'Our relationship was the story': Film Development Fund - Ethiopia | Film and Development | DW | 17.05.2022
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Moving pictures, changing perspectives

'Our relationship was the story': Film Development Fund - Ethiopia

After a year of funding and mentorship, the inaugural five grants for the DW Akademie Film Development Fund – Ethiopia have come to an end. Mentors and mentees reflect on a challenging but fruitful year.

In May 2021, five Ethiopian filmmakers were selected as the first grantees of DW Akademie Film Development Fund. The goal of the fund is to support filmmakers from the Global South by giving them the resources they need to develop their creative film projects. The project is supported by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).

The five grantees were Beza Hailu Lemma, Hiwot Admasu Getaneh, Dirbdil Assefa Akirso,  Henok Mebratu and Abraham Gezahagne Assefa. After being named, the filmmakers were each paired with a mentor that would accompany them for a year for the development stage of their projects, the critical phase of filmmaking when a filmmaker develops an idea into a screenplay, makes production plans and creates a budget.  

Accompanying the mentees were accomplished film industry veterans, including Philippe Lacôte, a film director from Côte d'Ivoire (Beza), Hawa Essuman, a filmmaker, writer, director and producer (Hiwot), Heidi Fleisher, an American documentary film producer and consultant based in Paris (Dirbdil), Amjad Abu Alaa, a Sudanese director and producer (Henok), and Lorna Tee, a pan-Asian film producer and festival curator (Abraham).

The project also benefitted greatly from the engagement of Tamara Dawit, a producer with many years of experience working within the film industry in Ethiopia. For Dawit, development funding has a critical role in supporting filmmakers so that the content is stronger and thus, more competitive in the international marketplace.

"The domestic film and TV industry in Ethiopia is growing, however, there is still room for great improvement to help stabilize the system and ensure that Ethiopian stories are shared globally," said Dawit.

A challenging year

Because of the realities of the global coronavirus pandemic, some of the pairs were not able to meet in person and were limited to communicating via Zoom, email and messaging apps. According to the participants, this made the initial stage of getting to know each other difficult. However, the teams reported that they were able to overcome these challenges and all made significant progress toward making their films a reality.

Highlights of the year include grantee Beza Hailu Lemma (with mentor Philippe Lacôte) and his film "The Last Tears of the Deceased" being selected to take part in the Cinéfondation Atelier emerging filmmakers program at Cannes International Film Festival. "Mehal Sefari", the film by grantee Abraham Gezahagne (mentor Lorna Tee) was chosen for the coveted Berlinale Co-Production Market.

DW Akademie's film industry team is pleased with the successful inaugural round of funding and is looking forward to staying in contact with the fellows.

"We certainly hope that we will be seeing their projects on the big screen soon," said Nadja Lischewski, DW Akademie project manager. The Film Fund also has projects underway in Tanzania and Uganda

We spoke to two filmmakers and two mentors about the mentorship process, the relationships that were built over the course of the year and how their films – and filmmaking – were affected.


Dirbdil Assefa (filmmaker "Children of Arfan Qallo, Wake Up!" working with mentor Heidi Fleisher)

I think other filmmakers in Ethiopia would benefit from taking part in the Film Fund. Firstly, the fund gives them the financial freedom to focus on their project. Secondly, it creates the opportunity to develop their projects under the mentorship of industry professionals that often have quite diverse networks, which further benefits the project in different stages.

Most film projects in Ethiopia are privately funded with commercial success as their prime objective. This has, in a way, created homogeneity on the content and has limited the diversity of films. So having funding like the DW Akademie Film Fund as an alternative will emancipate the filmmaker to work on any topic close to its heart. 

Working with a mentor helped my project to be more refined and have universal appeal. In a documentary, people often need contextual clarity on the subject matter to better understand the story. In this regard, working with a mentor revealed to me this gap and how to address it better. 


Heidi Fleisher (mentor to Dirbdil Assefa)

The major challenge I faced was directly due to COVID. When starting a mentor-mentee relationship, it’s important to take the time to get to know each other, have long conversations about the film, and build trust, which is so much harder when we're not able to meet in person. We also had some initial technical difficulties with video connections, which made the conversation flow challenging. But we were able to break through all of that and establish a good working relationship and true connection very early on. I’m really looking forward to finally meeting him in person in a few months!

By amplifying voices from the Global South and providing filmmakers with access they may not have had before in terms of funding, networking, mentoring and promotion, film funds can help empower the global filmmaking community. But going further, these programs can hopefully contribute to tearing down barriers linked to historic inequities in the film industry, encourage systemic change at the decision-maker level, and hold gatekeepers accountable in their decision-making process in terms of making sure filmmakers from the Global South are the ones telling their stories. 


Hiwot Admasu (filmmaker "Sweet Annoyance" working with mentor Hawa Essuman)

Even though working with a mentor on a script wasn’t a new thing for me, this time it greatly affected how I was working. The first reason is that my mentors from other places weren't writers or directors, which Hawa [Essuman] is. Hawa understands my struggles and victories from her direct experiences as a writer-director and that made the process simpler. It gave me a chance to feel understood, and in turn, I was able to be honest about my challenges.

Secondly, most of the time, my script mentors were temporary. They were either attached to a workshop or a program at a film festival. There are great things coming out of these short-term mentorships, but there is also a potential to feel lost after the mentorship comes to an end. Having a longer mentorship allowed me to stick to certain decisions and test my new ideas for storylines and characters in the long term.

Lastly, the fact that I don’t have any other obligations to Hawa (for example she isn’t my producer or doesn't pay me, etc.) made it easier for me. Our relationship is the story, I don’t have to make her happy or I can’t disappoint her personally, that setup is perfect for my character.


Lorna Tee (mentor to Abraham Gezahagne for his film "Mehal Safari")

For myself personally, not having a lot of prior information about Ethiopia's filmmaking industry / community seemed counter-productive. But in hindsight, working as a newcomer with the film team, asking the questions that most people would need to know about the country, helped the film team to get a better sense of how to position the film project for the international market.

The DW Akademie Film Fund enables filmmakers to have the ability to develop projects of a more personal and artistic nature or perhaps more politically charged stories that may not be well-positioned for local funding. Once there is a good number of films from the Global South that reach a wider audience beyond the region, the international audience and marketplace will grow to embrace more films and stories that need to be also seen and heard, in a media landscape dominated by Western stories and voices. 


DW Akademie supports global film

The DW Akademie film industries team supports and implements projects that aim to strengthen the economic systems of film industries in the Global South and to contribute to freedom of expression. Funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), DW Akademie professionalizes and qualifies filmmakers in the creation, production and distribution of films and series. In this context, DW Akademie works and has been working with a variety of partners for more than ten years, such as STEPS, the LADIMA Film Academy, Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin (DFFB) and One Fine Day Films. 

DW Akademie is Deutsche Welle’s center for international media development, journalistic training and knowledge transfer. DW Akademie strengthens the human right to freedom of expression and together with its partners, plays a leading role in the development of free media systems, creating access to information, and setting standards for education and independent journalism.

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