Yemane also has a solid record as a producer and a director. Aside from several experimental shorts, he has produced and directed a farce, three short films and a feature film, GIR-GIR (TUMULT), that has been screened at nearly forty international film festivals and has won several awards and prizes in the Africa, Europe and the United States. GIR-GIR has been shown in theaters and aired on television on all three continents and in Japan. Yemane is a recipient of the prestigious John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, the American Film Institute Film and Videomaker's Grant, the California Artists Fellowship, a nominee of the Rockefellar Media Fund and is listed in the millennium edition of Who's Who in America?
How did you tell your parents you were NOT going to be an engineer or a programmer?
Easy. I took a year of Statistics, Economics, Accounting and Algebra.
When did you first realize you wanted to be involved in the wonderful world of make believe?
A few weeks (yes, my timing is not very good) before I graduated from college with a degree in journalism.
What was the impetus for your interest in film?
When I realized that I wanted to have a subjective, personal and creative [filmmaking] input in the stories, that I wanted to tell and not aspire to be an impartial conduit [journalism].
What do you perceive as the single most difficult challenge to overcome in your chosen field? If you could clear up one misunderstanding in the world, artistic or not, what would it be? If you could transmit one message, what would that message be?
Convincing the Ethiopian audience that stories about themselves matter.
What's your new project about?
It is the story of how a small community in Ethiopia managed to survive the worst pandemic in human history: the Spanish Influenza of 1918. This deadly plague killed nearly 40 million people within the course of a few months. Itís called "Öand then the rains return". It will be in Amharic with English subtitles.
You seem to be a staunch defender of making films in Amharic with English subtitles even though this might make your films not very easily "sellable". Why is that important to you?
Clarification: I have nothing against making films in any language. However, if I am making a film that takes place in Ethiopia (or within the Ethiopian community outside of Ethiopia) and if all of the primary characters are Ethiopian, the film, in my opinion, should not be made in a non-Ethiopian language with the idea of making it more "sellable". A film is not marketable simply because it is in English. Unless the principal characters in a film are American (and, in general, white) most filmsóin the present imperial cultural climateówill not see the light of the day in the world film market. I have some bad news to share with you: Hollywood is not interested in the stories of our younger brotherís adolescent escapades, our grandmotherís ingenious survival skills during the Italian Occupation, our older sisterís tragic death during the Red Terror, our motherís diplomatic skills in maintaining harmony within the family, our fatherís frustrations with his unfulfilled aspirationsÖ. Hollywood is interested in making films about Americans. If by chance, Africa happens to be in their radar screen, our family members would, at best, be local and exotic coloring to Tom and Janeís adventures as they discover themselves aiding our helpless relatives.
;What stage are you at in the production of "...and then the rains return"? Do you have a studio backing you?
The script, written by Solomon Deressa, is complete. I have already concluded an agreement with Haile Gerima's production company. His company will be providing some of the production and post-production equipment. I have also received funding from an organization in Switzerland. I will begin a campaign to raise money from Ethiopians in the Diaspora at the beginning of next year. Keep your eyes, ears and wallet ready and open.
Do you think Haile Gerima's success with Adwa has helped galvanize Ethiopians to support our own artists?
Indeed it has. The overwhelming and positive response to his film is an encouragement not only for Haile Gerima, but for Ethiopian artists in the Diaspora. I believe members of our community have reached a stage (financially and emotionally) where they can focus and support cultural activities.
Is the lack of a rich culture of filmmaking in Ethiopia a disadvantage in that you are forced to work out certain issues of cultural depiction from scratch? Or is it actually an advantage in that you have clear slate and a multitude of original possibilities to explore without any influence?
It is at once a blessing and a curse. We have thousands of years of history and only seven narrative [fiction] feature films (Hirut Abatwa Man Naw? Guma: Yedem Kassa, Mirt Sost Shi Amet [Harvest: 3,000 Years], Aster, my own, Gir-Gir [Tumult] and two others [unfortunately, I have been unable to track down their titles]) have been produced thus far. Stories abound. Since there is literally no tradition of filmmaking, we can, without any restriction, create and develop our own film grammar to tell the stories.
Nevertheless, we are also burdened with the prohibitive expectations of a public hungry to see its own images on the screen. Each member of the audience has an opinion (ranging from the well informed to the ill informed) on how a particular historical character or incident ought to be depicted. At the same time, it is impossible for the filmmaker to please (nor should be sycophancy and appeasement be principal motivations for telling a story) all the viewers. If, however, there are numerous films about a subject matter that is dear to us all, then the viewer will realize that there could be numerous interpretations of the same story. For example, there are some individuals who objected to Ato Haile Gerima's depiction of Adwa as an African victory. A multitude of films about this momentous event in our contemporary history could be made. Adwa through the eyes of the following: the cavalry unit from Wello; Empress Taitu, her soldiers and followers; the diplomatic intrigues that took place before the war; Dejazmach Balcha and his followers; the Italian prisoners of war...
What has been the greatest challenge for you as an artist?
Persuading the Ethiopian audience that they would have to morally and financially support their filmmakers [and other artists] if they want to see stories about their fatherís joy, their sisterís frustration, their motherís accomplishment, their brotherís pain, their neighborís good fortune, their ancestorís sacrifice on the screen.
When do you know you have achieved the ultimate "success" as a filmmaker?
Making a film about Ethiopia and Ethiopians every two or three years.
What is an Ethiopian actor's temper tantrum like?
"I want to act in more than just one film in my lifetime!!!"
Thatís cute. Are you artistically inclined Öin other areas?
Whatís the equivalent of the "casting couch" in Amharic?
A "deluxe" sofa donated in the late 1960ís by Mosvold, Ltd. to the casting director of Hirut Abatwa Mannew? the first feature length film in Amharic. As it was used about once every seven years, the dust (not to mention the neglect) destroyed the upholstery. A few years ago, the Minister of Health declared it a health hazard and quarantined it. It has now fortunately been restored to its former glory and is on display at the City of Addis Abeba Museum (right below the Historic Homes of Addis Abeba watercolor mounted on the wall) near Meskel Square.
What is your absolute favorite aspect of filmmaking?
Tie: research and showing a film to a perceptive audience.
If you could collaborate with any director in the world, who would that be?
Filmmaking is like driving a car. Numerous parts are necessary in order for the car to move; however, only one person can steer. If, by collaboration, you mean working for another director, I would love to work primarily with most Ethiopian directors, as I will probably be very interested in the subject matters they are tackling.
Which tabot do you swear by?
Which one do you megebber to?
Have you inhaled?
I'll take the fifth on that one.
Ever used Melotti beera to wash down a mouthful of CHat?
I come from a long line of Meta beera consumers. Don't do CHat.
What's your favorite scene in a movie?
A scene that leaves room for me to decide how I feel and think about the characters and the situation in which they are depicted.
Given the choice between directing a potential blockbuster and a Cannes Film Festival candidate, which would you pick and why?
A potential blockbuster isnít always mindless and a Cannes Film Festival candidate isnít always profound. I want to make to a good film.
What are your favorite subjects in filmmaking? What do you look for in a script idea? In a script?
Funny, moving, awe-inspiring, poignant, ironic, zany, earnest, rapturous, and leza yalachew stories.
What about heaving bosoms?
They go under awe-inspiring.
What is an unforgivable sin in script writing?
Insulting the intelligence of your audience.
In directing a movie?
Insulting the intelligence of your audience.
What do you do/where do you go when you are unhappy?
Watch Frederico Felliniís film, Nights of Cabiria.
Do you believe in God?
Do you believe in hell?
Where was the most interesting place youÖ well, yíknowÖ
No comment. Iíve read Rafaelís Life Diaries entry about the virtues of taciturnity in the October issue of SELEDA. What is this? A trap?
Yes. It is. Did you get caught?
For more information on GIR-GIR
Gir-Gir (Tumult) will be screened at the Cinevegas Film Festival at the New Paris Las Vegas Hotel at 6 pm on Saturday, December 11, 1999.