This film is about a sweet young boy who must leave his drought-ravaged village to live with distant relatives in the far-off highlands of Ethiopia, where his uncle hates the boy’s inability to farm — and his affinity for a certain ruminant — but his aunts are impressed by his cooking prowess. Aside from being a touching saga, it’s a stark look at how the ancient traditions of Ethiopia are running headfirst into modern ways.
What inspired you to make this film?
From my memories of Ethiopia as a kid. Despite the war, famine, and political chaos going on at the time in the ‘80s, my childhood in Addis Ababa was like a fairytale. I grew up with a lot of love, good food, colorful characters, and holiday festivities that I never forgot. At the age of 10, I left behind everything I knew and everyone I loved for, as my mother said, “a better life in America.” Writing and making Lamb was a way to return to my beautiful, but tragic past. To imagine and relive the heart and humor of the Ethiopia I loved.
Is there a daily struggle between tradition and modernity in Ethiopia?
The forces of tradition and modernity are, for sure, at play in the film. This is the case with the protagonist, Ephraim, who wants to survive by cooking when that goes against the gender roles of the society. The same for the rebel teenager, Tsion, who would rather read in her free time. She wants education before being wed-locked, yet she does not necessarily throw away all her identity. Her wish is to help the plight of her poor people. In the film, all the costume and production design were taken from the surrounding villages. What is worn and used is all beautiful, traditional handicraft artwork.
I wanted to capture a glimpse of contemporary Ethiopian life with all the changes happening in the country as well as forces still holding it back. I am trying to say to fellow Ethiopians and the world that while we may be poor in some regards, we are very rich in others. That while some of our traditions are not helping to improve our lives, we don’t have to discard all of our cultural customs. We can, for example, reexamine the tradition of not listening to the views of the youth while we can continue to have reverence for the experience of our elders.
Why are gender roles are a central theme?
The film is homage to the clever, funny, and beautiful Ethiopian women who raised me. Despite the patriarchy in many aspects of Ethiopian culture, there has always been strong-willed women who held families and even the nation together. The character, Emama, for example, represents those women from the past, such as my own grandmother. Azeb represents the Ethiopian women of today, still struggling to survive in difficult economic and political circumstances. Tsion represents what I hope for the future of the country: a more educated and equal Ethiopia.
Specific Ethiopian dishes are also described in rich detail. Why?
The primary theme of Lamb is loss. Ephraim longs for his home and family he lost from famine. He deals with his trauma through a skill his deceased mother taught him, cooking. Thus, food is an important element in this story. Ephraim obsessively cooks as it gives him a sense of control and a kind of subconscious unconditional love. So he cooks to remember her. He cooks to cope. He cooks to save his lamb, who represents his material attachment to his mother and home while, for his family, she is just food.
By showing Ephraim cooking, I am also playing with the cliche of Ethiopia being synonymous with famine. Despite its problems, the country continues its ancient and rich culinary culture.
How is life in rural Ethiopia these days?
Ethiopia is an agrarian country with over 85% of its population today still living as subsistence farmers. The conditions for the majority of rural dwellers, however, is improving due to the government programs to help them as well as many Ethiopians retuning with their degrees from agricultural universities around the world. (I, myself, at one point pursued masters in agro-economics in Norway before studying film in New York.) But I believe Ethiopia is changing its farming practices to be more sustainable and economically viable. As long as land rights of indigenous people are protected and respected, the country has a chance to better the standards of living for its majority population.
The Ethiopian highlands are dramatically beautiful. Do you hope the film inspires others to visit?
Over 70% of Africa’s mountains are in Ethiopia. The country is very much defined by these mountains — the vegetation, the way of life, how we look and the shape of our history; from being “an island of Christianity” in the region to never having been colonized by Europeans. For these reasons and more, the mountainous landscape is very much a big character in the film.
Furthermore, Ethiopia is perceived to be a desert in the eyes of the Western world. Having shot the film in the northern province of Gonder as well as the southern province of Bale — which, at 13,000 feet, has the world’s only Afro-alpine forest — the audience is in for a surprise as most of the mountainous country is green. In that sense, it was important for me to show the diversity and beautify of Ethiopia.