Ethiopia: Lamb

(2015; writer/director: Yared Zeleke; language: Amharic; co-production with France, Germany, Norway and Qatar)

Ephraïm and Chuni are best friends – Chuni is the titular lamb (grown into a teenage sheep), and Ephraïm (Rediat Amare) a boy desperately in need of stability and companionship. His mother has died in the latest drought, and his father has moved to Addis Ababa to look for work, leaving Ephraïm with impoverished relatives in a distant part of the country. His great aunt is imposing but kindly (and armed with her own personal whip called ‘the oncoming storm’ or something like that), but his father’s cousin Solomon (Surafel Teka) is disappointed in Ephraïm’s talent for cooking rather than farming – the former being women’s work, and a skill inherited from Ephraïm’s mother. To add to the tension, Solomon’s wife Azeb (Rahel Teshome) is consumed with concern for her sickly and undernourished daughter, and irritated by her stepdaughter Tsion’s (Kidist Siyum) predilection for reading instead of housework and finding a husband. Matters come to a head when it is decided that the menu for the upcoming religious celebration will prominently feature lamb…

Lamb felt like an obvious choice, as the first Ethiopian film to screen at Cannes and having garnered positive reviews internationally. Although not new to cinema, the country has struggled to maintain and strengthen the industry in the face of censorship under the military dictatorship and a perpetual lack of resources. Although a couple of recent films have attained international reach, Lamb looked like the one I would most enjoy. The aim of writer/director Zeleke to show off the splendour of even the most impoverished Ethiopian lifestyles also felt like a good fit for the intentions of this blog. (In fact, the lack of positive portrayals of Ethiopia internationally apparently posed another challenge to making the film – people were wary of appearing it!) In Zeleke’s words:

Ethiopians can be afraid of the camera because they know the country doesn’t have a good image abroad because of the famine and the poverty. It’s as if the only thing the world knows about it is its worst aspects… Despite the dictatorship and war and famine and poverty — I had even grown up in a slum — I still feel I had a fairy-tale childhood. There was a lot of love and good food and colorful characters and incredible Christian festivities that I’d grown up with… In Ethiopia, there is no colonial legacy. The culture is untouched. It’s a dream for a filmmaker and storyteller. Beauty and heartache, it’s there.

And indeed it all is there, so thoroughly and lovingly captured by the filmmakers that others have described Lamb as an ethnography from the inside (although I found one reviewer who questioned the script’s naturalism). The camera luxuriates in the rural setting, glorying in the dramatic hills and the intimate lives of their inhabitants, human and non-human alike. Lamb allows the viewer time to acclimatise, to study its protagonists’ fashions, hairstyles, farming tools, and religious practices. To jostle with them in dusty markets and ride buses with sheep tied to the roof. To learn the recipe for sambusas, and climb through an otherworldly forest to reach a jaw-dropping mountaintop.

But it’s also a film concerned with modern problems and Ethiopia’s place in global systems, and in particular how drought and financial vulnerability affects subsistence farmers. Ephraïm’s brusque aunt Azeb becomes more relatable when you realise she is witnessing her child literally starve to death, and his uncle’s decision to eat Chuni is also rendered less callous (spoiler alert: the lamb lives). The film is set in the droughts of the 1980s, and the situation is not necessarily that much better today. According to Zeleke:

Ethiopia is experiencing a changing climate. There is a debate in some parts of the United States, but here in Ethiopia it’s a reality. 85% are still farmers. So it’s not even a debate, it’s a reality. Our country was once very forested, very green. Today it’s mostly deforested, but outside of that, the pollution from wealthier countries is causing havoc on the lives of farmers here.

In the film, the main hope for the future comes from Tsion, already educating herself about methods to improve her family and her country’s lot. It was nice to see local scientists featured in her reading material, highlighting the level of knowledge and drive that exists in the country. Her father, however, is less interested in the nutritional equivalence of lentils to meat or the fertilising properties of urine, and so Tsion rejects her prescribed future as a farmer’s bride and runs off to find her way to a higher education.

Her story could have been a film in itself, but perhaps less simple, and therefore less effective.The true strength of the film is the universal appeal of a well-executed classic children’s narrative – the lonely child banished to imposing and vaguely hostile relatives, trying to find his place in the world. It succeeds in establishing a child’s perspective in a way that Azerbaijan’s Buta (for example) failed to do, partly thanks to the sympathetic performance of its young star, and partly because it takes the time to inhabit a child’s sense of wonder, and their ambiguous integration into the adult world, conveyed with scintillating cinematography by Josée Deshaie. One of my favourite scenes was of Ephraïm alone on top of a ‘magic’ mountain, where you could feel him letting his spirits loose into the vast green expanse beyond and the grass and untouched earth beneath him – a release from the stifling atmosphere of his new home and a place to properly mourn his mother.

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For me, the film was at its weakest when it deviated from the focus on Ephraïm or his family, and veered too far into showing off the positives of Ethiopia to a foreign audience. For instance, several reviewers have focussed on the religious diversity and harmony depicted at certain times in the film: Ephraïm is half-Jewish through his mother, which  reviewers point out doesn’t seem to cause any trouble for his Christian relatives, and he also has a friendly interaction with a young Muslim girl. These references were few, however, and felt shoehorned in more as a way to show off the absence of religious conflict in Ethiopia than as something of relevance to the film’s characters or narrative.

The temptation to cover everything is perhaps a common problem for pioneering film-makers from ‘developing’ countries. If yours is one of the first films about the country to be screen internationally, it’s natural to want to declaim the positives while also highlighting problems caused by global inequalities. But unlike Malawi’s B’ella, which suffered hugely from this, Lamb manages largely to stick with its central story – the friendship between boy and sheep in a majestic natural setting. (We’re unlikely to see a similar topic from Zeleke in the future – he has apparently vowed never to work with an animal again).

Even if Lamb is clearly targeting a foreign audience, that didn’t stop me (a foreign audience, after all) from enjoying it, and I did learn a fair bit about Ethiopia in terms of geography, farming practices, religious diversity, gender roles, cooking, and international relations. I also learned that you can take anything on a bus in rural Ethiopia. Given the size of the country and the extent of its history, I certainly hope there will be more Ethiopian cinema to come.