|A scene from Lamb: Ephraim and his pet sheep head home.|
A boy, a sheep and a stunning mountain landscape. These are the three stars of Lamb, a poignant film directed by 36-year-old Yared Zeleke that is Ethiopia’s first entry in France’s prestigious Cannes Film Festival.
The movie was added after the announcement of the official selection in April and was warmly received in Cannes at its premiere on May 20, with the director and cast receiving applause. It’s slated for general French release later this year, Zeleke said.
|Ephraim and Chuni|
Shot in the highlands and forests of both northern and central Ethiopia, Lamb tells the story of nine-year-old Ephraim (Rediat Amare) and his beloved pet, a sheep named Chuni. The animal follows Ephraim around like a devoted dog, and plays the role of best friend, albeit one who can only say “ba-a”.
When the film begins, we learn that Ephraim has lost his mother in an on-going famine, and, to survive, his father has decided to take him to stay with relatives in a remote but greener region of their homeland, an area of intense beauty but increasing poverty. Ephraim will have to stay there while his father seeks work in the city, not knowing when he can return.
The relatives are an intriguing bunch. There’s the strict farmer uncle who thinks Ephraim is too girly (the boy likes to cook), his wife who’s overworked and worried about her small, sick child, a generous matriarchal great aunt who tries to keep the family in line with a whip, and an older girl-cousin - Tsion - who spends her time reading and with whom Ephraim eventually bonds.
Soon after arriving in their midst, Ephraim is told by his uncle that he will have to learn what boys do: he will have to slaughter his pet sheep for an upcoming traditional feast.
|A poster for the film.|
The news pushes Ephraim to start devising ways to save Chuni, and that forms the bulk of the storyline, while the film subtly highlights gender issues, the ravages of drought and the isolation that comes from the feeling of not belonging. Throughout it all, the magnificent rolling hills are there, watching.
We learn in passing that Ephraim is half-Jewish through his mother, whom the relatives refer to as “Falasha people”, but Zeleke says that this is not at all meant to signal division, as Ethiopians don’t generally identify themselves according to religion. In fact, the Christian relatives all seem to have admired the mother.
They attribute Ephraim’s skill at cooking to her teaching, and some of the most moving moments are centred on food – feeding and being fed by a loved one.
The film is dedicated to the director’s grandmother, and another striking element is how sympathetically women are portrayed. Tsion, played by the smoldering Kidist Siyum, is shown as smart and knowledgeable, but her love of reading is considered useless by the family since it doesn’t get the back-breaking household chores done. Ephraim’s ability to cook and sell samosas on the market is seen as more helpful, drawing attention to some of the hardships children face in poor countries.
The title could even be taken as a reference to the treatment of the world's youngest and most vulnerable citizens.
|Director Yared Zeleke|
Lamb shows Tsion being pushed to make a sad choice, leaving Ephraim more alone than ever, but the film ends on an upbeat note, with the possibility of acceptance. A simple and unforeseen act of kindness towards Ephraim by Tsion’s rejected suitor might trigger most viewers’ tears.
As a first feature, Lamb is a glowing success for Zeleke, who grew up in central Adisa Ababa - an urban environment where he says he didn’t have a pet and never learned how to cook - and who went on to study film-making at New York University. With the credible story and the feel of authenticity, the director shows that he knows his culture and people.
The loving attention to the landscape and the tight focus on his characters also reveal confidence and vision, and members of the cast equally turn in a fine performance. As Ephraim, Amare Rediat is affecting and sincere, with his huge expressive eyes, and Siyum has a coiled energy that conveys the frustration of a bright girl expected to marry and “breed” quickly because that is her only fate.
Produced by Slum Kid Films, an Ethiopian production company that Zeleke co-founded with Ghanaian colleague Ama Ampadu, Lamb was shown in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard category. This section highlights daring, innovative, off-beat works, and Zeleke’s film certainly fits the bill. - A.M.
(Photos are courtesy of the film's producers.)