By Soretti Addis
When a film made by an Ethiopian creates a stir at the Cannes Film Festival, it is nearly impossible not to root for it. Lamb, a movie about a young boy and his pet lamb received generous reviews both on The Guardian and Variety (U.S.) calling it, in between praises, “… an ethnographic film made entirely from the inside out” and “deeply sympathetic to its characters and very much attuned to the landscape around them” respectively. About 20 minutes in, it becomes clear that these reviews are not only misleading but also make one wonder how much thought goes in to writing foreign film reviews.
Lamb is a film about a young boy Ephrem (Rediate Amare), who recently lost his mother and is forced to leave his hometown with his father and a pet Lamb (Chuni) because of an impending drought. Here we have a simple and, for Ethiopia, a far too common storyline shaping up. Ephrem’s affection for his lamb is evident. From the start we see him talking to his lamb, fighting for it and struggling to save it from slaughter. Such an intense relationship with a domestic animal might be unfamiliar to many of us raised in cities. But, after watching Lamb, many people who grew up in rural areas spoke of pet lambs and calves they considered like family.
The film is fairly realistic in its portrayal of life in rural Ethiopia. Many still struggle to make ends meet, drought does break up families through death and migration, relatives always open their doors to visitors in need, fire is built inside huts to cook food, and society still, aggressively, enforces gender mores. In this context, the decision to slaughter the lamb for the holiday to feed the family or the outrage against Ephrem’s preference to cook instead of helping on the farm is to be expected and can, at best, only create mild interest.
The unhurried pace of the film allows the viewer to soak in the beautiful landscape and hums in each frame. But the story remains devoid of any real crescendo until the end.
Each scene presents or alludes to a new far-reaching topic turning the film in to a textbook example of checklist liberalism overseen by an excitable film school nerd. The writers (Yared Zeleke and Geraldine Bajard) refuse to enrich the main storyline by presenting a deeper and subtler interpretation of the emotional story they are telling. Instead they are determined to jam-pack the one-hour and half run time with several themes that do not really resonate with the subjects of the story. Climate change – check, gender equality – check, sexuality, a bit of anti-anti-Semitism, religious tolerance, animal rights, and wait for it, recycling for environmental protection, check, check, check …
Ephrem, the lead character, is seen struggling to make money to go back home even though he has no family there. We know he has lost his Felasha mother, it is not clear how – many things remain vague – or what the import of this fact is to the story. In the meantime he is separated from his Lamb in order to keep it safe. Around the end a young Muslim girl, who helps him hide the Lamb, and is seen performing a Solat (prayer) under a tree. This supposedly is the random ‘multi-culturalism shot’ to show the good relations between Muslims and Christians. The girl is important to how the story ends but the ending will leave the audience unsatisfied with a seriously unsavory after taste.
This fantastically grating aftertaste is the result of atrocious dialogue. The screenplay sounds like it was written in English first then hastily translated in to Amharic. What is the point of telling a story if the audience does not empathize with the characters and feel their pain?
In one of his one-sided conversations with the Lamb, Ephrem says “Ezih bemetegnatish Aznalehu”, a direct translation of “I am sorry that you had to sleep here”, where is a lamb supposed to sleep then? In a place where humans don’t even have comfortable beds, where does this sentiment come from? He then talks about “a ticket out of this place” and “120 birr bicha Chuni, Netsanetachinin Lemagignet” or “all we need to be free is 120 birr”. Both expressions are distinctly foreign to the place and language used in the film.
The conversations between Ephrem and Tsion (Kidist Seyoum) are dull and unrelatable even when they are talking about their childhood. In one scene, with the family sitting outside under a tree, Ephrem, the day after he got there, breaks in to a smile and compliments Tsion’s Scarf – a piece of garment also worn as a belt around a young girl’s waist. He says, “Meqenetish Yamral” or “your belt is pretty”. It was a random statement from a young boy to a cousin who is older than him if at all such compliments are thrown around with family present.
Tsion (Kidist Seyoum) is the “strong female character” in the film, but she comes off as brash and uninterested in everyone around her. She reads newspapers, grows food in the garden using human waste and speaks her mind. Her big Afro and formidable facial expression were promising but are squandered as she is merely spitting out words written for her with gender talking points in mind. Her role in the main storyline is minimal and her sporadic bickering with Azeb (Rahel Teshome) is poorly delivered and tedious. If you listened with your eyes closed, the sheer lack of care for intonation and accents leads one to think that the dialogue was between two women from Addis instead of those from deep in rural Ethiopia.
Cut to the next scene and Tsion is skipping town with a creepy truck driver. It is unclear whether this is an act of independence, teenage rebellion or the consequence of societal pressure. As the truck drives off she gives Ephrem that colorful scarf. In that part of the country, removing a ‘scarf-belt’ or “Meqenet Meftat” symbolizes the end of innocence or loss of virginity. So giving that garment to your little cousin is very odd, unless it is generously interpreted to mean that she is indeed losing her innocence now and is passing on the baton of rebellion on to him. This will forever make viewers here wince, unlike those in Cannes.
When you finally recover from the pain of watching an entire film with a side eye, it becomes clear that this is not a story told “entirely from the inside out” nor “well attuned” to the local culture in question. The Writer/Director of the film does not laugh or cry in Amharic. He sees the country from a distance and tells its stories in English for those just like him. In the end you are left asking, “why do they sound like they are reading subtitles written by foreigners?” because, that is precisely what they are doing.