CityLife Arts

Ethiopian film, Finding Sally, which premieres at two international film festivals in South Africa reveals family secrets

By CityLife Arts Writer

August and September will be a period for Ethiopian filmmaker, Tamara Mariam Dawit, who has the African premiere of her documentary Finding Sally, at Encounters International Documentary Film Festival (20-30 August) and the Durban International Film Festival (10-20 September), and she is pitching her latest film project, Mehal Sefari, at the finance forum in the 11th Durban FilmMart (4 -13 September).

Finding Sally is a haunting film that unravels a secret held by her aunts, that leads her through the tortured recent history of an ancient country.

Tamara Mariam Dawit

Tamara Mariam Dawit knew she had an unusual collection of aunts in Ethiopia, her estranged father’s sisters. Gregarious and independent, they were painters, teachers, aid-workers, even a talk show host. They’d been upper-class children of a diplomat, at the worst time to be upper-class Ethiopians – amid the end of the ancient monarchy of Emperor Haile Selassie in the early ‘70s, the chaos of a military dictatorship and a civil war between self-proclaimed Communists.

And there’d been another sister about whom she knew virtually nothing. She would discover that Selamawit – known as Sally – had been a 23-year-old member of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party. She’d gone from being a vivacious, social and politically engaged student at Ottawa’s Carleton University to a fugitive on the Ethiopian government’s most-wanted list.

Finding Sally official trailer

Finding Sally is Dawit’s uncovering of a generation of horror, fueled by her own family’s history of survival mode. It begins with Dawit’s arrival in the capital of Addis Ababa, and face-to-face revelations from her aunts about their once glamourous life and the fraught existence of ostensible “counter-revolutionaries” like their father (who was a godson of the emperor himself).

And through it, all Sally’s story shone. Of her sisters, she was the most charismatic, the one who fell in love most easily, the one whose heart literally led her to embrace Ethiopia’s political fever and even marry an EPRP commander.

Sally’s story unfolds alongside that of “The Red Terror,” a half-million deaths, most of them young people, representing the decimation of a generation under the ruthless crackdown of the country’s military leader, Mengistu Haile Mariam.

But it also is a story of the resilience of family, of Sally’s efforts to protect her sisters from her choice, of their interrogations in rooms with blood-spattered walls, and of the hope that such bonds can remain strong even as Ethiopia’s status as a democracy remains fragile.

“As a child, I grew up hearing stories from my vibrant Ethiopian aunts,” Dawit says, “tales about their grandmother helping the war effort against the Italians, hitchhiking in Europe, lavish cocktail parties.

FS Aunts mountain

“But lost in all their stories was Sally, whom no one ever mentioned to me. It wasn’t until my early 30s that I stumbled upon a photo of Sally, but the family was hesitant to talk about her. Little by little, I managed to convince my grandmother and then my aunts to share Sally’s story.

“The film poses the question that arises when someone you love disappears without a trace: how do you cope? It explores not only how my family has managed loss, but how the country has managed the loss, pain, and trauma of the Red Terror. My family is just one of many still dealing with those deaths, after fear of public mourning under the military government forced so many to suffer in silence.”

An interesting link to South Africa, is that the score of Finding Sally is composed by South African- Canadian Musician  Zaki Ibrahim (Polaris and Juno nominated) and blends Ethiopian musical styles with Zaki’s own retro-Afrofuturist style. Recorded in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, with renowned Ethiopia producer Abegasu Shiota Zaki’s voice is included throughout the score as a representation of Sally’s presence in the story.

Finding Sally is written and directed by Tamara Mariam Dawit, produced by Isabelle Couture and executive produced by Katarina Soukup for Catbird Films (Canada). In association with documentary Channel, with the financial support of the Canada Media Fund, Ontario Arts Council, and the Canadian Film or Video Tax Credit. It is distributed in Canada by Cinema Politica and represented internationally by Rise & Shine in Berlin.

.Joint African Premiere at Encounters International South African Documentary Film Festival: August 20 to 30, 2020 https://encounters.co.za/

Additional Screenings: at Durban International Film Festival September 10 to 20, 2020 https://ccadiff.ukzn.ac.za/ (Dates to be confirmed)

About Tamara Miriam Dawit

Born in Ottawa, Canada, Tamara Mariam Dawit is a producer/director now based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where she runs a production company Gobez Media that produces Ethiopian film, TV, digital, and music content. Tamara has experience producing music content, tours, creative documentaries, digital content, formatted television, and is now branching into producing dramatic films. She directed the short film Grandma Knows Best (Bravo).  Finding Sally is her first feature documentary.

Tamara is a participant in the 2020 EAVE program a member of Film Fatales and a past participants of the Durban and Berlin Talents programs. A new project which Tamara is producing Mehal Sefari by Ethiopian director Abraham Gezahagne has been selected as part of the 2020 Durban Film Market and the Realness Screenwriting Residency.

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