By Besufekade Mulu
Sarah Noa Bozenhardt was born in 1991, Freiburg im Breisgau. At the age of twelve, she moved with her family to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, where she attended school and her parents still live and work in Ethiopia. She completed her BA in Film, Video, and Integrated Media in Canada, and has been studying documentary film directing at the Filmuniversity Babelsberg KONRAD WOLF since 2016.
Daniel Abate Tilahun was born in 1984 in Megendi. As a young boy, he moved to his grandmother’s house in Addis Ababa and has lived in the Ethiopian capital ever since. Daniel’s first degree was in information technology. He has been studying film directing at the Blue Nile Film School in Addis Ababa since October 2016. He also assisted Sarah Noa in production management on her last film MEDANIT, as well as several international productions set in Ethiopia.
among us women
among us women tells the story of 3 powerful women doing their best to navigate along patriarchal structures. Set in Megendi Gojam, among us women, has for its central character, Huluager, a woman that’s about to have her fourth child. What should be a joyful journey is hampered by a lack of proper access to maternal care, like in many other rural areas of Ethiopia, and a traditional birth attendant system that isn’t always fully equipped with the complexities that come with pregnancies.
On the surface, this is what the film explores: Why do women in rural Ethiopia choose risky home birth over safer alternatives? The answer to the question however, reveals deeper themes of the incredible strength women must muster to maintain control and agency over their lives.
We encourage you to watch this film, when it hits streaming platforms or if you get the chance to attend any upcoming screenings. We had the chance to sit down and meet with filmmaking duo Sarah Noa and Daniel Tilahun to talk about their experience in bringing this film to fruition.
Where it all started:
When Sarah Noa started to ideate for the film, she knew she wanted to pay homage to the home she grew up in and found her brother in Daniel Abate Tilahun. Daniel, hailing from Megendi Gojam, was adopted by Sarah’s family at a young age and grew up with her in Addis.
In addition to this bond, she was also inspired by the experiences she had when interacting with Ethiopian women. She says: “I fell at home in Ethiopia. I grew up here and this place welcomed me as if I was her own. Throughout my life here, I noticed that the role of women in Ethiopian society may traditionally be subordinate to men, but women defy their promised role with strength, self-confidence, and perseverance.” This was also paired with a lack of representation of Ethiopian stories and others from the global south. Moreover, she also points out that where there is representation it is often skewed and condescending. It doesn’t even get to the point to of actually noticing what’s happening on the ground and what people are achieving. Like everyday women that have made a name for themselves and carved a space for themselves. For Sarah, midwives was a place that not only encapsulated a space where women collaborated to make life happen but also a narrative that you rarely saw in the media represented in a just manner.
In Ethiopia, especially in rural towns, midwifery is a female led profession, it’s a space where women have a say. Historically, experts in the field passed down their knowledge to other women and the practice still remains alive in rural Ethiopia. However, it’s not always safe. Given the complex processes a pregnancy entails, these traditional birth attendants aren’t always the best option. Despite this and the fact that there are safer alternatives, pregnant women tend to prefer the traditional process over the modern one. While the reasons for this are diverse, there is one constant feedback. Pregnant mothers feel safer in the hands of the traditional midwife because of the way they are treated by these, usually older women.
These experts are often seen as mother figures and they do more than just follow-up with the development of the pregnancy, they give them life advice and offer a companionship that wouldn’t be possible outside of this space. With this basic outline, Sarah along with her brother Daniel ventured to explore how this story could be told.
The village of Megendi wasn’t even an option until Daniel called his birth mother Mulu, who is from there, and asked about midwives in his hometown. She asked them to come and see for themselves. This invitation was almost like a revelatory moment for the filmmaking duo. Suddenly, the journey became more than just a search for subjects for the film, it was also a way for Daniel to introduce Sarah to his roots and culture. It allowed them to spend a lengthy amount of time in Megendi and really discover the story from a personal angle. This allowed both Daniel and Sarah to travel back and forth frequently and immerse themselves in the resident’s life experiences, which in turns gave them enough flexibility to get a good grasp of the situation on the gound, how the story should be told and who the story should focus on.
Sara started to write after this process and created an outline based on what both of them felt important. She then spent about one year to develop the script of the documentary and explore what themes it could cover. This process was essential for the film to be the way it is today. According to Sarah: “Every time we came back, we had to re-evaluate the situation and decide who we should include in the film. I think this was very important that we had to stay open and flexible throughout the process because otherwise, for example we would not have met Hulu (the protagonist) and included her in the film. She wasn’t planned in the initial script. But then she came, and we loved her presence and she was so interested in what we were doing and then they we decided to shift the focus from the midwives and really focus on Huluager and her story.”
And they stayed true to this statement throughout the production process. For instance, they didn’t intend to meet Welela, another principal character in the film who is a professional midwife. They found her, again by happenstance. Sarah says of the encounter: “It was by chance. We were driving somewhere and we were on the road, there was a woman, who was not from Megendi, but she was in labor and she was trying to get to the health center. Dani stopped the car and we took her to the health center. The woman then gave birth with Welela as her attendant. When we met Welela, we didn’t even get to say “hi, this is who I am”, we were instead thrown in this really intense and personal situation. Somehow we met her in this crazy moment and made a connection.”
As stated above, Hulu Ager approached the film crew first and noticing her energy, the team decided to choose her as the protagonist for the story. Daniel says: “ She was very open and friendly. She was so easy to work with and said ‘do whatever you like’ to most of our requests” Her energy was infectious and they felt that she could carry the film in the right manner. Both Sarah and Daniel didn’t want the film to have a dour tone and they wanted for the women to have agency and control over their narrative. Something that plays a big part in the way narratives are framed. Hulu had a say in the way her story was told , the same was true for Endal (a traditional midwife and another important character in the film) and other characters in film. She was their first point of contact and also took charge of her story after that point.
The story lent greater agency to its characters when the filmmakers started to employ locals to help out with the film. The production managers, security personnel, gaffers and other crew members were from Megendi. This was done to avoid too much outside presence during shooting days. Daniel says: “We tried our best to have fewer people (on set) because we didn’t want too much outside presence to influence the film. We wanted to present the image of the village as it was.”
The film had to portray Ethiopia from within. As Sarah says, there are already skewed narratives that portray the country in a specific way and she wanted to portray an abundance of things as opposed to poverty. The film had to carry the image of women living with dignity and avoided the classic western trappings of portraying characters from the global south without agency. She says: “I was confronted with how the west sees Ethiopia and it had nothing to do with how I experience Ethiopia.” This motivation trickled down throughout the production process.
Filmmaking in Ethiopia
But when all is said and done, this film is a rarity. No matter how inspiring it is. For this film to be made, Sarah Noa had to enroll in a German film school to access opportunities and structures that would have otherwise not been available, while Daniel had to go to film school here in Ethiopia. It took over one year and six months to pitch this film and garner interest from funders and producers. The odds were stacked against them. Which makes one think, how would an Ethiopian filmmaker that’s starting out from scratch would get his/her film made?
Sarah Noa says: “I think that access to the world-wide industry is so competitive and challenging in general that you have to have a really good education, understanding and idea of what kind of things are expected when you approach, for example funders. If you don’t have access to these skills, institutionally, nobody will read your stuff in the western world. I don’t think that it’s necessarily the Ethiopian filmmakers that have to solve this. It’s our system that is not functioning. It’s our system that has to allow for equal access to opportunities.”
While access to these opportunities is important, there is also another challenge here in Ethiopia. The understanding of documentary filmmaking (and filmmaking in general) as journalistic work poses problems. Whether it’s rightful skepticism of the media, given our history of being portrayed negatively, or a misunderstanding of the profession, people that are decision makers in the field and related sectors (like importing cameras and sound equipment) tend to make it hard for local and visiting filmmakers. The reason for this is protecting the country’s image. For Daniel filmmaking is in fact a unique opportunity to portray Ethiopia in the right light: “The stories of Endal and Huluager are universal and through them we show the world the Ethiopia it refuses to acknowledge. What they go through other women go through.” This unique opportunity is lost in the bureaucratic structures and often bars filmmakers from realizing their vision.
Even after passing many other hurdles, a filmmaker might not get the chance to get his/her work in the international stage and promote it. Something that is key for the success of independent films like among us women. These productions often find their audience in the festival circuits and many don’t always have the resources to host filmmakers from this side of the world to present their film in person. More than the connections and opportunities they’re barred from, filmmakers from Ethiopia and other similar places, also miss out on sharing their work to an audience that appreciate these films. In addition, a filmmaker, even after securing funding and host festival, might not make it there due to visa hurdles plaguing most professionals from the global south.
Moreover, although Ethiopia has a large audience for these films, the success of any film industry is in their ability to sell their stories to foreign markets. And Ethiopia, given its strategic importance for Africa is uniquely positioned to tell pan-african stories and be the cultural hub for the continent as it has been for the diplomatic sector. This potential has yet to be exploited.
But there is light at the end of the tunnel. Among us women, proves the power cinema houses and that Ethiopian audiences are ready for these experiences. They always have been. With the advent of streaming services and the internet, people have access to an even more diverse set of film experiences from across the world and are demanding better from the films they watch. They are more open to experience things outside of their comfort zone because, ultimately, good films tell personal stories.
For instance, the main protagonist engages in a practice that is frowned upon. In any other setting this could be dangerous for her, but since people engaged with the story, they even offered to help the protagonist. During its premiere, the audience present for the screening were in awe of the story they were witnessing, primarily because it was a personal experience. Some even offered to help the film’s main character and support her in various ways. This potential remains untapped despite the possibilities it offers.
There are many problems that plague the film industry but one that is strangely persistent, is often times, financers that back films here want to the scripts they back to adhere to a certain standard. It has to carry certain specific themes and tell stories that appeal to everyone and in an effort to do that, often times, the films that end up being produced are romantic comedies that also appeal to family audiences. On the other side, there is this idea that films are expensive to make and have little return on investment.
Just for perspective’s sake let’s bring in two important successes in modern cinema. Dangal from India and Parasite from Korea. Both films told stories that were contextual to their country of origin but managed to gain international traction. Dangal, at some point, was the highest grossing movie in China and Parasite won five Oscars while at the same time being a box office success. Both have gone beyond breaking even and resulted in positive word of mouth traction for their respective countries. So there is massive potential and it isn’t properly exploited.
Perhaps what we need is more investors to take the necessary risks and back capable creators such as Sara Noa and Daniel Abate to deliver stories that go beyond what is expected? Maybe this film is the start of a new chapter in the Ethiopian film industry? Perhaps, if it gains the traction it deserves, investors and producers will see the value in exploring Ethiopian stories and the industry as a whole? While we don’t have answers to these questions, we leave you with these words from Sarah Noa.
“I really think that Ethiopia is ready for this kind of storytelling. If you manage to connect with your audience on a human level, through the screen, then the story, the people in that story, becomes personal. If it’s personal for you when you’re watching that film, then it matters. It won’t be easy to judge and distance yourself from it because you are in a relationship with the story and people on screen. I hope that there will be more filmmakers who will dare to work like this. People have an idea of how films should be told and they are valid and should continue to exist, but I think that there is something powerful in trusting your audience in their capacity to engage and willingness to understand.”