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How Are Women Portrayed in Ethiopian Films?

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Wednesday, May 25th, 2016
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Film is a category or genre of art that has high impact on society. It is an artistic tool used to entertain, enlighten and inform. And what makes it different from other media is that it highly shapes the society. Films or movies have power to influence, to motivate, to guide, to teach, to change perception and to change society’s behavior and other many characteristics and assets.

The first Ethiopian-produced movie was a 90 minute black and white movie .It is entitled Hirut Abatua Mannew? It was produced in 1971. Years later Guuma and Behiwot Zuria were produced respectively and that is how Ethiopian movies and films journey began where now films are produced and premiered in big screens week after week.

Initially, when cinema was introduced to the capital during emperor Minilk II rule, people referred the cinema as Satan’s house due to citizens’ foreignness to modernity. Now in Addis Ababa there are around 20 cinema houses and the film industry is at its peak. Most of Ethiopian films are only market oriented and the contents of the films, in light of Ethiopia’s rich and diverse culture, history and geography, are deficient. In reflecting social and cultural features and in creating Ethiopian taste they are flat.

Amharic movies are always being criticized for not having Ethiopian taste and being unbalanced and for being charged with unrealistic features in reflecting Ethiopia. The flaw of most of our films is that some are just too exaggerated that don’t even reflect how Ethiopians live. They don’t consider reality and some are rich with natural scenes trying to be realistic while others are copied from other foreign films. Though art is primarily meant to show basic challenges and ways of life in the society most of the movies produced and marketed locally are either comedy or romantic comedies, which film goers predict the end in their minds while starting to watch. What is more, most films distort reality, intentionally or otherwise, under representing women. Many of which perpetuate unrealistic, stereotypical, limiting perceptions which portray women as gold diggers, spongers, lairs, materialists, cheaters,weak and so on.

Most Ethiopian films reflect and sustain socially endorsed views of gender depictions of relationships between men and women which emphasize traditional roles and normalize gender inequality. The sad fact is that these films wield negative influences on how children, youths or the next generation view men and women.

Most Ethiopian film makers are self made, who without even going to formal school produce some of the commercially successful movies. There are few experts on film industry and there are very few female experts as directors and producers or script writers.

Nordic Film Festival was held last week at Goethe institute on the theme women empowerment. Five films from Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and also Ethiopia which were directed, produced and written by women were screened. The film festival showed the existence of gender equality in Nordic film industry and social life.

The films written, produced and directed by female writers are Golden Globe and Oscar winning successful movies, whose theme explores women quest to harness their potential as well as woman’s role in society.

Aside from the film festival, there was also a panel discussion on how women are portrayed in Ethiopian movies. A paper was presented by Yellow Movement co-founder Blen Sahlu. The Movement was an initiative began by a group of Law School students at Addis Ababa University to speak up for women and girls’ rights.

At the film festival, among the invited guests to have their say on the issue of how women are portrayed in Ethiopian movies was Azeb Worku a well known theater and movie actress most known for a script playwright for Dana TV series.

Sharing her views on the matter Azeb said that “As art integrates social perception and thinking, artistic pieces should be created and used to impact society so as to better empower women”. Relating about an incident she encountered once while she was auditioning school kids for film, she heard a kid talking over the phone to his friend about how his girlfriend always ask him for money and how materialistic and slick she is and so on and when Azeb asked the kid later where did he get these ideas about girls, he went on arguing “Aren’t they like that ?” but when she asked him if his mom or sister are ever like that he said “No!” anger stamped on his face. The point is this kid got this idea from nowhere but from the films. “Most Ethiopian movies are wrongly perpetuating overblown, far-fetched and fake reflections of women. Unless we exercise caution now, it would be complex to solve this issue after it spiraled out of control,” said Azeb.

“Films are the most pervasive and one of the most powerful media in shaping the mindset of society, specially that of the youth. Rather we can use the media industry to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women. Why are women always given a restricted and a limited role? More Women should come to directing and producing to minimize this wrong perception “

Abreham Gezahegn, a director and film maker, was the other guest on the festival. He thinks that the issue seems to make a vicious circle ” The social perception needs to be rearranged through critics, we are in the stage where women harassment are taken as humor scenes at some movies.”

Also on the discussion, directors from the films screened at the festival have shared with Ethiopians their respective countries’ strides in ensuring gender equality and promoting women empowerment and exploiting media to this effect.

Mette Thygesen, Denmark Ambassador to Ethiopia, said women have equal participation and power in every sector in Denmark and the Nordic countries. “Films directed or produced by women are rare in Ethiopia, compared to other countries and if women experts come to the industry, gender equality would be promoted .”

At the panel discussion, other issues were also raised by students of theatrical arts from AAU concerning the fact that most of the producers in Ethiopia give main actor roles for models or already famous actors and the amateur actors stand no chance or little chance to practice their skills.

Even in 1971, when film was first introduced to Ethiopia, there was no digital technologies like now but art had more flourished in many ways. When now there is full access to modern gadgets, digital technologies, and books on the art of film making I recommend filmmakers of this generation should devotedly allow the industry flourish by evaluating what the films’ pros and cons are as well as using plays to positively influence society rather than focusing on money making and disregarding and killing the art.

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