Tamara is an Ethiopian-Canadian filmmaker based in Addis Ababa, where she runs a production company, Gobez Media. Tamara also manages the Creative Producers Training Program which supports the development, training, and export of Ethiopian film and music content. She directed the short film, Grandma Knows Best (2014) and the feature documentary Finding Sally, which was released in 2020. She is currently producing the feature documentary Qeerroo (2020) and the feature drama the Last Tears of the Deceased. Tamara has experience producing documentary and digital content for CBC News, MTV, Radio-Canada, Discovery, NHK, and Al Jazeera among other networks.
Her latest film, Finding Sally, can be summed up as a personal investigation into the mysterious life of the director’s Aunt Sally, an Ethiopian aristocrat-turned-communist-rebel who disappeared during the 1970s Ethiopian Revolution.
Tell us about Finding Sally, How it got started and why you wanted to make it?
The film got started when I found out at the age of 30 that I had an aunt that no one in my family had mentioned to me and that she disappeared during the Red Terror. That was the catalyst to start the investigation into Sally’s life and the Red Terror that led to the film.
I wanted to make Finding Sally as a way to unpack two things. One is the culture of silence in many Ethiopian families. Why do we not talk about painful things in our past? And how not talking/remembering negatively can impact us – both as families and as a society. Secondly, I knew that this silence, coupled with a lack of critical thinking and coverage of recent Ethiopian history in the school curriculum, young people Ethiopians do not know much about what happened in the 1970s in Ethiopia. If you don’t fully understand and reflect on your past as a nation, you can’t move forward, and you won’t learn from past mistakes.
Finding archive footage for this film must have been a great challenge. What were the most difficult aspects of making this film?
Finding archives isn’t hard, but it is time-intensive to dig and also to raise the money to license the footage. There is a vast amount of extraordinary archive in Ethiopia – it is just a slow process to access and sort through the material. The most difficult aspect of making this film was balancing the different needs between me as a filmmaker, who wanted to make a film for Ethiopian audiences and the film being funded in Canada – which made the Canadian audience and their interests equally important.
Did you have a clear idea for this film in preproduction or was it mostly born in the editing room?
The outline/script of the film was written in development. I’ve never gone into production on a documentary without having a very clear idea of the final film. I think this is important so that you can have good conversations with the cinematographer, sound designer, and editor before you start filming. That way, you can all be aligned on the final output you are working towards. Of course, things change, and you can have new ideas when you are filming or editing, but I think you need to have a plan of action from the start to budget and sell/finance the film. This also means you will be more efficient and only shoot the footage you need, and ask the right questions in interviews, etc.
How different were how you envisioned this film and how it turned out? Is the film’s message being received the way you intended it?
I think the biggest unexpected event in making this film was that uprising across Ethiopia while we were filming. There was a strange feeling that the Ethiopia Sally returned to in the 1970s was being mirrored by the Ethiopia I arrived to in 2016. This, for me, really reinforced the need to learn from your past as a nation.
Yes, I think the messages from the film are hitting home. I’m getting many messages from Ethiopians/Eritreans who have watched it saying that the film has opened up similar conversations within their own families.
Lastly, my grandmother told me when I started on this project that young Ethiopians would need to see this film to be reminded of the efforts to better the nation made by Sally and other youth in the 1970s. She felt that young people today need to have the same critical thinking, brave and bold determination to better their nation. I guess we shall see how that message plays out.
Film is notoriously a compromise between art and commerce. How has this film been shaped by the finances available or not available?
The film was 100% financed in Canada. That was the only way I could find to produce the film at a broadcast quality standard. I think it is also important that Canadian TV and government financed this film as Ethiopians are one of the largest African populations in Canada, but their stories are never reflected in mainstream Canadian media content.
I don’t think there was a compromise between art and commerce but perhaps between messages and calls to action for the audience. The outreach campaign being run in Canada by the Canadian producer with the broadcaster is very much about educating mainstream/white Canadian audiences in the film and Ethiopian history. My outreach campaign, which I am now fundraising for, is much more related to curating conversations among Ethiopian/Eritrean audiences about the film and also compiling a database of video memories from people about the Red Terror. That is not something of interest to Canadian funders, so it exists as a slightly separate project spurred by the film.
I imagine many people in this country would be very interested in watching your film. When do you think it will be available here?
The film was meant to premier in Ethiopia in May 2020, right after the Canadian premier. But due to COVID, we are holding the premier and theatrical run in Addis and screenings around the country until it is safe for people to gather together. I think it is essential for the screenings to be tied to community discussion so that people can reflect on the film. After that, the film will be aired on EBC – as they came on as the first window broadcaster in Ethiopia during the development phase.
What mistakes did you learn from when you were starting out?
I think the main mistake or challenge I had was in casting the team working on the film. In Canada, the funding system is mostly only accessible to white producers and white-owned production companies. This means you will end up working with a perhaps well-meaning white producer but not someone who understands your film/story in the same way another person of color would. This is a fundamental flaw in the system, but it is born out of years of power inequity and institutional racism that plague the film business like many other industries. This issue of access is also not only occurring in Canada. This is why I’ve focused on producing work for other Ethiopian directors to be the buffer between them and the foreign producers and also on lobbying work in Canada to help racialized creators access public funds.