3 Best Movies to Watch From Ethiopia

Staff & contributors
The Sanskrit word Samsara refers to the wheel of life and roughly translates to “continuous flow”. And, indeed, Samsara takes us on an entrancing journey, chronicling the never-ending cycle of birth, life, death, and re-birth that life, big and small, goes through—at least according to the religions that were born on the Indian continent. Shot on 70mm film and utilizing computerized camera movements as well as time-lapse photography, this film by American director Ron Fricke delivers absolutely breath-taking visuals. Whether it's awe-inspiring vastness or the close-up of a human face, its narration-less narrative integrates every aspect of human and natural life regardless of scale or location. The scope of this effort is truly awe-inspiring and the clarity of it has to be seen to be believed. An unusual and magical film!

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Balinese Tari Legong Dancers, Hiroshi Ishiguro, Ni Made Megahadi Pratiwi, Olivier De Sagazan, Puti Sri Candra Dewi, Putu Dinda Pratika

Director: Ron Fricke

Rating: PG-13

Though it’s without a plot, Faya Dayi nonetheless weaves a stunning, expansive narrative about khat and the people who farm it and chew its leaves for their hallucinogenic effect. The documentary seems to take place in the same hazy dreamlike stupor that khat-chewers chase: shot in luminous black and white, the film is set to a reflective rhythm that floats from folklore to contemporary stories of romantic heartbreak, migration, and oppression.

Largely featuring members of Ethiopia's Oromo community — a marginalized ethnic group — including the farmers and workers involved in khat production, Faya Dayi is a portrait of economic hardship, emotional pain, and transcendent escape that hits straight in the chest for all the rawness and yearning it depicts. (As disembodied voice-overs put it, “people chew to get away” to the khat-induced “empty and lonely hideout where no one can ever visit you, your own dark and lonely world.”) Full of textures and images that evoke all of the senses, this is virtually a 5D movie, a hypnotic out-of-body experience that floats an astonishing expanse of ideas into your head — no talky explanations needed.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Biniam Yonas, Destu Ibrahim Mumade, Hashim Abdi, Mohammed Arif, Urji Abrahim Mumade

Director: Jessica Beshir

While most are familiar with Hollywood depictions of the transatlantic slave trade, there were also other countries that depicted this terrible time period, including countries from the African continent. Ethiopian filmmaker Haile Gerima self-funded and self-distributed Sankofa in its initial release, but despite the lack of screens, it still managed to become a landmark classic thankfully restored. Like plenty of films on the topic, Gerima creates a harrowing depiction of the slave owners’ evil, but unlike others, it’s more interested in the difficult dynamics between the enslaved, the ways they sought refuge and freedom in each other, and the inner lives of the community they shared despite the terror, all through Gerima’s striking images and the masterfully mixed soundscape, both in the soundtrack and various accents. It’s not perfect, and it’s definitely not easy to watch, but Sankofa has a distinct vision that needs to be seen.

Genre: Drama, Fantasy, History, Science Fiction

Actor: Afemo Omilami, Alexandra Duah, Kofi Ghanaba, Mutabaruka, Mzuri, Nick Medley, Oyafunmike Ogunlano, Reggie Carter, Reginald Carter

Director: Haile Gerima