writer/director YARED ZELEKE
Coachella Magazine Editor’s Pick — Palm Springs International Film Festival
text ROSE WINTERS
The very first image of Yared Zeleke’s Lamb opens with a caress that fills the entire screen; it is the brilliant orange wool coat of a sheep and a young boy’s hand, stroking and squeezing the fur. This striking shot is an elegant symbol of devotion and humanity that echoes throughout the entire film. The camera then pans out to witness our protagonist Ephraim (Rediat Amare) and his pet sheep Chuni, side by side as small silhouettes in the vast Ethiopian countryside; they are alone in the world, but are bearing it together. A mere thirty seconds into the film, and already director Zeleke has captured the essence of the story; Ephraim’s beautiful silent friendship with Chuni.
In May of 2015, debuting director Yared Zeleke made cinematic history, as Lamb was selected as Ethiopian’s first film to be screened at the Cannes Film festival. Gaining critical momentum, Lamb became one of the many groundbreaking films included in this year’s Palm Spring International Film Festival. The story takes place in drought-ridden Ethiopia, where the young Ephraim seeks the companionship of his pet sheep. After losing his mother, Ephraim’s father, Abraham (Indri Mohamed), fears that they too will succumb to starvation. Abraham leaves the village to find work and sends his son to live with distant relatives.
Rather than being greeted as a grief stricken boy in need of affection and sympathy, Ephraim’s arrival is accompanied with disdain. They live in an tightly confined space with his elderly aunt Emama (Welela Assefa), her son Solomon (Surafel Teka), Solomon’s wife Azeb (Rahel Teshome) with her sick infant, as well as Solomon’s rebellious daughter Tsion (Kidist Siyum). The family themselves are suffering from the effects of the drought, and living in poverty. Ephraim isn’t treated as a member of the family, but rather another stomach that needs to be filled. Without the comfort of a supporting family, Ephraim relies even heavier on Chuni’s friendship. While living with his great aunt and cousins, Ephraim’s pet and emotional surrogate mother, Chuni, is offered up as a slaughtered sacrifice. The duration of the film consists of Ephraim’s quest to keep his pet alive and find a way back to his old home.
Ephraim does not remain completely alone for long — Emama and Azeb grow found of the boy, and Tsion becomes his trusting, yet hesitant confidant. However, this only causes more conflict and oppression with his uncle Solomon. Ephraim’s lack of physical ability proves useless in the field, and his tendency to bond with women anger Solomon. Here, Lamb gives us brief insight into the structured gender roles assigned by the Ethiopian culture. Ephraim is a fairly talented cook, taught how to make samosas by his late mother. He plans to sell them at the town market to collect enough money for his bus fair to return home; however Azeb misinterprets Ephraim’s actions as a gesture to be useful and collect money for the family. When Solomon sees him cooking, despite Azeb explaining the practical (although false) gesture, he still demeans Ephraim and forbids him to cook, simply because it’s, “woman’s work.” Part of the reason Solomon decides that Chuni must be slaughtered in the first place is to cure Ephraim’s femininity. It’s for the holy festival and to help the family, because it’s also due to Solomon’s inability to see traditional roles defiled. Similarly, Tsion finds herself up against the expectations of what is assigned to a woman. She is not interested in finding a husband and being a mother, something that Azeb and Emama implore her to do. Constantly reading and pursuing knowledge, Tsion is chastised for not being a proper woman. Lamb uses these characters to illustrate the fight against gender stereotypes experienced outside of the western world.
Lamb gives viewers insight to the everyday life of the Ethiopian people. Whether they are bustling through the dirt streets of the town market, hiking through the lavish greenery of the jungle outskirts, or breaking their bread while singing and dancing. There is always a fight against dead customs accompanied by the preservation of traditions; and while there may be loss and rejection, there is also life and acceptance. Lamb is not only a story about a boy and his pet; it is a coming-of-age film that shows the contrast between mere surviving and living.