Ethiopian Film “Finding Sally” has African Premiere At Encounters & Durban International Film Festival

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 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 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.

“But lost in all their stories was Sally, whom no one ever mentioned to me. It wasn’t until my early thirties 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 encounters.co.za on Sat 22nd Aug / 8.30pm (GMT +2) followed by a Q&A with Dawit @ 9.50pm (GMT+2)

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

Synopsis

Sally was an aristocrat, a dignitary’s daughter, and an Embassy brat. Her father’s posting as an Ethiopian diplomat meant that the family lived in various countries before settling in Canada in Selamawit Dawit – Sally to her friends – went to Carleton University in Ottawa and was a bright, outgoing young student with many friends and hopeful suitors. In the summer of 1973,

Sally traveled to Ethiopia on holiday. She never came back. In a few short months, Sally’s life changed drastically. She went from being a party girl obsessed with clothes and perfume to a communist and women’s group leader who gave speeches against the Ethiopian government.

During her tumultuous time in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, she was swept up in the Marxist movement after meeting Tselote Hizkias, deputy commander and future rebel leader of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (the EPRP). Deeply in love, Sally and Tselote were married in a small civil ceremony. Together, they fought to overthrow Emperor Haile Selassie. In power since 1930, Selassie was Ethiopia’s Head of State and a close acquaintance of Sally’s father.

In September of 1974, the military junta (“the Derg”) toppled Selassie in a military coup. Its leader, Mengistu Haile Mariam, declared himself Chairman, ignoring the communist ideals and youth movement that powered the revolution. The EPRP challenged the Derg’s rule and pushed for a broad-based civilian-run democracy while also engaging in campaigns against the military government. The Derg, in turn, launched attacks against the EPRP, sending both the military and armed peasant groups to track down hundreds of “enemies of the state.” Violence soon became widespread across the country.

Sally and her husband hastily went underground. Together, they escaped Addis Ababa and vanished into the mountains of Northern Ethiopia. For years, Sally’s family searched for her throughout Europe, Africa and North America. They desperately chased rumours of her whereabouts, showing her photo to strangers and seeking help from mystics.

Some forty years after the events, director Tamara Dawit pieces together the mysterious journey of Sally, the aunt she never knew. No one in her family had been willing to speak about this mysterious relative, but after years of persistent questioning, family members are starting to fill in the blanks.

Like most Ethiopians, the Dawits learned to stay silent about events that occurred during the “Red Terror”– a bloodbath from 1977 to 1978 that Amnesty International has stated was responsible for the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people. The Derg remained in power until 1991.

If time doesn’t necessarily heal such deep wounds, it at least allows the fear to gradually subside. Today, in a time when Ethiopia is going through important political changes once again, many Ethiopians are ready to share their story. Using Sally’s personal history as a thread, the film sheds light on a dark and little-known chapter of Ethiopian history.

Finding Sally features intimate testimonials from Tamara’s grandmother and aunts, a moving collection of recovered family photos, a wealth of fascinating stock footage from the 60s and 70s, and evocatively crafted visuals that invoke the presence of Sally throughout the story. Who
was Sally? How and why did she become a revolutionary? Whatever the answers may be, one thing is certain – Sally’s fate is deeply entwined with the fate of the countless individuals who died during the Red Terror.

From Director Tamara Dawit

As a child, I grew up hearing elaborate stories about their childhoods from my vibrant Ethiopian aunts – tales about their grandmother helping the war effort against the Italians, meetings with fortune tellers, hitching in Europe, lavish cocktail parties, or sneaking out to go to the beach. The stories were pleasurable and exciting, painting a vision of a wonderful past. However, I could never decipher which stories were true and which ones had been spiced up with their typical Ethiopian romanticism.

Lost in all their stories was Sally, a family member that no one ever mentioned to me. It wasn’t until my early 30s that I had 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.

Each of my aunts has her own version of events and point of view regarding Sally. However, despite their differences in opinion, my aunts all share a common sense of loss. 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 this loss, but also how the entire country has managed the loss, pain, and trauma of the Red Terror (a period of sustained state violence). My family is just a small example of how many Ethiopians are still dealing with those deaths, and how the fear of public mourning under the military government forced so many people to suffer in silence.

My aunt Sally and many of her peers lost their lives fighting for what they believed could be a better Ethiopia. They envisioned a united and democratic Ethiopia that would embrace everyone equally – something I think is still possible despite the dangerous ethnic divisions that plague Ethiopia today.

I hope that Finding Sally can be a plea for freedom of speech and critical thinking, and also an indictment of silence in general in Ethiopia. Even today, as young people frequently protest the
government, their elders are still hesitant to talk about their own activism and past losses which closely mirror many aspects of the present-day situation. I hope that this film can be a catalyst to
discussing the country’s past and engaging in critical discourse about the road ahead.

By Andrew Germishuys

Founder of SAMDB, Andrew has worked full time in the film industry since the early 2000's. He has trained as an actor, completing his LAMDA Gold Medal, and attending many courses in Cape Town acting studios, with masterclasses with some of the international industries top directors, producers and filmmakers. Working as an actor and armourer in the film and television industry have given Andrew a great balance of skills across the board when it comes to the entertainment industry. Catch him on Twitter: twitter.com/andrewgerm_za Instagram: instagram.com/andrewgerm_za IMDb: www.imdb.com/name/nm5390453/