Being selected as a first Ethiopian language film to premiere at Cannes is always going to create a lot of hype, so I went to see Lamb at BFI London Film Festival with high expectations, but at the same time not knowing what to expect. Was a story about a boy with his pet lamb going to end as an adventure escapde, a political comment, or a difficult art movie? Going from the positive comments from the audience at the Q&A with director Yared Zeleke and producer Ama Ampadu at the packed screening, I think I can say that the film exceeded all our expectations, charming the pants off everyone there, as did Zeleke with with his humble and grateful style in answering questions.
The story was a simple story. Outsider boy in farming family in northern Ethiopia loves pet lamb and is put under great pressure as his father leaves him to live with relatives and traditional, inflexible social situation in a different community to escape hunger during failed rains – with the lamb a possible solution to the family food problems. At root there is a basic life or death scenario. On a story level we are kept guessing as to how the issue may resolve itself, and so are carried on satisfactorily to the end of the film. By which time we realise that Lamb is about so much more than the mundanely believable story.
Most obviously it could be said to be a film about Ethiopia. Rather like the way Fatih Akin as an outsider created his back-to-Turkey-roots movies exploring as he went, New York based Zeleke has managed to bring some outside-inside eyes to a country that not enough people know about – as was evidenced in some of the basic questions at the Q&A. Zeleke, in contrast to Akin, was born in the country he has portrayed, but in the urban capital Addis Ababa not the very different rural setting of this film. With economic and political difficulties over some decades, Addis city dwellers are only now starting to visit their own country and understand the lives of the 85% who live in rural communities in Africa’s second most populous country. The spectacular, beautifully-shot scenery will do what the poorly designed leaflets of the country’s ministry of tourism has failed to do well, and encourage increased bookings for the classic ‘northern tour’ of the land.
It’s good to remember that the film is set in only one part of the country. I’m not sure whether it’s meant to be near Gondar and the Simien mountains or further towards the Eritrean border and the Adwa mountain range. Ethiopia has over 80 indigenous languages and so is also one of the most diverse countries in Africa. Zeleke nods towards this in finding a way to introduce a Muslim shepherd girl at prayer, a third religious element along side the Orthodox Christian context (a church that predates western Christianity) and the young boy protagonist Ephraim’s (Rediat Amare) Jewish roots, making him a ‘Falasha’ outsider. The word is considered by the community as pejoritive, who prefer to say they are ‘Bet Israel’ – House of Israel. The cultural features of life in the community are painted with broad, slightly over-stylised brush stokes. And yet if there was any element of being over-rosy, or a touch touristic, this is forgiven; the traditional costumes worn by the women maybe more often than they would in day-to-day life are so beautiful they need to be seen, the stylised talk in the family gatherings is curious in its difference to European discourse – yet featuring as much innuedo and sophisticated social positioning – and no one would blame a director for chosing some of the most idyllic scenery available on the planet to set a tale. Details stand out: from the whip wielded and jealously guarded by great aunt to chastise her family and in a show of matriarchal strength not let into the hands of angry uncle, to the extremes of pitch in Amharic intonation, not so different in fact from English. So few films come out of Ethiopia that almost anything goes, but although Lamb will open many eyes to a terribly misundertood country, ultimately the film is maybe not ‘about Ethiopia’, which would be a vast documentary subject.
In spending time in one family in one specific community, Zeleke’s Lamb follows hard on the heels of Channel 4’s fly-on-the-wall documentary The Tribe. This was filmed in the Omo Valley (different langauge, history, weather, culture, problems) in southern Ethiopia with the ‘secret cameras’ of the Big Brother ‘Rig’ over 6 weeks in a small number of families and edited to create simple story lines – which were naturally there in the amazing personalities. What brings these two works together apart from the use of non-professional actors – which in Lamb is stunning in its success – is the sensitive and touching handling of close family relationships, the exploration of feelings that are often difficult to express, the young individuals pushing against authority and society, and finding solutions to the practical problems of life. In both works the sickness and possible life or death of a helpless baby – and there is maybe nothing more universally human than a baby before cultural behaviours kick in – came to be a defining issue. In the reality show the crew filmed without intervening the child’s teeth being pulled as a possible cure for what turned out to be malaria. In Lamb the question of the choice between traditional and medical solutions is what drives the final denoument in Ephraim’s personal development.
Which brings me to what Lamb is really about. Ephraim is a sensitive, sweet, bright and intelligent lad who doesn’t quite fit into the harsh realities of life lived so close to to beautiful but harsh Mother Nature. There is no real indication that being ‘Falasha’ is primarily what makes him a bit of an outsider. He has lost and misses his mother; that too has an effect. But essentially he is who he is, and this is his character. We could find boys and girls like him in every country. And he’s growing up. He prefers cooking and singing to ploughing and of course baulks at the idea of slaughtering animals, let alone his beloved Chuni. We sympathise with him. As someone who in Ethiopia as a guest in a family had no way out of ‘doing the honours’ in regard to a sweet, identical lamb, his predicament was for me personally poignant.
The social structures around him do not give him room for manoeuvre or to take on new information and situations at his own speed. And yet ultimately it is his extended family and the-way-things-are-done-round-here which are proved right or at least necessary, and it is Ephraim who has to change, as young people must. The local culture is not culture for no reason; it is born out of centuries of necessity. Lamb seems at root to be about the dialogue between the old and the new (Ephraim’s female cousin also fights for her belief in modern approaches to agriculture), and between the group and the individual, and particularly the young individual, who, for whatever reason be it sexuality, skin colour or religion or just personal character, feels alone, needs to be treated as a person, and needs to be granted space to grow whilst not being shielded from the realities fo life. And that as a story can be set in any place you like.
On a wider level the film, to Ethiopia, which is pushing forward in education and has ambitious goals to become a middle-income country, suggests a more inclusive social approach where difference, particularly in that country in terms of sexuality or at the least gender roles, should be more understood and tolerated. For the developed world Lamb may have a different message. Lord knows today’s teenagers have enough pressures around them not least through being connected online. But nothing barring tragic family circumstances comes close to the real life or death choices faced by children in other places which contribute to their journey to adulthood. Maybe slaughtering an animal ought to be part of the UK national school curriculum – hey, relax, it’s a hyperbolic point 🙂 or at least a visit to the local abbatoir to face some of the forces that control our lives in the developed world.
Ultimately Lamb is about growing and facing reality with humanity.