II.
- Cameroon, Kenneth M, Africa on Film: Beyond Black and White
- Frantz Fannon, Black Skins, White Masks, 19
- Haile Gerima, Triangular Cinema, 1986. Breaking Toys, 1986 and Dinknesh vs Lucy, 1987.
- Pfaff, Francoise, Hollywood Die-hard Jungle Melodramas.
- Teshome H. Gabriel, Towards a Critical theory of Third World Films.