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Emails to My Little Sister: An Interview with Solomon Mekonen

Tell us about yourself. What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

My name is Solomon Mekonen. I was born and raised in Ethiopia. I am currently a doctoral research fellow at the department of social anthropology, the University of Oslo in Norway.

I was one of those ‘nerdy’ kids who was mesmerized by the moving image the moment I encountered it. I was in high school when I first started to watch American TV series and stubbornly wanted to become a filmmaker ever since despite there was hardly a cinema industry at that time in Ethiopia. This stubbornness perhaps was a continuation of my fascination and involvement in theatre and poem writing in junior high school and also among my friends and at home I took great pleasure in telling and retelling stories.

Now, after I came to Europe, it is also a way of ‘exorcising’ the at times stifling and stagnant imagination Europe has in the story it tells itself about its Others.

Talk about your last work. What are some of the challenges you faced during production?

My recent work (unfinished) followed a person who has lost his hands to an accident and whose family members and society at large are relegated to the streets, as it were. His is a story of persistence and triumph; he is now finishing his master’s degree against all odds.

In collaboration with him, who is very keen in showing others like him the possibility of succeeding in such adverse conditions, we want to tell his story as a comment on the Ethiopian society and its treatment of disabled people and as a possible inspiration for others.

The main challenge came from the disruption of the normal way of life due to the Covid-19 pandemic. We were not able to or rather avoided having the physical proximity needed to get an intimate account of stories particularly when we (sound person and I) followed him back to his village for fear, we could be bringing the virus from the capital city to the village – we maintained social distancing and wore masks. The other has got to do with the constraint of time and with the fact I am doing editing myself.

What makes you want to tell stories? In other words, what are the themes/issues you want to incorporate into your work?

I really cannot locate what makes me want to tell the story in something concrete. It probably started in my childhood. I was not very comfortable around my peers as they tended to fight and bully each other. I was that one kid who took pleasure in observing them. This and another profound difference I had with them (which I don’t wish to go in here) might have forced me to see myself as an outsider in my own community and I might have found refuge in writing poetry, theatre, and novels. This is also reflected in my current works as I tend to work with themes that explore belonging or lack thereof.

Please tell us about your vision and your method of approaching a new project?

As I am an anthropologist, I use ethnographic methods extensively to approach my subject and interpret what I want to argue in my film projects. In my doctoral research, I intend to use filming as a research method, which is not only as a dissemination medium.

Who are your filmmaking influencers? What are the films that were influential for you?

I was very much inspired by the Ethiopian filmmaker Professor Haile Gerima, who is part of the L.A. Rebellion film movement. He showed me it was possible for an Ethiopian to be a filmmaker. Alma Har'el’s 2011 documentary film “Bombay Beach” was an inspiration in showing the poetic aspect of cinema.

How do you think the industry is changing? How has COVID affected independent filmmaking/creation?

I am mostly working around the university environment, and I feel I do not have enough information to assess the situation in relation to the pandemic and current trends. But I have seen creativity flourishing among friends and others despite of and sometimes because of the constraints the pandemic has brought upon us.

What advice would you give to aspiring artists? What are some of the things they must follow/avoid?

I am terribly in giving advice. What I can say is, when I was telling around that I will be a filmmaker in high school, I was laughed at, understandable so – as there was no film school or industry at that time in Ethiopia. One person I met in Bangkok (I did my

bachelor’s degree there) mocked my sincere claim that I will be a filmmaker by saying I could probably do porn – nothing against porn, but all these have a potential to crush, as they did to me briefly. So be stubborn if you feel you must do film.

Do you think films/stories can bring about a change in the world?

I would like to think so. Yes. That change does not necessarily have to be big or radical, but I think telling each other our stories can soften our prejudices against each other, for instance. For marginalized people, film can help to reclaim their own stories and humanize them.

What do you think people like to watch these days? Has the pandemic changed people's taste?

Good question, I really have no idea. I have been working and have not socialized much lately to know what people watch these days.

Please tell us about your upcoming projects.

My current research at the university of Oslo will use film both as a research method and output. I also intend to finish the aforementioned project in the summer, when I have time to breathe.


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