Arts Festival

Secrets, shadows: Ethiopia’s scars



THE beautiful auntie: Wise, fierce and brave Selamawit Dawit. Photograph courtesy

A WOMAN STANDS and calls the name of her long absent sister in a wide valley in Africa. The keening sound reverberates eerily, but beautifully. It is even in tone, mournful in its sense of plea. The gesture offers goosebump-raising closure to a bitter conundrum for an ordinary family. Finding Sally, a film on this year’s Encounters film festival, is the story of Tamara Mariam Dawit, who has researched, written and directed it. It explores the trajectory of life of an aunt who she never met and presents a lucid reflection of the history of Ethiopia in its contextual interstices.

On a level, Dawit’s story evokes that of Steven Robins’s 2016 book, Letters of Stone, in which a family photograph is the first step on an internal voyage of discovery, but one that pulls the bloody and messy tangle of history through its viewfinder, too. It also evokes some of the ethos in much of Ariel Dorfman’s work, exploring the notion of home for one who has lived in many diverse contexts.

Above all, it is a celebration of the life of struggle hero Selamawit Dawit (known fondly as ‘Sally’), who was also a beloved sister and daughter. The heart of the tale takes you from the 1970s buzz and thrust of the Canadian city of Ottawa peppered with political activism. It takes you to the terrifying Derg uprising in an Ethiopia that was never colonised and could trace its heritage all the way back to the Queen of Sheba. It was, however, at that point, a country ripe for revolution under its emperor, Haille Selassie.

It’s about thugs hijacking the values of intellectual revolutionaries and using their groundwork as a stick to smash some and ‘disappear’ others. It’s about love and the ability to hold onto one’s gut instincts in a world beset by the violent rhetoric and illogic of insurrection. And it is about the sacred agony of knowing something of the back story of someone you loved very dearly and lost very mysteriously. Every superficial encounter with acquaintances that the storyteller didn’t know she knew is handled with the delicacy of godly objects and religious text.

But it is the editing and use of photography and context, as well as that of plain language, in this work that makes it simply magnificent. The tribute to the lost aunt is clear. The portraits yielded of the four sisters who mourn her are completely marvellous and the reflection on an Ethiopian ethos is heady and rich with history, photographic associations, cliché and fact. Redolent with some of Joan Didion’s memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, it is a film as much about loss as it is about politics, but the loss is handled with such a clear directorial hand and eye, that it becomes devastatingly universal.

  • Finding Sally is written and directed by Tamara Mariam Dawit. Produced by Isabelle Couture, it is edited by Mahi Rahgozar and features creative input by Alex Margineau (photographic director), Zaki Ibrahim (original music) and Catherine van der Donckt (sound). It features on the Encounters International South African Documentary Film Festival which runs from 20-30 August 2020, and this year is accessible online and without charge.

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