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In ‘Lamb,’ a universal tale in a rarely seen country

Ethiopian film "Lamb" from director Yared Zeleke, which follows a half-Jewish boy sent to live with relatives in the country's southern mountains, is the first film from Ethiopia to ever be selected for the Cannes Film Festival and was the country's entry for the Academy Awards. Now, the film is making its way to festivals in the U.S. NewsHour's Megan Thompson reports.

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  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    In the opening scenes of “Lamb,” a young boy wanders through breathtaking, green landscapes. It’s not a place most people would recognize as Ethiopia.

  • YARED ZELEKE:

    It’s an unknown and unfortunately misunderstood part of the world.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    “Lamb” is 37-year-old writer and director Yared Zeleke’s first feature film. It’s a tale of leaving home and innocence lost. And an ode to the beauty and cultural richness of Zeleke’s native land, Ethiopia, a nation of 100 million people in East Africa.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    The film landed Zeleke on the Red Carpet at the Cannes Film Festival, the first time an Ethiopian film was selected to be screened at the prestigious event. It also put Zeleke on Variety Magazine’s “10 Screenwriters to Watch” list.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    The film is about this 9-year-old boy, Ephraim, who leaves home to live with his uncle, after his mother has died during a drought. His father needs to find work in Addis Ababa, the country’s capital.

  • FATHER (SUBTITLES):

    I’ll return when it rains.

  • EPHRAIM (SUBTITLES):

    What if it won’t?

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    His uncle threatens to slaughter Ephraim’s beloved pet lamb for food. The boy is miserable and alone.  

  • EPHRAIM (SUBTITLES):

    I hate this place.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Zeleke says Ephraim’s story is like his own. He left Ethiopia at age 10, escaping the famine and civil war of the mid-1980’s, for Washington, D.C. to live with his father whom he barely knew.

  • YARED ZELEKE:

    Everybody thought I was the luckiest kid. They called me the “Lucky One.” And America was a golden key. It was a dream. But for me, it was a nightmare because I left behind everyone I knew and loved.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Zeleke wanted the film not only to tell his story, but to reveal Ethiopia’s landscape, rich traditions, and religious diversity.

  • YARED ZELEKE:

    And it’s something you don’t hear from, about Ethiopia or Africa in general, this beautiful way of being.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Zeleke’s 50-person crew, mostly Ethiopian, filmed for 36 days in remote, mountainous areas that lacked electricity.  

  • YARED ZELEKE:

    The local farmers didn’t really know what we were doing. We were, like aliens with strange objects coming to do some unknown experiment. So it took a while to gain their trust.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    All the actors are Ethiopian, but few had ever acted professionally before.  Zeleke auditioned 7,000 people, half of them kids. Some scenes are partly unscripted, like a traditional coffee ceremony.

  • VOICE (SUBTITLES):

    And Hanna’s pregnant with her second already.

  • YARED ZELEKE:

    And I had to just tell them, “You know, forget the camera and have your normal conversation about, you know, your animals or the upcoming holiday and things like that.”

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    The film also touches on Ethiopia’s persistent challenges, like drought and famine.

  • UNCLE (SUBTITLES):

    It hasn’t rained for us, either.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Which threaten the country even today. “Lamb” also criticizes aspects of the culture, like traditional gender roles. The uncle mocks Ephraim for liking to cook.

  • UNCLE (SUBTITLES):

    A boy becoming a lady. How did my cousin raise you?

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    In other scenes, Ephraim’s teenage cousin Tsion is pressured to marry and have children.

  • AUNT (SUBTITLES):

    It will soon be too late.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Instead, she spends her time reading the newspaper and dreaming of going to college. Tsion eventually runs away, which Zeleke says is the true story of many young Ethiopians who flee home in search of a better life.

  • YARED ZELEKE:

    They defy the gender roles. And, of course, that was intentional on my part because these young kids, for me, are what I hope for the future of Ethiopia, an Ethiopia that’s more educated, that’s more equal among the different genders and that’s more free.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    “Lamb” will screen at film festivals throughout the U.S. this spring and be available in on iTunes, Amazon and on DVD later this year. Zeleke says he hopes his tale about growing up and finding your way will resonate with audiences here, as it has abroad.

  • YARED ZELEKE:

    That’s really part of what I wanna do is to connect us all as an Ethiopian, as an American saying, “You know, there are all these differences. But fundamentally, we’re pretty much the same.”

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