Set in Addas Abba, Ethiopia, Anbessa tells the story of a boy named Asalif living on the periphery of a new collection of condos; on the periphery of wealth and modernisation. Displaced by the development, we see the impact of this change through Asalif's eyes. He uses his ingenuity and creativity to transform trash left from the condo's populace, bringing it back to function and he uses his imagination, his lion persona, to escape his isolation. The line of fact and fiction is often blurred in this beautiful coming of age tale by Mo Scarpelli who skillfully and subtly offers a glimpse at the political landscape of a nation.
We spoke with Mo about her process of making Anbessa, the challenges that came with it and what she learnt from Asalif...
Amy Watts: I just wanted to firstly know, for our readers who may not be familiar with you, what was your pathway into film?
Mo Scarpelli: Yeah sure! I originally wanted to be a journalist because I wanted to spend time with people, I wanted to have an excuse to spend time with people like myself or find stories from far flung places so I went to journalism school and then I found out I didn't like being a journalist at all actually - when you're on deadline, you don't really get to spend a lot of time with people like I'd kind of hoped or have a greater understanding of their other context, unless you're working on very rare stories in news do you get to do that, so basically I was going to school at the University of Missouri Journalism School which is like the oldest journalism school in America, it has a great programme but I was like oh no I don't know if this is my thing but in the same town there's a really amazing film festival, a documentary festival, called the True/False Film Festival so that was kind of my education into, whoa okay, this is a way to tell non-fiction story and a lot of the films were experimental in terms of documentary and so they kind of peaked my interest in that, in using perspective instead of trying to find an objective truth...I was inspired by those stories and when I left college I still worked in journalism and production stuff that had to do with not necessarily the types of films I envisaged, it took me a while to get into fully doing non-fiction feature documentary myself but it was mostly self taught from then on, working on independent projects myself.
AW: I read that you spent eight to ten years in Ethiopia, was it journalism that brought you there or was it something else?
MS: Well at first, one of my first jobs out of college was working with an NGO that worked a lot in Ethiopia so I didn't spend like eight years straight there but I went there like three or four times a year for eight years because a lot of their programmes were based there. I also befriended a really unique person who was a donor of this NGO and a big supporter of their work and her name is Gelila Bekele, she's now the executive producer of Anbessa - she's Ethiopian but she grew up also in Europe and then went to school and lived in the United States, because she was Ethiopian, she and I decided that she would help me translate projects I'd do for this work where I'm seeking stories about the water situation in Ethiopia which is what this organisation worked on. She would help me translate but she and I cooked up an idea to go do our own independent film so we did that in the North of Ethiopia and that was really where I started to fall in love with the country when I had the time and the space to really just be with Ethiopians and learn a lot of the history of the culture and everything else like that. When Anbessa started, I had my own production company and was working with other NGOs that would send me to Ethiopia but I just started going by myself as well three or four times a year so I could work on the film.
AW: How did you meet Asalif?
MS: Well actually I had come to that space because I was wanting to do a film about "progress," I say progress in air quotes because basically there's kind of this narrative that's very present all over East Africa and Africa as a whole and the world really, which is that bigger is better and then you know more modern is good and we should always be racing towards progress and I had seen this unfold in cities all over the place where in Europe and Northern America they call it gentrification sometimes but it's basically where you know there's a big scheme that's meant to help a lot of people, it's always touted as everyone's gonna be safer and happier and more fulfilled but then there's all these things that get lost on the way when you just hold onto these schemes and you ignore the way people have been living for centuries so Ethiopia, very specifically as a country, is resistant to westernisation, they kicked out the Italians who tried to colonise them, they've never been colonised and they've always done things their own way - they've taken things from other countries but they've very proudly kept many things in their culture to be Ethiopian or they consider to be that way so that always fascinated me about that culture and I thought what better place to explore what is lost in these types of progress than Ethiopia when there's been historical resistance but now all of a sudden these condos were popping up out of nowhere that I started to notice happening in 2015/2016 - all these new development schemes were happening that I had never seen...
So I came to one of those, the biggest at the time, it was the biggest in East Africa...and it was unfinished and I spent a long time - I had support from catapult film fund to hang out there and do more development on the project, I had IDFA [International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam] academy support as well to just explore this idea of an essay film that would have many characters and I was talking to a lot of people and gleaning a lot of things but I just didn't find anything that really resonated with me for the kind of film I wanted to make in a way where I was really excited about it so I was just sitting there and like smoking cigarettes in one of these empty condo-like-plazas in between the buildings waiting for more characters to come around with my best friend in Ethiopia, his name is Misgan and were just there smoking cigarettes waiting for something to happen and this kid comes out of nowhere and he starts roaring at us and we're like "What? Come over here" and he comes and kneels down next to Misgan and starts speaking Amharic and he starts telling him things and I'm watching his eyes light up and I'm kind of like falling in love at first sight with like a character which doesn't happen very often for me, usually I have to look for a long time to find people and this kid just came out of nowhere and his expression and the way that he talked seemed so beyond his years - at that point he was only eight years old. I said okay in my mind, I just want to film with him but you know I have to keep true to what I was there to do...but he was like "yeah, come with me, come home with me, come meet my mum" and I found out that he was the perfect character actually for this film because he had been displaced by this huge condo - he was living on the outside of it, he would benefit from it by going in and taking things and making some electronics and find his own way of getting benefits from the condo but he'd obviously also been disenfranchised by it and he was still living kind of straddling the old world of farm land and new world of condo land and I was like what is this like for him to grow up in between two worlds you know and so that's where things took off and I just followed him very closely until the film was what it was.
AW: He's just the most amazing child for the subject of a film, it feels like he's a Hollywood protagonist if that makes sense...
MS: He's definitely intelligent and emotionally intelligent and I think that comes through on screen. My most recent film, I just finished shooting and we're about to finish editing, set in Venezuela and it's about a film being made and the protagonist of that film also has this sense, he's very emotionally intelligent in life and as a non-actor then can be in a movie and you feel that, I don't know if that's what it is you're feeling from him but I think that really resonates. The thing is, people miss this in English because we can only subtitle it in English, we can't give context to the Amharic language but all my Amharic translators and Misgan, they were always so impressed by him [Asalif] because they were like, "how is this kid 10 years old and he talks like he's 50?!" The way he uses Amharic is like in these metaphors - very smart you know. I just think he's a very gifted person.
AW: Yeah, his intelligence really shines through the film and how creative and imaginative he is and also he seems to have a really strong sense of himself like when he's having an argument with his friend Kuba and Kuba calls Asalif's mum names and the way Asalif stands up for himself was very mature. Do you think the way Asalif is, is because of his circumstance?
MS: I don't know, I think we're always a product of what's around us for sure but there's other kids that live in that rift as well and they're kind of like Kuba, picking their nose, making jokes about weird things - they're not curious about stuff the way he [Asalif] is so I don't know what it is that made him that way. I know his mum has had a big influence because his mother comes from a very traditional society that she broke away from, that she kind of escaped but she still really reveres things like...stories, [Asalif] wants to be a good storyteller so he comes and sits with her outside and she teaches him how to do that so I think a lot his imagination is encouraged by her and his discipline to tell a good story - to see something through to the end is encouraged by her. I think she's had a big influence on his life.
AW: I found the relationship between Asalif and his mother really lovely and moving. There's a particular scene where he's [Asalif] crying and his mother says "you know how much I do for you...you're the reason I'm living in this awful situation," did you find that scene difficult to shoot and also when he's being bullied by the condo kids?
MS: Yeah, the worst was going into the condo, I hated shooting in the condo because you know I'm a 5'11 white, blond woman so walking around this condo filming with this little boy like essentially from other people's point of view picking through the trash, it rings all kind of alarm bells for people that I totally understand so I don't even fault them for it but people would throw things at us all the time, they would sometimes get really mad at him because I was filming him or they would get mad at me because I was filming him, they're saying you know, you're making Ethiopia look bad, all you Westerners always come here and make us look like we're starving, poor, awful people. They couldn't understand and I don't expect them too because they would just see an image of me, they didn't know me or what we were doing but they couldn't understand that what I was trying to film in the condo was quite magical, quite beautiful - it was somebody picking and finding all the stuff that they needed to make brilliant things...
I never liked that I would subject him to any sort of harm and I was really careful about that and my friend Misgan was always there to kind of swoop in with people and explain things to them or we would just leave a lot, we would leave the condo a lot but that also felt like I was altering things too much...but the longer I spent there, it felt like we could get over it because we ended up having allies who understood what we were doing in the condo and they would just say "hi" to us so a lot of people would calm down. We became really good friends with the people that lived outside the condo because they were always there - the guys in the bar, the farmers and the community there. Then the condo started getting full and there was just too many people there and you're always getting harassed and Asalif was always getting harassed - there's always new people, you can't have the same friends - they all disappear because people leave and there's new people coming so filming in the condo was the worst - I hated filming in the condo but obviously we had to film there because Asalif wanted to go in there - he would always encourage it - we kind of took his lead on that. Those things were hard.
When it comes to filming him going through hard things emotionally, we had a really unique relationship that we formed. One of my favourite things, strangely, about making films or what I found, this film really made me realise why I love filmmaking and this is one of the reasons - I formed this unique relationship with the character, with Asalif, that it's through the camera so I'm not speaking to him and we have rules like you know, he's not supposed to look at the camera, he's not supposed to look at me even if something is funny and I'm his friend and he wants to see my reaction, he's supposed to pretend like I'm not there, I mean not to pretend but I'm supposed to melt away but he always feels seen and this is a kid who never ever feels seen. I met him that way and he was still a strong kid anyway and he had confidence but like that's a hard place to be in the world as someone who just totally feels like no-one ever sees anything they do, especially when he's making really cool things - you just feel like nobody understands him and nobody really sees him so for me to have a camera, it's not like I did anything special...it's just, me watching is enough to give someone kind of, the power to feel seen and to feel like they're a part of the world in a way they didn't before and I felt that way with him - him allowing me to watch allowed me to tap into something that I don't do in my normal life which is to shut up and totally watch someone else and listen and try to understand their perspective super deeply like as deeply as I can. So we both get this thing out of it you know. So in terms of when it came to filming these hard moments, it was hard but also our relationship is not one where I would like put the camera down and hug him - we don't have that, we built a relationship in this weird way we both preferred which is that he cries and he's like Mo is the only one that knows I'm crying right now and I can feel him feeling that but he's not even looking at me and so that kind of changes the way that you have this association with somebody's emotional pain, you just feel with him and bear witness to him - that's my role I guess with our relationship.
AW: You mention the difficulty of filming as a white westerner there and the sort of ethical problems that raises, did you feel a responsibility not to impose anything on what you were trying to film and make sure it was his voice and everything was sort of through his eyes as much as possible?
MS: It's kind of a flip on that - the film is my perspective of his perspective. That's kind of hard for people to understand when you're filming with them until they see the movie usually. On my first film [Frame by Frame] it was with photo journalists so they kind of understood it 'cause they do this with photography but they're also journalists so they're much more like held to the standard of objective truth so even they didn't really totally understand that, you know, the movie was still gonna be our version of the reality and they were characters in that movie. To make a 10 year old understand that is impossible, I thought, but instead what Asalif and I did was we just talked - I mean there's things in the movie that are more fictionalised I guess then when it comes to traditional documentary - for example his dreams, those were instructed by the two of us because he told me dreams over the course of knowing him for three years - he told me dreams all the time so then I would come back and want to shoot one of the dreams. The dreams we ended up using the most were the ones where he'd be like "I had a dream last night" and I'd be like "Great! show me what happened" and I would just follow him and that way I could shoot it like a documentary because I didn't know what was gonna happen and I wasn't setting anything up and I liked that but sometimes we tried acting out some of his dreams and stuff like that. When those things happened I remember sitting down with him and being like "Asalif this is gonna be weird, just so you know what you're gonna see is my interpretation of your dream, is that okay with you?" and he's like "Yeah! Make it better if you want to, that sounds great." I mean he's telling me this through Misgan...
He also told Misgan that this story could be a version of whatever I wanted it to be, he was like "Mo should make what she wants to make about what happens in what she films 'cause I showed her everything, it's obviously not going to be really long." Like he understood all this stuff and because he gave me that liberty - it felt like a collaboration in that way you know - that I could piece together things that happened in the narrative that I wanted and he was a part of it because he said "Yes! Do that" and when I showed the film to him finally when I came back and showed him the final cut - I showed it to him first before anyone and we watched it alone without his mum around cause I just wanted him to see it and he laughed through a lot of things...and other things were hard you know to see himself feel lonely and to be rejected but at the end of the film, he was like "ah, wow, so you made like some of the these moments way more interesting than they actually were" and he's like "I like the movie version!"...but I think everybody has that sense through any documentary you know so I'm really anxious - I would feel really anxious about somebody thinking, if I'm filming their story, thinking okay she's gonna make my perspective, she's putting my perspective in the film - there's always for me, an understanding from the person that no-no, this is my reflection - this is like my perspective of your perspective and actually people get it when they start filming with you and can see the way I talked about.
AW: You mention there the fiction and the reality sort of blurring by filming his dreams, was that something you were consciously doing all the time throughout the filming or after when you finished and you were in the editing suite - you know there's those ethereal, magical scenes with the trees and the music behind, was it something you had in your mind whilst you were filming or did that come later and also there's the scene in the bar when they're discussing the hyenas, was that set up to sort of explore his dreams and imagination of the hyena or did that happen naturally?
MS: Most everything in the film, I mean a lot of the film is observation of a situation he's in, sometimes I put him in those situations like asked him to go hang out with Kuba that day because the light was good and we had enough time, things like that...and he had nothing to do with Kuba so I'm like "take him and see the hyenas, see if you can find them." So there's definitely things I broach which I'm fine doing...this process with this particular film was really fun and really interesting and challenging too so basically I filmed with him on and off for about a year and a half, coming back to Ethiopia six weeks at a time, sometimes a year and that's where I got to know him a lot, I filmed a lot of things he was just doing, I filmed a lot of him going in the condo and got to hear more about his revere for the lion, you know I just got to know him over time and I got to know he had this fear of the hyena and everybody kind of fears the hyena, I heard this story in the bar of the hyena, they told me the stories...so then I went for a very specific time period which I thought was perfect 'cause he seemed to be growing in a way that he was less playful, in a way that was harder to kind of direct or harder to make a scene out of - he became a little more mature so that his emotions - he was facing adult-like emotions and he was listening to the adults more but at the same time he wasn't totally out of the fantasy of being a kid and all the fantastical things like the lion and the stories and knowing this was kind of a pivotal moment in his coming of age - I had a six week shoot where we spent every day together after his school.
In that time I'd filmed him for two weeks and then my producer Caitlin and I sat down and I wrote a fairy tale of his experience - I'd studied fairy tales leading up to then and I knew that he saw the world through these folk law stories and these fairy tales - I wanted it as close to the way that he would construct his own stories as I could and it still felt, obviously, my perspective so basically I sat down and wrote a fairy tale about Asalif the lion - "Once upon a time there was a little lion..." and like the kid on the outside Kuba, is the tiger and the kid inside, is the fox and we like made this fairy tale and then I was like this is what I would have happen in the fairy tale, the lion would go on this adventure and this adventure so we wrote like half of this. We went out and shot a bunch of stuff - I then put him in these scenarios and planted a bunch of seeds for the antagonist in this story which is the hyena so Gelila my friend, Misgan and I would sit there and tell a story about a hyena in front of him and he would get all riled up about it and we would do that for like three days in a row and then we would go up to forest and his energy would be really charged cause he was ready to face the hyena, stuff like that so it was like I was writing it and filming it and then I would film stuff and say "okay, it's time to go hang out in the fairy-tale version of Asalif's life" that we kind of constructed together, he goes up on the mountain with the tiger, I don't know what's gonna happen - see what happens and whatever ended up happening, that would kind of dictate more for the rest of the story. So it was writing whilst doing the shooting and that meant, it was beautiful because it allowed a narrative for a kid who doesn't really - when it comes to his daily life and this kind of film I wanted to make about him - there isn't necessarily a narrative of coming of age, you grow up in parts, there isn't one moment that changes you...so it gave us a narrative but at the same time these magical things happened cause he made them happen...I told Misgan to go in the bar with us that time and see if he can provoke this hyena story but Asalif said stuff to those guys and sat with them and hadn't heard the story before that I had heard so all of that was imrov too and his reaction to everybody and him asking which animal can beat the lion and paying attention to the answer the way he did, all of that was real...
There's a part in the film when Asalif attacks the condo actually as a lion and like goes into an empty condo building - that was totally something that he invented. So he got upset with his mum and he marched into the condo and by then we'd been making this whole film together and so all these tensions that he knew I was seeing were at the surface and he was growing up and realising the condo was a huge antagonist of all these things and so he did that on his own and then it was just up to me to film it you know...that was a really beautiful, magical thing to happen because Asalif made that, you know he just felt compelled to do that in that way and that's what I think is beautiful about this process, is you can set up a scenario but then you always have to be, you always have to trust the character actually is way smarter than you are and way more creative because look what happens when you do, they create these things that speak more to who they are, than you ever could if you were gonna write a story for them so I always wanna follow that kind of spirit in everything I make.
AW: That's amazing to know that he just did that on his own because when I was watching it, I was thinking had you sort of made him do that but wow, that's really special...
MS: Yeah, some of the way things are shot in the film, some people are like "oh my gosh, you obviously set up this" and think a lot of things were set up and even the hyena thing, we didn't set up who would be there or how, I just knew this one guy had this story and was like just ask him to talk about hyenas but everything that happened after that was stuff that people just did so it's definitely kind of a compliment I think when people say "Oh, you made them and they're good actors though..." and I'm like "no actually I didn't!" I just tried to stay as close to Asalif as I could and film him in a way you would maybe film a narrative film.
AW: I wasn't trying to say that you had, I just meant that you never really knew with some of the scenes what was real and what wasn't and I think that is what's so beautiful about it because it does have this fairy-tale aspect to it that reflects his imagination.
MS: Exactly yeah and that is the way he sees the world you know and I learnt so much from him - that's the other about making this about how to tell stories, he's a way better storyteller than I am, about how to access creativity, to be the thing that you can cling to and use to survive in a world that's otherwise kind of shitty and leaves you out of things, like you can construct your own reality and the film ends on that note, you know this idea that he's growing up and he's kind of getting over the fantasy of the lion because he has to be a real person in the world, that he's always going to be able to fly in the sky you know and like harness his creativity to be able to do anything and I think that's something all of us need because the world is pretty un-special a lot of the time - you know, we have to make our own narratives - that's the only way we can survive.
Anbessa is showing at this month's International Documentary Festival Amsterdam and will be screened in the UK at Bertha DocHouse on Wednesday 4th December at 18:30.