YARED ZELEKE, The beauty of Ethiopia

YARED ZELEKE, The beauty of Ethiopia

Before I met Yared Zeleke, I saw his movie “Lamb” and I was blown away by the beauty of this film and by the talent of this young Ethiopian film maker. When I then met Yared in person, I was immediately seduced by his kindness, by his openness, by his humor and by his love for his country Ethiopia.

What pushed you to become a filmmaker?

I grew up with my grandmother’s stories. She was a great orator and she was known in the community for her stories and this is the origin of my first interest in film making. Later when I grew up I loved reading and writing. I love to write and to direct, I really love to do both.

Why did you want to do a film about Ethiopia?

In my case, having grown up in the US after the age of 10 and people telling me that I come from the desert. There is nothing wrong with the desert per se but it symbolizes emptiness and so it means that I come from Nothing. That was one of the many reasons why I chose to make my first film in Ethiopia.

” I wanted to show the beauty of this country which is the opposite of a desert, it’s green and mountainous instead of flat and dry.”

Is it autobiographic?

It’s the topic of how a child deals with loss, everything that exactly happened to me. In spite of the famine and the difficult political situation (dictatorship, war), I had the happiest childhood, loved and supported by my family and by my community.
But even though the fundamental theme is my story, the world isn’t mine at all. I grew up in a city (Addis Abeba), I never had a pet, I don’t like to cook. So a lot is also my imagination which is important when you tell stories.

The actors in your film are non professional actors. How did you find them? Wasn’t it difficult to film with non-professional actors?

We auditioned 7000 people in 6 months, half of them were kids in public schools, mostly in the city, some also in the village where we shot. When we found Rediat Amare, the boy, it was first hard to convince his parents and get their permission for him playing in the movie. We had to gain their trust. He is a poor kid from the slum who is very gifted. However it took us 4 or 5 tries before I knew that he was the right one for the main role because it requires so much: Can he be open, can he listen, can he trust, can he laugh, can he cry?
A few actors were also theater actors. So we had to train them to act in front of the camera.

And the lamb?

We had to get individual lambs who do not have any attachment to each other. And then we trained them for a couple of months individually with Rediat, the boy, so each lambs builds a relation to him.
We always had 5 lambs with us on the set all the time, when we went 4000m up the mountains or into the forest. But finally throughout the whole film you see always the same lamb because she just did everything.

How did the people in the village react when you were filming?

They are rural Ethiopians living deep into the mountains who don’t even have any electricity.

“So we seemed to them probably like aliens with weird instruments making strange experiences.”

At the beginning they were cautious and reserved in the Ethiopian way always with a smile, but in the end we gained their trust and then it was just beautiful. They were near tears the day we left. There is such gentilness in this place.

However it was not always easy to make this film because the government was suspicious, the people were suspicious because of the bad image Ethiopia had in media. For the religious scenes we needed a permission of the orthodox Ethiopian church. It was so fragile the making of this film and had so many chances to fail.

Lamb became the first Ethiopian film to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015. It was screened at the festival’s “Un Certain Regard program. How did you feel presenting your film in Cannes? Did you you take the actors with you?

It was so overwhelming that I almost couldn’t enjoy it because it was so intense. But it doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy it at all, it’s just like a Tsunami that hits you!

“All the actors came with me to Cannes. It was their first time out of their country. Can you imagine their only impression of the western world!”

For the film music, you’ve collaborated with Christophe Chassol. How did this collaboration happen? Did he have “carte blanche” or was there a very specific brief for the music?

As far as scoring, however, I chose to do non-Ethiopian music because I did not want to make a folkloric film. Even though the story takes place in a typical and traditional Ethiopian village, my particular point of view as a filmmaker is contemporary. Therefore, certain artistic elements in the film needed to be contemporary. So for the music what better person than Christophe Chassol.

I was very lucky to be introduced to Chassol’s work by Jorge Fernandez, the music supervisor of Lamb. When I first heard his music, I instantly knew that Chassol was the right person for this film. And when we sat down to work together, it was magic. There was a lot of listening and learning and feeling things out together. Total trust. He was so attuned to the story and the characters and me. It was a combination of “carte blanche” and collaboration.

Being from Ethiopia, living in New York and now in Paris, do you have any typical Ethiopian habit to keep Ethiopia with you?

I got really shapped by New York where I did my studies, I went to Addis Abeba 3 years ago where I have most of my family and now I’ve embraced Paris. But when I get homesick I go to an Ethiopian restaurant .
Listening to Ethiopian music also helps me to keep Ethiopia with me. It connects me and inspires me. I love old Ethiopian music just as much as contemporary Ethiopian music.
Another thing that I love from Ethiopia are these traditional shawls that you also see in my film. A lot of them are hand-woven. I always have one with me on my travel. There are so beautiful.
There is also one object that I bought in Ethiopia and that is very important to me, it’s an orthodox cross. I carry it with me all the time, It brings me luck.

When you hear about Iran, what comes into your mind?

I think of the films of Kiarostami, of films of the Kurdish side of Iran such as “Turtles Can Fly” of Bahman Ghobadi, of “The Colors of Paradis” of Madjid Madjidi. Farsi sounds so beautiful when I watch this movies.
I think also of the poet Rumi that I love to read.

Photos by Ama Ampadu (Slum Kid Films)
Text: Anahita Vessier

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