‘Anbessa’ Director Mo Scarpelli On The Impact Of Modernisation In Ethiopia

Director Mo Scarpelli joins us on Close-Up Culture to talk about her first solo feature, Anbessa.

The film follows an Ethiopian boy caught between the ancient and the new as he navigates modernisation on his own terms. By becoming a lion (anbessa) he can fight back against the forces outside of his control.

Q: You had been filming projects in Ethiopia for eight years prior to ‘Anbessa’. What were the conditions – both in terms of your own personal circumstances and the climate in Ethiopia – that led you to make this film?

A: My initial work in Ethiopia was always in the countryside; so my initial impressions of the country were traditional societies, communities without much technology or connection to the place I come from.

I developed a fascination with the ingenuity of different Ethiopian communities I met, the reverence for certain beliefs and traditions, a skepticism of modernity, an immense pride in culture and distinction in the world. Many people I have met in Ethiopia believe that the way Ethiopians have been doing and continue to do things is superior to other places in the world; their human history is long and steady; the roots deep. The resistance to Westernization is historically strong and so when I noticed rapid development shooting up all over Addis Ababa, I wanted to see what Ethiopians thought of this sudden race towards “progress.”

Q: How did you encounter Asalif and what drew you to each other?

A: In 2015, I flew over a vast condominium project spanning from the city. I hadn’t seen anything like this in Ethiopia in the eight years I’d come here. I started hanging around the unfinished complex, talking to whomever emerged, trying to glean answers to the question, “what is progress?” I spent weeks sitting around, talking to tons of people.

I was plotting an essay film which would weave voices and imagery together as a kind of tapestry of various takes on the condo’s influence, when a small kid emerged from behind a building and started chirping and roaring at me and my friend/translator. We called him over, he squatted down, and started telling stories. His eyes lit up. I was taken and already considering scrapping everything else to follow him.

He invited us home. It turned out he was displaced by this condominium construction, and was now squatting a toolshed on the edge of it with his mom. He was living on its rift into the farmland, and so he was in a perfect place for me to explore the annals of “progress” as it happened to him. He was also in a perfect place age-wise and brain-wise to explore these themes in a way that was compelling to me; he didn’t talk about displacement, rent, “progress” – he just felt, because he’s a kid.

And his unbridled curiosity made me quite certain he would take me to a more profound place than a bunch of adults sitting around complaining or praising the changes of the city. 

Q: How did Asalif’s outlook on the world help shape the film? Did he allow you to explore things you wouldn’t have otherwise?

A: Asalif creates, he chooses to make his world more interesting and cathartic than it could be otherwise — and he’s aware of his construction (he’s not living in a fantasy; he’s choosing to employ fantasy, and can step outside of it often to even kind of laugh at himself).

The general narrative about being successful in the modern world is so unequivocal and leaves very little room for interpretation. There is especially very little room for varying ideas or definitions of progress and success in North America, where I’m originally from — you get on board with conventional ideas of life, or you get out of the way, you don’t fit in the society. This means that when a vibrant, different worldview comes to the fore, it is dismissed as a coping mechanism or an escape. The washing out of anything outside of this conformity is of course happening in Addis, too.

The average person assumes that the adult world of condo expansion, satellite TVs and fighting over lands around Asalif is more “real” than his very intense fears of the hyenes in the forest above him, the helicopters he constructs by hand, or the underlying doom he feels when he wakes from a nightmare. But I think the truth is that the world is quite boring, and shitty. It’s only through our own spin on it that we can make it ok, make it meaningful, and survive.

In terms of the filmmaking process — very early after meeting Asalif I knew that this film would not do him any honour by strictly observing him in cinema véríte. The only way to find out what animals, folktales and certain symbols mean to Asalif, and how they form his worldview, was to say “Ok, this is valid, whatever this kid believes or constructs is just as valid as the ‘real’ world, let’s go with that.” I think I needed this for myself, too.

I needed someone to show me how the construction or interpretation of your own world can save you, can allow you to flourish and feel alive instead of crush you. 

Q: The film has flurries of fantasy with Asalif using his imagination to become his hero: the lion (‘anbessa’ in Amharic). Can you talk about Asalif’s escape into fantasy? Is it a useful mechanism for dealing with his situation or is it limiting?

A: The anbessa literally means “lion” in Amharic, but stands for much more within Ethiopian culture. An anbessa is the strongest of us all, the leader in times of trouble, the thing inside us that can overcome anything.

When a child gets a good grade on a test or completes a chore nicely, an adult will look at them, nod proudly and say, “Ah, anbessa.” As I got to know Asalif, I felt his coming of age story unfolding in front of me — a small child pitted against seemingly unsurmountable forces like gentrification and economic violence — was the story of becoming an anbessa.

Asalif was willing to let me into his fantasy world, where lions inside of you escape in growls, roars, and play in the fields and forests above the condo. The way his lion fantasies are woven into the film reflect the way they are woven into his real life; Asalif, his mom and some of his farmer neighbours see stories about animals and fables to be just as valid (if not more) than “real” life in front of their eyes.

To understand Asalif’s anxieties means to immerse into a world where hyenas terrorise him in the night, where birds above him crow his name, where a boy transforms into a lion.

Q: What type of characters does Asalif encounter during the film? And what do they say about his place – or lack of – in the country?

A: Asalif and his mother are squatting in a house perched right on the edge of modernity; he straddles the line between ancient farmland and a new modern condominium city and attempts to find his place in either world.

First, we’re running around with Kuba, a rough country boy Asalif has a history with (they both grew up on the land that was taken from them by the condo construction). Kuba and Asalif have a falling out when Kuba mocks Asalif’s fear of the hyenas and insults Asalif’s mom. Kuba is cruel and physical. To me, he embodies a pressure of young boys to become men, to become masculine and therefore shed any sensitivity or emotional curiosity. Asalif leaves Kuba behind, though the boy’s voice haunts his dreams later in the film.

When Asalif goes into the condo on a hunt for electronics others have thrown out (his favorite hobby is constructing lights and radios from the wires and nodes he finds on the street), he encounters the condo boys. He sidesteps these characters at first, finding them annoying.

But later in the film, he befriends a gentle condo boy named Fikurab, and is invited into a condo home. There, lights burn brightly and satellite TV brings him images he’s never imagined. Fikurab is much like many young kids in Addis Ababa (or any city) today; he’s into his games, his phone, and if he ever wants something, he asks his parents to buy it instead of inventing or crafting something himself. Asalif finds that Fikurab does not mean harm, but the distance created by privilege is vast and he will never truly feel at home with this boy either.

In between both of these spaces, Asalif seeks friendship in a local bar of farmers who were also displaced by the condo. The men here are kind to him, but also display a hard love, too. They are a mix of bitter and resigned over the condominium’s inevitable expansion, as well as a troupe of amazing storytellers about animals and fables. The bar is like a last refuge for those cast out of the new modern world, and yet also a hub of gossip and fear. His friends here are thus a source of anxiety and wonder for Asalif, and maybe a foretelling of his future. 


Q: The impact of rapid modernisation in Ethiopia is a key part of the film. I’ve been thinking a lot about this in terms of AI, particularly our desire for ‘progress’ in that realm without fully understanding the costs or risks it may have. What does the future hold for people, like Asalif, who have been disregarded by this dramatic economic and social shift?

A: I believe in the individual human being, our immense capacity to survive. That said, the present and future are quite bleak for literally millions striving to be a part of this dramatic economic and social shift.

The connotation of the English word “progress” is always good. In Ethiopia, the word in Amharic is more complicated; it means “moving / changing” but not necessarily for the better. Our economies are becoming more vast, our systems more entrenched, and soon, very few people will have an option to escape having to be a part of a globalised, capital-driven world. Everyone, including a child in the furthest village of the Ethiopian landscape, is being told that if they get an education, they can and will be apart of this economy — but the truth is, there are not enough jobs, not enough capital and not enough resources to support everyone getting a share.

Maybe there would be if the systems didn’t suck up a ton of the wealth at the top, for those who already had the ground laid for them years before someone like Asalif was born into this globalised world. Ethiopia is a country with one of the most rapid GDP growths on the African continent right now, but that doesn’t necessarily mean much for Asalif.

He may get terrific grades, earn several PhD’s even, but where may that lead? There are tons of well-educated males sitting around Addis waiting for this Promised Land of economic gains to let them in. Is that the life they should be desiring anyway?

The bigger question that should worry us more about the future is, what is lost as people all reach for the same goals the world over? What nuances in language; what other forms of wisdom; what ways of being, listening; what virtues are extolled when a swath of one-size-fits-all wipes across a city, a country? Modernisation at large teaches us that there is a price for everything worth reaching for or keeping. But you cannot put a price on culture. Then we lose it, in our striving, and when we do, it is pretty impossible to get it back.

What Asalif taught me in making this film is the power of the individual will to keep things alive, even just for themselves. In the end the film becomes a tribute to creativity — perhaps it is our best defense against all the things steamrolled by forces outside our control. 

Q: I understand most foreign press have been banned from the country. Did you have any barriers or pushback to making ‘Anbessa’?

A: I shot most of Anbessa in 2016 and 2017, as the country began facing social and political upheaval due to land appropriations for projects like the condominium happening all around the borders of Addis Ababa. More than 50,000 people were arrested, at least 1,000 killed and others fled the country in this period. Condos are going up everywhere of course – but here, they were spurring deadly riots.

I wanted to see how the adults’ tension around this would seep into Asalif’s consciousness, so it was important for me to shoot in this tense time. So, I entered as a tourist and shot the film mostly in secret — just me, a camera, my best friend/translator and our driver — keeping under the radar. The country reached a state of emergency by spring 2017 and so it was illegal to be filming anything without government permission, but by then we had formed trust with the displaced folks (mostly Oromia farmers) at the edge of the condo, and they gave me carte blanche.

The guys in the bar became our allies, and would alert us whenever authorities were lurking nearby. Asalif’s mom trusted me, and looked forward to our coming to keep her and her son company.

Things seem to have changed in 2019 when a new Prime Minister of Oromia descent stepped into power, but sadly now the country is facing very serious turmoil again. We’re not going to screen Anbessa in Addis Ababa until things quiet down and we can guarantee it’s safe for Asalif and mom that we do so.

Q: This is your solo directorial debut. What was the most demanding and the most rewarding part of the process?

A: I absolutely loved making this film. I learned how to listen to myself, how to let the iterative process of filmmaking unfold for itself. I discovered why I truly love making films. That I could start with a simple impulse, an image, a hunch of discomfort about something in the world — a notion. And then spend a lot of time watching and listening to someone dealing with this notion; shutting up, not taking a stance but exercising total release into them… which turns out of course to be my version of them in the film.

The closer I get, the more I sort of lose myself, until somewhere in the process (usually in the edit), I find myself more than ever because my impulse to follow and get close to them was there all along for reasons that were subliminal for me at the start. I hope that makes sense.

My point is that patience is demanding, but the reward of being able to immerse in another, is unlike anything else I’ve experienced. Anbessa taught me that I truly love that, and must do it however I can, forever. 

Q: ‘Anbessa’ premiered at Berlinale last year and has been received well at festivals around the world. What are your hopes for the film in the future and the impact it will have?

A: Our launch at the Berlinale and subsequent festivals was lovely; we are still a small film, though and don’t have a budget for big PR push etc., so my hopes are the film gets placed where it fits and finds its own life and audience for years to come.

Anbessa broadcast on ARTE and ZDF in France and Germany in November, and generated very positive responses and reviews. North America has been difficult as the market is very specific, and doesn’t seem concerned much the tone/style of my films (nor with non-English international films in general sadly) but we will keep pursuing whatever chances come up for the film. 

Q: You’ve been part of productions all over the world including Tunisia, Afghanistan, the United States, South Africa and India. What is next on your horizon in 2020?

A: I’m finishing my new film this week, actually. It is the story of an exiled Venezuelan film director who returns to his country to make a movie based on his father’s adventures in the illegal gold mines of the Amazon. He casts his father to play himself. Father is self-destructive, tender, and brilliant. The movie-making is supposed to bring them together. But their intensely personal process of their blending fiction and non-fiction, which taps into the years of estrangement from one another, starts to tear them apart.

My documentary observes this very closely — the film director, Jorge Thielen Armand, is my fiancé — which was an intensely personal filmmaking process for me as well, and I feel like the Amazon jungle spit us back into the world in a strange state, both with our own movies and our own takes on the same enigmatic man (Jorge’s father).

Jorge’s “fiction” movie La Fortaleza just premiered at Rotterdam in Tiger Competition. My documentary is called El Father Como Si Mismo (Father Plays Himself) and will premiere this spring… so keep an eye out!

Other than that, we have moved to Rome and so I’m learning Italian, meeting new producers to work with for European coproductions, and developing a new hybrid film to be shot in the wild west of Kenya. 2020 is looking bright.

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