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Wednesday, 5 September, 2001, 09:57 GMT 10:57 UK
Film pushes Ethiopia to confront past
Still from the movie
Waiting to be executed: A dramatic thriller set during Mengistu's rule
By Nita Bhalla in Addis Ababa

The Ethiopian film The Father has been winning awards across Africa for portraying the horrors of the "Red Terror" campaign unleashed by deposed dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam more than 20 years ago.

Rwandans are talking about genocide, South Africans about apartheid and so, Ethiopia has to talk about the Red Terror

Director Ermias Woldeamlack
And the 28-minute film, which is now on a satellite television channel in Ethiopia, has finally got people talking about the dark days in the late 1970s when tens of thousands of people were killed, tortured or disappeared.

First time director Ermias Woldeamlack, who is 37 years old, is firm in his belief that the story has to be told.

There is little literature, film, theatre or music re-telling the "Red Terror" period, he says.

And the absence of such materials indicates that Ethiopians are hiding from the goings on of that period rather than come to terms with them, Ermias believes.

"We didn't deal with them as it is not in our culture to have done so. But the only way we could move on, is to address them head on," he said.

Its good to talk

The young director explains: "The Rwandans are talking about the genocide, the South Africans about the apartheid era and so, Ethiopia has to talk about the 'Red Terror'. The Father is the first step."

Ethiopian film director of 'The Father' Ermias Woldeamlack
Ermias wants Ethiopians to confront their past
And it would seem Ethiopians have taken that tentative step. A number of them have seen the short, tense political thriller and have been giving some feedback.

"People said that they enjoyed it and that we reflected accurately what had happened during 'Red Terror'."

"But also, many have been critical. They say we were unfair to the Mengistu regime. All this is good. At least it's got people talking about it," he adds.

Personal grievances

There is no official figure on how many lost their lives during Mengistu's campaign to root out opponents, but it is believed that tens of thousands died.

film still
The director's older brother was arrested and killed.
Ermias has his own personal grievances.

"My older brothers were arrested and killed. They were targets because all students were suspected of revolt and coup plotting".

"Although I was a young boy at the time, I remember how Mengistu's soldiers would come and ransack our home looking for evidence against my brothers, but they found nothing," says Ermias.

Ermias attributes the film's international success to the fact that little is known about the previous military regime's atrocities.


"It seems no one outside the country knew about them. People were shocked that this happened in Ethiopia and that is why there has been so much interest in the film," he says.

Film still
Some say the film is unfair to Mengistu
The director thinks the "dark macabre nature of the movie adds a real atmosphere of suspense and unpredictability which many found fascinating".

The Father was first screened in November 2000 at South Africa's Sithengi film and television market.

Last month, it won best debut movie at the Ghanaian Aniwa film festival as well as the Silver award for best short feature at the Zanzibar film festival.


But Ethiopia's film industry is underdeveloped. Struggling filmmakers complain about the lack of training and equipment.

Mengistu now lives in exile in Zimbabwe
The government film institute that existed, ironically during the days of Mengistu, was disbanded when the new government took power in 1991. It said film making should be privately funded.

Still Ethiopians have produced some outstanding film makers, including the highly acclaimed director Haile Girima, who is a professor at Howard University.

He has a string of successful films such as Harvest 3000, Adwa and Imperfect Journey to his name.

Another success story is the film maker Solomon Bekele, with his award winning Aster - a story about love crossing the barriers of class and wealth.

However, these directors are few and far between, and although The Father is a real boost to the industry, critics believe if Ethiopia is really serious about reviving the industry, proper funding and training are needed.

See also:

27 May 01 | Africa
Ethiopia 10 years after Mengistu
22 Mar 01 | Africa
Mengistu to stay in Zimbabwe
28 Dec 99 | Africa
Mengistu defends 'Red Terror'
16 Jul 01 | Africa
Zanzibar festival showcases arts
23 Feb 00 | Entertainment
African film comes to London
25 Jul 01 | Africa
Timeline: Ethiopia
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