Feature narratives coming out of Ethiopia are exceedingly rare; stories about love and finding one’s place in the world are even more exceptional. Ethiopian American filmmaker Messay Getahun’s beautifully shot “Lambadina (Night Light)” which chronicles a young man’s journey from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to Los Angeles, California changes all of that. Westerns have often had the privilege of ignoring war or forgetting altogether just how deeply war and political unrest can devastate and uproot entire families. Told in both Amharic and English, “Lambadina” tells the story of 9-year old Joseph, who is torn away from his father, and reluctantly taken in by an affluent family to live as an errand boy. In a twist that pays reverence to the eternal tale of Romeo & Juliet, Joseph falls in love with the family’s only daughter, Ruth.
It seems that people often forget what those initial whisperings of first love promise. It’s an exhilarating and encompassing feeling that forces everything else to fade away. However, Getahun is thoughtful here in not creating a fairytale. After all, life is often chaotic and troubling, and Joseph and Ruth’s love doesn’t stand a chance in the face of her ambitious parents. Ruth and her parents leave Ethiopia unexpectedly, leaving Joseph reeling and constantly wondering, “What if?” Still, life is not without its winding roads, and everything changes for Joseph and Ruth when by chance many years later, they find themselves crossing paths once again, this time in Los Angeles.
Told in a series of flashbacks that seep into the present day, “Lambadina” is an elegantly paced film about what happens when your past catches up with your present. It’s a film about perseverance, destiny, love and the strength it takes to let go of what could have been.
Messay Getahun chatted with us after the film screened at the Montreal International Black Film Festival. Here are the highlights.
On the Filming Process
Messay Getahun: The entire film from beginning to end was done by a three-man crew, I always want to say that. If you know anything about filmmaking, you know how difficult that is. When I say the entire film, I mean the entire film. Three of us worked on it both in Ethiopia and in the US. It took us a year to shoot because everything was self-funded, we didn’t have anyone financing this. Fortunately, the Ethiopian government gave us a filming permit; otherwise, it would have been impossible for us to get anything done. Still, it was very difficult to shoot there. In Ethiopia, we did the casting, and we worked with the actors, and that took three months. Then, we took a six-month break because two of the characters needed visas to get to LA. Overall, filming took one year, and then I did all of the post-production work, so that took me a year. For us to do the lighting and the sound and the camera, between three people was tough, but we are brothers and that’s how we wanted it. We were in it for the right reasons.
MG: There are only two actors that we used in the film that had prior experience. Everyone else was a first-time actor. So, it made the journey very interesting for us. Also, in Ethiopia, the film industry is not as well organized, so it was really difficult to find people who could play the roles. I also just personally hate overacting. I wanted the film as natural as possible; almost like a documentary. A lot of the actors in Ethiopia come from a theater background so; I looked for individuals that I knew would fit the characters. The hardest part was finding the kid actors. It was insanely difficult to find a kid who could speak English, Amharic and ride a bike.
Taking On The Lead Role
MG: I actually never wanted to act in the film, that wasn’t the goal at all. The guy I wanted to play Joseph, we were not able to get him a visa to leave Ethiopia. So, just at the very last minute we were stuck.
On Finding the Story
MG: One of my favorite quotes is by Maya Angelou. She said, “People will forget what you said and what you did, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel.” We wanted to make this film because we wanted to take people on a journey. This story is about a journey of this guy’s life. We wanted people to feel something, and we wanted to make a universal film. I wrote the script because the films that we’ve seen out of Africa don’t necessarily portray the things that we wanted to portray. We wanted to make a contemporary and modern story and we wanted to tell that story, for a Western audience. It’s in both English and Amharic because we wanted to make it appealing to everyone.
On the Events That Inspired the Film
MG: I was born in Ethiopia, and the beginning part of the story is my personal story in terms of the father and son aspect. My father was involved in politics, so for those who are familiar with Ethiopian history, during the regime change, my dad was one of the politicians that was arrested. However, it’s not just my story; I think it’s the story of anyone who is around my age that was born in Ethiopia. Or, if you were born into any other culture that has gone through those sort of things then you can relate to it. The rest of the story isn’t mine at all. (Laughing) I’m not going through any love triangles, nor did my aunt leave me anywhere.
On What’s Next
MG: We finished the film, and we’re still cleaning up some things, we’re not done with post-production. We premiered the film at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles, and we didn’t know what we were getting in to. Again, three of us did this, so we had no idea how people were going to receive it. It was shocking when it was the only film that sold out all of its screenings. There were so many incredible films, but we won the Audience Choice award, and it was selected to headline the Black Straw Film Festival. Also, the US Embassy in Ethiopia did a screening of the film for their diplomatic circle in June, so we’re just so honored.
“Lambadina (Night Light)” is currently in talks for distribution deals. However, you can find out where the film will be screening next here.
Watch a trailer for it below:
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami