Film on Ethiopia's brutal past wins African Oscar

OUAGADOUGOU Sun Mar 8, 2009 7:17am EDT

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OUAGADOUGOU (Reuters) - A film set in Ethiopia about a bloodthirsty regime under which political dissidents and village children alike were ruthlessly killed has won best movie award at Africa's top film festival.

"Teza," a feature by award-winning director Haile Gerima set during Mengistu Haile Mariam's 1974-1991 rule, won the top prize late on Saturday at this year's 40th pan-African FESPACO film festival in Burkina Faso.

Judges praised the film, 14 years in the making, for its strength, depth and poetry conveying the dashed hopes of a returning intellectual elite. Stunning village vistas and shoulder-dancing amid ululations in bars capture an expressive, vital Ethiopian culture.

"The message of the film is peace," Selome Gerima, associate producer of the film and sister of the United States-based, Ethiopian-born director, told Reuters while beaming and clutching her Etalon d'Or de Yennenga (Golden Stallion of Yennenga), Africa's equivalent of an Oscar.

The plot follows a series of horrific experiences endured by hero Anberber, who trains as a medical research scientist in Europe. On his return to Ethiopia full of hope and eager to contribute to his country, he and his friends are violently and cruelly rejected at home and again back in Germany.

Shot in the Gerimas' hometown of Gondar in northwest Ethiopia, the village cast was drawn from locals during three months of filming, many of whom had experienced the brutalities of the regime firsthand.

"Some had experienced the Red Terror. One mother started crying bitterly because it reminded her of when they took her daughter," Selome Gerima told Reuters during the festival, referring to the violent purges that marked Mengistu's rule.

Several entries among this year's competition have raised a critical voice and urged change on the continent.

In the South African film "Nothing But The Truth," which won second prize, director and lead actor John Kani plays a librarian denied promotion, and who believes post-apartheid freedom's dividends have not been realized. In real life Kani's brother was shot dead in a church by police while reading a poem at the grave of a nine-year old girl killed during an anti-apartheid riot.

HOPES FOR CINEMA HALLS

Since Teza premiered in Ethiopia at the start of 2009, Gerima says cinema halls showing the film, which has also won awards at the Venice Film Festival, are still sold out two months later.

On Saturday night, the winning film was screened in cinema halls across Burkina Faso's hot, dusty capital Ouagadougou, where more than 300 films have shown in the past week.

At Cine Burkina, the country's premier movie theater, three long queues formed in the dark in all directions, streaming back from any entry point local cinema-lovers could find.

"If it's won the Etalon that means it's a film we all need to see," said Mamadou Boro, 26, a former economics student looking for work, who was still queuing at close to midnight for Saturday's second screening. "We are really suffering to see this film, but we want to make sure we see it now because tomorrow we won't be able to."

Distribution woes have taken the spotlight at this year's festival. As increasing numbers of cinema halls close down, African films are squeezed out by Hollywood action blockbusters and Bollywood musicals.

More directors are turning to mass-market digital movies such as the $450 million market in Nigeria.

"We need to establish an African filmmakers' bank," Selome Gerima told Reuters on winning the award. She is building four new 35mm cinemas for the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa and hopes it will help African cinema to go it alone. "Just like a construction bank or any other bank, we need to be there to keep African films going."

(Editing by Daniel Magnowski and Charles Dick)

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