August and September will be a landmark period for Ethiopian filmmaker Tamara Mariam Dawit, who has the African premiere of her documentary Finding Sally, at Encounters International Documentary Film Festival on 22 August.
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 had 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.
The film 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).
“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.
The African premiere of Finding Sally at Encounters International South African Documentary Film Festival on Saturday 22nd Aug at 8:30pm (GMT +2) followed by a Q&A with Dawit @ 9:50pm (GMT+2).
Visit https://encounters.co.za/ for more information.