It is a vision of Ethiopia that the average American might not expect: craggy emerald peaks, picturesque villages, a priest blessing a family for a festive religious celebration. "Lamb," director Yared Zeleke's debut feature film about a young boy named Ephraïm, who must live with faraway family members after the death of his mother, paints a nuanced portrait of a place that Western media often reduce to headlines about famine and conflict.
"Lamb," which was chosen as Ethiopia's Academy Awards submission for best foreign language film, didn't make the Oscars shortlist, but it's generated considerable buzz for its 37-year-old writer-director. In November, Variety named Zeleke one of its "10 Screenwriters to Watch." "Lamb" was the first Ethiopian film to be part of the Official Selection at Cannes and has screened at festivals in Toronto and Milan (where it won the award for best feature film).
This week, the Ethiopian-born Zeleke, who divides his time between New York and Addis Ababa, is at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. "Lamb" screened Saturday and Sunday at the festival, and shows again Thursday morning.
I caught up with Zeleke in Palm Springs, where he talked about the challenges of casting and filming "Lamb" in Ethiopia, the personal story that inspired the film's narrative and why Bollywood was so important to him as a young boy.
I understand that "Lamb" is partly drawn from your own experiences of migration and being separated from your family.
The film was a way to heal my wounds, of having to leave my family at the age of 10. My father, he was imprisoned by the Derg regime [the communist military regime that was in power from 1974 to 1987] when I was very young. My mother remarried. So I was raised by my grandmother. My father, after he was imprisoned, he escaped to Japan — then he made it here [to the United States]. He brought me here. But I didn't know him. He was a stranger. It was a huge disturbance for me.
So in the film, I wanted to address how a child deals with loss and grief — but with some humor at its heart.
You've said that casting was a difficult process since Ethiopia doesn't have a culture of cinema.
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. When we hosted castings in Addis Ababa, not a lot of people would come.
So we basically went to theaters and children’s theaters. Ethiopia has an ancient culture of theater — some of it is very good, but it doesn’t get out because it’s all in Amharic. We walked the streets. We went to public schools. For the villagers, we went to the locations we shot in and cast people there. That was tricky too, because you find someone and then who will take over their cows while they're shooting?
Filmmaking is difficult everywhere. In a place like Ethiopia you're starting from scratch at every level. And you have to deal with plenty of local customs and fears. The Orthodox Church was suspicious when we were filming. We had to get a letter from the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to film a scene that references the church. But in the end everybody said yes.
For your first feature, you could have very easily gone and shot a film about Ethiopian immigrants in Washington, D.C., which would have made the logistics far easier. Why was it so important to shoot in Ethiopia?
Films about Ethiopia are generally not shot in Ethiopia. Angelina Jolie’s "Beyond Borders" was shot in Namibia. There's an Israeli film, "Live and Become," which has to do with famine, and it was shot in Israel. In Ethiopia, we don’t have desert like that. Therein lies the problem, you’re watching a film about Ethiopia, but you're not looking at the country itself. There's nothing wrong with the desert. But it connotes a certain emptiness and that is not Ethiopia.
And I wanted to do it in Ethiopia because it was my home. 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.
In college, you studied international development, then you turned around and got a master’s in film at NYU. What prompted the shift?
I went to do my master’s in agro-economics in Norway. It was my young idealist moment. I wanted to give back to my country. But I was not happy studying that. So when I was in Norway, I had this moment where I asked myself, "If Ethiopia was prosperous and peaceful like Norway, what would I do with my life?"
Well, I would want to tell stories. I grew up with my grandmother’s folklore and fables, the oral storytelling traditions. So I put aside the guilt about what I should do and decided to pursue what I love to do. I’ve always loved cinema and I’ve always loved stories.
What types of films did you watch as a boy in Ethiopia?
In Ethiopia, it was under communism, so we were watching a lot of East German television and Russian television and a lot of Bollywood. I think the government thought [Bollywood] was safer than Hollywood. They didn't want to entice us with that! Though there was the occasional James Bond film.
But I loved Bollywood. I can’t name the films I saw as a kid, but living in such a repressive regime, it seemed like Indians were always having a good time. In Ethiopia, we lived with a curfew. And in the Bollywood films everything seemed so fun and free and beautiful.
What were you drawn to as you began to watch and study film in the U.S.?
I was into indie film, dramas. "My Own Private Idaho" — I remember when I saw that it really blew me away. It was this combination of honesty and dreaminess that I’m still really into. I was really into "Six Degrees of Separation," which Will Smith was in. I enjoyed the dialogue and the concept. I was like in eighth grade when I saw it.
When I became a film student, I really began to pay attention to dialogue. I’m a wordy person. I remember seeing “Network." That was an example of a film that when I first saw it, I was, “Wow.” Then there are more contemporary figures like Todd Solondz, who did "Happiness" and "Welcome to the Dollhouse." I love Robert Bresson, the French director, and [Abbas] Kiarostami from Iran. Akira Kurosawa, of course. I discovered a lot on my own before film school though. I would check them all out of the library. The library was my best friend.
FOR THE RECORD
Jan. 5, 2:10 p.m.: An earlier version of this post listed the movie title as "Welcome to the Doll House."
What are you working on now?
The working title is "1991" because that’s the year that communism ended and [Ethiopia] had democracy. Kids born from that era on are totally from another world. They’re much more educated and much more worldly. They’ve gotten much more sophisticated. I want to deal with the frustration and angst of Ethiopian youth that take on dangerous journeys for a better life — treacherous journeys across the desert to Arabia, across the sea to Europe and across the jungle to South Africa. That is the story I want to tell now.
Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.