Women Filmmakers Tell Their Stories

Filmmaker Salem Makuria

Documentary filmmaking holds a special place in the history of African women’s cinema. In 1972, Senegalese filmmaker Safi Faye became the first  African woman to make a commercially distributed feature film when she directed “Kaddu Beykat”. The film, a mixture of fiction and documentary, depicts the economic problems suffered by Senegalese village farmers because of agriculture policies that Faye says rely on an outdated, colonial system of groundnut monoculture. Faye would go on to direct several documentaries often focused on rural life in her native Senegal.

African women who have taken documentary filmmaking to new levels come from across the continent and handle a wide range of topics. The films show an Africa that is not often seen, according to Beti Ellerson, director of the Center for the Study and Research of African Women in Cinema. Ellerson, who teaches courses in African studies, visual culture and women studies in the Washington, DC, area, is also the producer of a 2002 documentary, “Sisters of the Screen: African Women in the Cinema.”

Much has changed since Faye’s early Senegalese films. The emergence of the Internet, social media and crowd-funding platforms such as Kickstarter now offer a new generation of African women documentary filmmakers the tools to realize their visions. To learn of the challenges and opportunities facing African women filmmakers Genet Lakew and Rahwa Meharena asked three women – Salem Mekuria, Rahel Zegeye and Sosena Solomon – to share their stories. They represent two generations of Ethiopian documentary filmmaking.

Salem Mekuria – The Challenge of Funding

When I left Ethiopia some 40 years ago to attend college in the United States, I had every intention of going back. But plans changed and I stayed to build a film career and family.

Despite my love for science, neither the science department nor the faculty at Haile Selassie I University, now Addis Ababa University, were ready to accept women in the field. It was a very difficult place to be. I was considered an anomaly, along with other female students. An exciting scholarship to study in the U.S. presented itself to me and I jumped at it.

Although I arrived at the height of the civil rights movement, I had no historical knowledge of the African American experience. But I find one of the motivations for me to make films is curiosity. Exploring African American subjects was my way of acknowledging the struggles of this community, which paved the way for opportunities for me in this country. I got a chance to work at a television station in California. From there, I moved to Boston in 1981 to work at WGBH television, a member station of the Public Broadcasting Service.

My first film was “Our Place in the Sun,” a 30-minute documentary that looked into the history of African Americans on Martha’s Vineyard Island off the coast of Massachusetts. Over time, I started shifting my focus to explore Ethiopian history, people and places because there are fewer people of African descent telling African stories. Films like “Sidet: Forced Exile,” “Deluge” or “Ye Wonz Maibel,” “IMAGinING Tobia,” “Ruptures: A Many Sided Story,” and “Square Stories” were all made in this spirit.

I am no exception to the perennial challenge independent filmmakers face: money. Efforts to raise funds are particularly harsh on Africans who make films on African subjects. I wish we could educate our people to want to be interested in investing in these films. If we do not succeed in doing that, then I have no idea where the future of funding is.

Before 1993, I did not plan to go into teaching but it’s very difficult to make a living as an independent filmmaker. My teaching position at Wellesley College gives me the flexibility to take a couple of months off every year, which I often use to travel to Ethiopia.

I’ve been lucky enough to earn various fellowships and grants to conduct research, fund my films, and provide exposure for my work. The Fulbright Scholar Award allowed me to spend a year in Ethiopia researching historical women leaders, which I’m hoping to make into a screenplay. I shot “IMAGinING Tobia” as a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.

Partly as a response to financial limitations, I began using triptych video installations, which use three different screens to show a film, designed to give the audience an interactive viewing experience. I also no longer use dialogue in my films, meaning the people in them don’t talk so I’m mostly presenting my stories in images.

Distribution is not any easier. Two of my films are at Women Make Films, a nonprofit organization that distributes independent films made by and about women. But I primarily self-distribute my films when people, schools and international organizations request them. Museums and galleries, and festivals are great ways to showcase and promote my work. Most recently, “Deluge” and “Square Stories” were shown at Film Africa 2011 in London.

At the present moment, I’m writing grant proposals in hopes of securing funding for a new project about a Nigerian human rights lawyer and women who are dealing with Sharia law in northern Nigeria. If I succeed in getting the money, it will be the first single channel documentary I will make in 14 years.

Rahel Zegeye – Fantasy Versus Reality

Ten years ago, my plan was to jet off to Beirut in search of domestic work without telling my family. My military veteran father was unemployed and our family had to pinch whatever pennies we had. Besides, there were limited opportunities to continue my education after high school, especially without high grades and test scores.

Unfortunately, they found out about my secret mission two days before I was to leave Addis Ababa. My father was especially upset because of the negative reports he heard about girls who went off to work in Arab countries.

Like thousands of African, Sri Lankan, Indian and Filipino women, I saw Beirut as a place to improve my economic outlook. But I was met with a reality much starker than my dreams. With this opportunity also came reports of verbal, physical and sexual abuse as well as withheld payments, excessive work hours, and confinement to the employer’s house.

I experienced some of this mistreatment during my early years [in Beirut]. Four days after my arrival, I was on the balcony of the home where I was assigned to work, brushing my hair. I saw an Ethiopian woman on the top floor who looked down and warned me to be careful. As she said, there came a day when I feared for my life in that house. The woman I was working for was very strict and made work difficult for me.

Fortunately, the agents who made my arrangements moved me to another house. My second employer seemed much nicer. I found myself in a better situation and tolerated the new challenges I faced. I kept working, telling myself that this house was better than the last. That’s mainly because I had no other choice. Life was hard but I could not do much to change it.

After six years of silent obedience, I could not take it anymore. There came a day when my employer refused me food and water for 13 days. I finally decided to leave and asked her to give me the money she owed me. She refused to pay me the two months worth salary she had withheld from me and kept all of my clothes.

I found myself on the move again. I was lucky enough to find a third employer who is kind and compassionate. I haven’t budged from his home since, working for a man of mixed Lebanese and Armenian descent. He’s good-natured and supportive of my ambitious goals of filmmaking. Now I’ve found a bit of freedom.

This new environment allowed me to begin documenting the stories of less fortunate Ethiopian domestic workers. Five years go I made a film, “Beirut,” which chronicles the lives of a group of women. It is a personal look into their social interactions and aspirations outside of work. I set out to show the reality of their lives, which sometimes include prostitution, drinking and smoking.

I used the money I saved from four years of working to fund the film. I paid two cameramen U.S.$200 each to film once a week on Sunday afternoons, my day off. The actors are all domestic workers themselves who portray the real stories of women I’ve encountered over the years. “Beirut” took a total of two years to make and had to be edited down from four hours to about an hour and a half.

My aim is to advise prospective domestic workers in Ethiopia to learn from my own experience and the experience of many women like me. There are many problems they could find themselves in after arriving. It is important for them to understand the potential dangers that come with the job. This is the spirit of the film.

I would not recommend for young girls to come to the Middle East to wash dishes and clean homes. It is dead end labor that leaves no room for personal advancement. In the 10 years that I’ve been here, my place in Lebanese society hasn’t changed much. I make a mere $250 a month. People still hurl insults at me as I walk down the street. I don’t enjoy the same rights and privileges as the natives or the freedom to pursue business opportunities. But this reality is not broadcast in the romanticized brochures young women in Ethiopia read, desperate to go abroad for work.

I’ve reached a roadblock in the distribution efforts for “Beirut” since the Ethiopian embassy [in Beirut] denied final approval of the film. But I’m working on drumming up support, such as from the wife of famed Ethiopian runner Haile Gebrselassie. I am determined to show the film in Ethiopia, where it really counts.

Sosena Solomon – Making Merkato

I panicked when my internship supervisor at WHUT television in Washington, DC, handed me a video camera to make a mini documentary about the city’s robust Ethiopian population, specifically the small business owners along U Street’s unofficial “Little Ethiopia” strip. How could I, a mere high school student at the time, bear the burden of accurately capturing the essence of this community? It seemed too great a task so I backed out of the project.

Now, two film degrees later, I know that storytelling through film is my path. My latest documentary, “Merkato,” was born out of an idea to possibly use it as my thesis film at the School of Visual Arts in New York, where I studied social documentary film. Before my first trip in December 2008 to visit my dad, I had never been to Ethiopia.

I fell in love with Merkato during that first trip home. Situated in Addis Ababa, it is the largest open-air market in Africa where thousands of merchants set up shop to sell all types of goods, from sugar and spices to clothing and electronics. I saw Merkato as a microcosm of the country’s society and culture, an exciting way to get a taste of many different things. I felt inspired to document the energy of the place before parts of it disappeared at the hands of big development projects that threaten the space.

On a personal level, I love that Merkato represents a piece of my own history. Although I was born in Nairobi, Kenya, and grew up in the U.S., I’ve always identified as Ethiopian. It’s where my parents are from and what I grew up knowing. Even if I was not physically there, the culture was never too far away from me.

From the very beginning, I knew that I did not want “Merkato” to have a political tone, one that criticizes the changes that are inevitably coming or urges viewers to “Save Merkato.” Instead, I sought to make portraits of the people who live and work in Merkato, to capture their personal journeys.

I set out to tell these stories with my DSLR camera and a small crew that consisted of my supportive mom, a driver, a bodyguard and a translator to facilitate the interviews. I was ready to get the reel going but was instantly met with a reality check. The people I talked to at Minalesh Tera, a section of the market that focuses on recycling plastics, initially gave me very surface responses and reactions. I had to prove myself to them. It was almost like Merkato will push you out just to see if you’re going to come back. I had to show up everyday for four months to get them to open up to me.

Of all the people I interviewed, the stories of four individuals and a set of brothers made it into the final film. I felt a genuine connection with Hawa, Ashenafi, Wurro, Gedion, Abde and Abdella. They are a diverse group who represent universal struggles and dreams.

Ashenafi is the young boy who spends his summers collecting plastic to recycle and resell. With that seemingly simple summer job, he is able to support himself and his family through his entrepreneurial spirit. Wurro is the 19-year-old who represents the hardcore rebel type, with big dreams to get out of Merkato. She’s a tough woman who constantly has to protect herself from the male-dominated section of the market. Abde and Abdella are the welding brothers who provide the comic relief in the story. Like many siblings, they have a sort of rivalry going on but still work together despite their differences. Hawa is my 92-year-old hero who posses a strong work ethic and determination. Finally, Gedion, or Mr. Merkato, is my bodyguard turned film character. I’m glad I had the chance to capture him in front of the camera at the last minute.

To address the expensive toll of filmmaking, I decided to pursue community fundraising for “Merkato” because I felt that this was everybody’s story. Using Kickstarter, a crowd-funding website, 224 backers pitched in to help me raise $14,710, about $2,000 above my posted goal. That was a great start but I’m still seeking official sponsorships, donations through PayPal, and hosting events to raise money and promote the accompanying photo book.

The greatest gift I can give to the people I spent months with is a screening of the film in Merkato. I look forward to the priceless moment when they see the piece they created and feel empowered by knowing that their story is important and others do care to see and hear it.