Ambassa Jir is an Eritrean film maker living in Washington DC. He was here last when he ‘by chance’ embarked on an unplanned workshop, which ended up pretty well becoming a prelude to more workshops. He was back once again this summer for the second part of his film making workshop.
We talk to film maker and assistant professor Ambassa Jir.
- -Welcome back to Asmara! Before we go to talking about the second part of the workshop, can you please take us back to last year and give us a reminder of how this endeavor started?
I came last year thoroughly aiming for a vacation. I had been away from home for so long and then got lost in my career in the USA, so much so that I ended up being detached from everyone here for a long time. I came back to Asmara to meet family and friends; but, when I started talking to people about the Eritrean Film making I started realizing that it would be useful to share my knowledge with local film makers, editors, writers and just anyone involved in the business.
I first talked to Issayas Tesfamariam and then he showed me ways to jointly work with concerned bodies. We hastily organized a workshop, to which many people came to join and showed great interest in accumulating experiences I have gathered a lot of hope over the years as a film maker and a scholar. We sat down for almost a month and something; every day except weekends. By the end of the workshop the students made groups and worked on short films not exceeding 10 minutes of film time. It was a very effective experience both for me and the students. I learned a lot.
- -What did you learn exactly?
I learned about the Eritrean film making process. Its pros and cons. What I found out is that Eritrea, being a country which recently came out of war for independence, we sort of took the short cut to movie making. What I sm trying to say is that other countries of Europe and America have a history of almost a hundred years when it comes to film making; they came a long way to get where they are now. They started small and through an experience of ups and downs they have reached a level of elevation in terms of cinema language and the technicality of movie making. However, in our case, when we started a “film industry” after independence we tried to reach the western movie making levels just like that. I am not saying we should have started from scratch like they did and make the same mistakes they did, but learning about the history and progress of cinema, should have been our first step for a sturdy beginning. Consequently the short cut we took kind of prevented us from having a speedy development in our film industry… we always make the same mistakes. Also the reason why we lack the complete understanding of cinema language.
- -So are these the main reasons why Eritrean film making has a rather slow progress?
Not entirely but yes. In film making we talk with images; it is mostly about the visual particles, which need a certain rudimentary knowledge. In a few words film making has formulas from which, of course, you can broaden with your own personal visions and ideas.
Moreover, we have wrong conceptions of dialogs in our films. Like I said before it is mostly about images; viewers don’t normally like a film character narrating the whole plot and emotions of the movie, they’d rather watch it or, better yet, guess it based on hints provided in the movie. I am talking about the feeling of suspension.
Viewers like to be intrigued; they like to be lost in different points of view. However, with our local movies, we tend to make our characters talk a lot and do less. As a result, we end up making ‘old’ mistakes. Mistakes that modern or, shall I say, contemporary film makers gladly avoid. Last year, in fact, the short movies students prepared had no dialogues. There had to be a story line driving the film but there was not a single spoken nor acted out phrase. We learned how to express feelings and emotions without a character mentioning them to you. We saw how to express the overall atmosphere of the film and its messages through colors, lines and images…. All in all, we tried to do film differently from the conventional way.
This and that are some of the basic things we miss. However, as regards to our stories, I think that they are really inspirational and beautiful. Therefore, if we catch up on what we should have learned at the beginning and make our stories with it, I think we will be able to make good films.
- -Now let’s talk about the second part of your workshop. And Ihope that this time was not an accident.
No it was not. I planned for this one. Last year, at the end of the work shop, the students were like: “what now?” “Is this where it’ll end?”
That got me thinking. Personally, part of why I don’t like workshops is because it is a staged experience with no follow ups. A lot of NGOs and benevolent groups come to Africa and the third world countries to do workshops. They do them well but they don’t come back for a follow up nor to do an analysis to see if what they taught is being efficiently conducted on the ground.
Hence, when I was asked “what now?” I promised myself that I had to avoid repeating the same mistakes typical of workshops which I criticized for long. I left some films to my students and told them to watch them together, analyze them based on the things we learned in the workshop and discuss them. I left behind a big number of excellent films hoping to inspire my students and to know more about the fascinating and breathtaking technics used by legendary film makers.
Even though I did not know exactly when, as I am busy working on my own films in the United States, I knew I was going to eventually come back and take on the second part of the work shop. And because I had learned what generally movie making in Eritrea looked like, this time, I came back with a proper class plan. I had prepared ahead of time a map of study. I was hands all in, and I was directly part of each and single student’s learning. What I am trying to say is that I connected with each of them because by now I am not new anymore. This time we strictly focused on film production: shooting and editing naturally included.
We were in class for almost a dozen of hours. The students had no time to do anything else, so I liked how the atmosphere had captured all of their attention. We were conscious of the shortage of time in our hands, so we worked hard to make the best out of the little we had. This year too we did work on small film making projects but differently from last year’s. I was super involved. If it was not going to impress me, I had to cut what ever out. So I can say I was a bit harsh too. Some students were eager to learn and bring changes to their conventional ways, some others were extremely protective of their traditional ways. But one way or another I think it was, yet again, a successful workshop.
- -What differences did you notice between part one and part two of your workshop?
Last year I did not have an accurate plan. I didn’t know what to raise in the workshop, so all I did was more of a general passing down of whatever I know of film making. This year I definitely knew what to focus on. I grasped the good and lacking aspects of local film making and drafted my workshop plan based on last years’ experience. Issayas Tesfamariam came ahead of time and gave extensive briefings on the history of cinema. Mahlet Habte, sound director helped with the importance and details of sound in film making, and when I finally came I took over with topics of film production.
- -Is there a part three maybe? Are you coming back?
Again, I cannot give you a fixed date but I might. Like I said on different occasions, Eritrean film makers are enthusiastic about their profession and they are always ready to learn more and improve. So I feel encouraged to do my part.
- -Thank you!