“Our genuine and concept-driven movies embrace the ancient history as background, making a big impact on screen” Mahlet Ogbe, sound engineer and film maker.
Meet Mahlet Ogbe Habte, an Eritrean filmmaker and sound engineer, living in Norway. She has taken up several projects making a name for herself and her productions. Mahlet, through arts, documents social traits amongst other things. She successfully participated in several important Art events such as India First Biennial, Gothenburg Biennial and China Triennial. She also held exhibitions in Tokyo, Italy, Germany, Kenya and other African countries and several in Norway. The research she conducted on traditional folk songs of Eritrea has made her popular among Eritrean artists.
- Thank you for your time. Let us start with a brief introduction of you.
My name is Mahlet. I was born in Asmara. After my high school diploma in Accounting at Galileo Galilei Italian School in Addis Ababa, I lived in Rome for five years. Because of this background, I had an option during my stay in Italy to study professional cooking at the “Cordon Bleu” Cucina Culinaria di Firenze. I trained to be a chef/cook in Italian cuisine through a one-year program. This was for me another form of art. As it was very difficult in Italy to continue with any other education, I moved to the USA and studied for one year a short course in Business Administration at the San Francisco UC Berkeley Extension because I planned to make a business out of my cooking course. But destiny brought me to Norway. In 1999 I was accepted into the Rogaland School of Art. Subsequently from 2002 up to 2006 I attended the Bergen National Academy Department of Fine Arts for the Norwegian Master’s program. In 2016 I took another Master’s in Directing at the Met Film School of London. Now I work and live in Norway as a visual artist and a filmmaker.
- And so how did you get into your current profession?
When I found myself alone in Norway, painting was some kind of light to the sad room or situation I was living in. Finally, with all the pieces I had been painting, I was accepted into the Rogaland School of Art. There, I received a basic education in art. Those two years allowed me to keep painting and develop, but I wanted to get more education. I was happy to be accepted at the Bergen National Academy of the Arts. The creativity has held me in good stead, overcoming the sense of drift, displacement and exile.
At the Academy, I chose to work with the Icon painting, finding that it was interesting and calming to work with at the time. As part of this, I carried out research on the tradition and history of Icon paintings, tracing the great history of the Byzantine Empire, fascinated by the interaction with new cultures caused by Greek missionaries’ icon painting, through the Balkans, Russia and Finland all the way up to Japan. The tradition of the icon painting changed style according to the local features of each culture. As part of this research I visited and studied icon paintings in Greece, Romania, and Czechoslovakia. As I met and interviewed people, I also became interested in stories and people related to more contemporary issues such as how they practice their culture in exile. This eventually led me to face and start dealing with my own background and story. The result of all the travel I have done now serves as inspiration for collecting all the interviews and doing my first documentary. Also this was shaping my work more toward the digital media and film. The knowledge from my research has imbued my further work with meaning, leading me closer to what I want to express, by journeying inward to recognizing my own emotional and mental status, expressing and exhibiting it by a new artistic means.
- Which are some of your biggest projects?
My biggest is the Kochi Muziris India First Biennial “Trading Good Trading”, Buying and Cooking Market Performance.
This was the first biennial for India in 2012 where 88 artists participated, 40 Indian Artist and the rest from all over the world. I was the only one representing Scandinavia. And I got a lot of appreciation from Indian Minister of Culture. This was also the most challenging and at the same time most rewarding project I have ever accomplished. Among other places, I have exhibited big projects in Gothenburg International Biennial in the year 2011. In 2008, I participated in an exhibition held in China for the 3rd Guangzhou Triennial, the web-based project “Pool of Possibilities”. In 2006 I participated in Bergen Exhibition at USF Verftet, Sound Installation. I presented a 10-minute video during the 2005 World Expo of Japan and two years earlier, in 2003, I presented “Heimat”, a 7-minute video in Museo Revoltella, Trieste, Italy. Besides, I am just finishing a documentary I made in 2005 about the Byzantine icon painting and on how they spread their faith in diaspora through Icon painting. I documented it following their footsteps all the way to the Far East, travelling to Japan, Hong Kong and Indonesia.
- Which one did you enjoy the most and why?
The one I have enjoyed most was the one I made in Sweden in the Gothenburg International Biennial even though my project in India was the most successful of all, with vast media coverage by almost all mainstream media outlets in India. It was also streamed direct online by Google. It also happened to be the first of its kind for Google to stream live such a big event in India.
The biennial was held from 12th December 2012 to the end of March 2013 and was seen by almost 700,000 visitors. However, for me, the Gothenburg one was less stressful. The curators hosting the biennial were very organized, and since it was held in Scandinavia, where the culture is similar to that of the Norwegians, which I know quite well, it was easier for me to be well acquainted with the local people to conduct and fulfill the project smoothly. In India my main challenge was that it took me a lot of time just to understand the culture and find the right way to communicate.
- How did you get in touch with the Asmara summer film workshop?
I was contacted by Issayas Tesfamariam. I didn’t know him but he explained to me how he found out that I was doing my Master’s in Film Directing and he invited me to participate at the workshop.
- How would you explain your experience in the workshop?
To participate in the workshop has been really fantastic. I have been teaching and participating in other workshops in Africa and South America, but in Eritrea it is different. Whenever I come to Asmara it’s always a load of joy. First of all, to be with my fellow citizens in person, to spend time together, discuss things and share the love we have for each other is a real blessing. I would like to put it in this way– I don’t come to Asmara to teach really but to share my knowledge because the Eritrean artists and filmmakers are already brilliant, and the learning is mutual. This is the most meaningful experience for me that fills me with a lot of satisfaction and inspires me to do more and more for the film industry in Eritrea to the extent that right now I just want to concentrate only on this aim.
- What are your observations regarding how films are made in Eritrea?
I believe there is still a long way to go and the progress depends on many facts: budget and deep knowledge about the whole craft of film making taking into consideration that it takes time to build a solid film industry based on our skill and our culture in order to reflect and present our identity. On the other hand, for six consecutive years Eritrean movies have won the Remi award of the Houston Texas International Film Festival. Generally speaking, this means there is a great potential in Eritrean filmmaking. The high standard films made using sophisticated equipment all over the world are being confronted with low- budget movies. In my view, our movies are out there to compete and win because they are fully charged with our rich culture and the fantastic ability of our actors and actresses. It is obvious that this is a big advantage. All this is a good package and gives a sense of freshness and novelty to the judges at the film festival. It is quite a challenge to impress, but what makes the story unique is who is making it. Our genuine and concept-driven movies are embracing the ancient history as background, which can make a big impact on screen. A land with many years of civilization makes the Eritrean story content still full of fragments of subtle but interesting details that you don’t find anywhere else. This might contribute to the sense of originality of the winning films. The film industry is all about processes. We don’t have a strong structure or style yet and this might be an advantage. At this stage it’s very easy to shape it in order to come out with an organic and authentic style for our film industry.
Moreover, we can showcase Asmara, a UNESCO heritage, as the best African city in terms of architecture. Such a dream city, the stunning Eritrean landscape, clean sea and islands, and Eritrean actors/ actresses who are talented and graceful all can contribute a lot to the screen.
- Would you take any projects in Eritrea?
- And what are your future plans?
There are many plans to be fulfilled in the near Future, with the help of God.
The first step is to move back home.
- Well, we will be delighted to welcome you back!