My name is Semagngeta Aychiluhem, I’m a Writer/Producer and Director.
When I was a kid I used to trick my Dad into buying me movies so that I could learn English. My father bought me an endless supply of VHS tapes that introduced me to worlds far beyond my own. Jackie Chan movies were my favorite and I used to do all the fighting scenes; bruising and breaking my bones in the process. But becoming a filmmaker wasn’t an option. I had to become a scientist or work in the aviation industry.
Like a good son, I did what I was told. I eventually graduated at the top of my class and got a coveted position working in Ethiopian Airlines as an aircraft systems engineer. But my love for movies wouldn’t leave me.
My passion evolved because I always loved to tell stories. A long time ago, when there were frequent power outages in Addis Ababa, I used to tell scary stories to my neighborhood friends or re-create moments from films I watched. I grew up with this love and passion for film. When I started my higher education, I had my first laptop. The next day I started my first Google search: “how to make a movie” and I haven’t stopped searching since.
I have been working in the Ethiopian film and television industry for Eight years. I’ve made several award winning short films and a television sitcom series, Brotherly Sisterly. Recently, I was awarded the top prize at IEFTA’s Global Film Expression.
I don’t think I can or want to do anything else. Nothing gives me the same satisfaction as seeing something I imagined come to life. It gives me a dopamine rush that is sort of addictive. I’m a film addict.
Filmmaking in Ethiopia
As most of the creative people working in the industry, I am self-taugh. My teacher was the Internet and other “creatively sourced” inspirations. Filmmaking is not something you master by reading. It’s in the name itself: Film-Making. You need to make films to learn more and be better. It’s not a stagnant education, you keep learning as you go.
Filmmaking in Ethiopia is a tough nut to crack. Without a proper infrastructure that teaches interested people the art and that also becomes a catalyst to create that ecosystem of like-minded professionals, it is a very difficult industry to be in.
The first step I had to get used to was self-learning. This is where most people struggle as it entirely depends on you and you alone. It’s hard to figure out the starting point. Some start from the most daunting tasks/topics and are discouraged. I had to learn how to learn and start small and familiarized myself from the basics and then slowly go through that. That’s how I think people should also start, especially filmmakers. Because to truly become a Director, with limited resources and budget, you need to wear multiple hats, you have to learn how to be confident behind the camera, edit your footage and be comfortable with people. That’s the good thing about filmmaking it pushes you out of your shell.
I usually get inspired by great films. I’m a regular moviegoer. After I’ve seen that great film, I usually tend to pace and it never really lets go of me. And that’s the kind of films I want to make. But as far as my process goes, I usually start with either a song that I really like or a joke I heard that was funny, or even memorable conversations I find from everyday discussions with friends (people tend to find it annoying when I note things down in the middle of a conversation).
After that, I don’t start with the idea right away. I’ll sleep on it. I have to see if it excites me the next day or the next week. But 99 percent of the time, It’s not that. It’s probably because it wasn’t a good idea to begin with. So I find it important to stay with an idea and ruminate on it before I start writing.
If the idea still excites me, then I push on. Sometimes my ideas start with a specific scene that my main character is in. So, I usually have to figure out who my main character/s is/are (Protagonist and Antagonists). Stories are about a character’s action in dramatic conflict. The character needs to feel real. It needs to feel three-dimensional. Not just some figure that the writer moves around from one plot point to the next. That’s why I spend a lot of time developing my characters. I need them to have their own life (personalities, likes, dislikes, family…), and my job will be to watch them live it in the story I created.
After developing my characters, I build a story outline for each of them. The next and the most time consuming step for me is finding the structure. Deciding which Act comes first and why?
After I find this structure, and it takes a long time to get to here, it doesn’t take long to write the script. Putting words on paper is the easy part. This is also where I start scouting for actors.
Once the script is locked, I meet with my team (Guzo Films) and think about the budget I have and try to re-write or adjust the script to meet the budget. You shouldn’t write a massive practical car explosion scene with 1,000 birr budget. Once that is set, we come up with a schedule and filming timelines. We then move on to production, this is where we actually produce the film. Here I find it important that I create a healthy environment that pushes people to do their best and don’t dread coming on set. That’s very important.
After shooting is wrapped we move to post-production. I have an editor that works on the first-cut based on my storyboards or my shooting list. When the first cut is completed, I will do the final touches. Then we will lock the timeline and work on the music and color grading. This is the process we usually follow but it can vary between projects and depending on the budget.
Stories I like to tell
I love telling stories. But when I do I don’t like to tell people how to think, I don’t like to be a lecturer. I don’t think anybody has the moral high ground to tell people how to live. I prefer to show my thoughts and ideas through my characters. How my characters see the world and why they see it that way is a manifestation of some part of me.
My stories tend to show people the perspective they’re not seeing in a fun and action filled way. I think most of the world’s suffering is caused by people who refuse to see other people’s perspective. They think their thought is right and everyone else should think like them. They are ready to hunt, find and kill those who don’t agree. Politicians, Religious leaders, Influencers, Fathers, Mothers… everyone!
Film in Ethiopia was screened only three years after the first ever film was made in the world. Considering it’s age, the film industry is not where it should be by now.
I think the solution to the Ethiopian cinema industry problems starts with changing how the government perceives the medium. People that are supposed to oversee the growth from the government side tend to be unknowledgeable and uninterested about the subject. That’s something that plagues Ethiopia in other sectors as well. These sorts of people should go. It starts with placing young passionate people who want to make a difference in the film industry.
The importance of the sector is largely ignored (even though that’s what keeps us going). People talk about Paris being the city of love and America being the most powerful nation on earth. That’s largely because the subtle marketing put into films and the media. And Ethiopia, with our History and diverse cultural make-up and narratives, it’s a medium we can’t ignore.
Governmental and non-governmental bodies that have specific objectives (such as job creation, unity in diversity, Ethiopia’s technological future…) tend to use the most clichéd narrative works that the public is very tired of. The public is weary of watching a documentary or an interview about how an unemployed university graduate can create a job. Even though these are intended to make a positive impact, they fail to speak to the audience. Stories are the only way to speak to people’s heart. They help you see yourself in characters. And these characters inspire you. They inspire you to be better.
They inspire you to make a change. They inspire you to be more like them. I can’t think of a better medium than film to do that.
Unlike popular opinion, I think, it’s not the lack of equipment and cameras that has hindered the growth of the film industry in Ethiopia. (Even though it is a huge problem). That’s the simplest thing. It’s something you buy. The knowledge and infrastructure, however, that’s something you build and cultivate to make things better not just for today buy also in the longer run. We need to have a plan and policy (That actually gets applied) to develop the industry and cultivate the next generation of creatives. We need a plan for 10 or 50 years down the line. But we have to start today.
From the creatives’ side, people that want to be in the sector but don’t respect it are a huge headache. That includes actors, writers and directors.
Some Producers also tend to damage the industry by forcing people to abide by a lower standard because it’s sometimes easier, it tends to lower the respect audiences have for the film industry.
But there are lots of filmmakers who are very passionate and love the craft. This gives me hope. I’m very sure the industry is going to produce amazing works that the future generation will consider classics. I hope to make one of those films.
Guzo Films is a production company I started two years ago. We’re a fully equipped production house that’s focused on producing high quality narrative and documentary films. We also work on music clips, advertisements and corporate videos. Our team is filled with young and passionate artists that love experimenting and trying different things. We have high hopes for it and we hope it’ll change the landscape of Ethiopian cinema for the better.
We are currently working on an Action limited series. This project is a very ambitious and the biggest production we have made so far. It is a project that we hope will bring something different and exciting to the film industry and the audience in Ethiopia.
Corona is something that caused a lot of problems in a lot of industries. I worry about how we’re cutting costs now to stay open, to keep creating. People won’t understand that you’re reducing prices and rate to accommodate the current climate. Moreover, this will also leave spaces open for people that are only interested in monetary gains.
But I also think that it’s an opportune time for people to start introspecting about their projects and scripts.
My Film Recommendations
From the 21st century (The last 20years)
Ethiopian: Zetegn Mot
Drama: The Man From Earth
Comedy: Hot Fuzz
Suspense: The Platform
Horror: A Quite Place
Action: Hardcore Henry
Series: The Handmaid’s Tale … The Kingdom