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Interview with Mo


Storyworld Name

Ethiopian Treasure

Year of Production



Addis Ababa, Ethiopia


How did you first come across Asalif and his story?

I had been working in Ethiopia for a while on different projects. I had good friends in the country; I was becoming fascinated by the culture and the ways in which it’s been very resistant to colonialism. In fact, for 100 years foreigners couldn’t come to Ethiopia. But yet, one time I was flying in for a shoot and saw this massive condominium taking shape on the outskirts of Addis Ababa and I was like OK, I have never seen this kind of thing in Ethiopia. And it looks very European. And that just kind of sparked it. I had met a translator through a friend of mine so I extended my trip for two weeks and just hung out in the area of this condominium.

When I got home I realised I really wanted to make a film about this place so I got a little bit of funding to go back. That’s when I met Asalif- I was just sitting in one of these unfinished courtyards with my translator and he poked his head out from behind a building. We invited him over to speak with us and when we would ask him questions he would answer in a kind of fable. So, like, he had been displaced by the condo but we didn’t know that so we asked him where he lived. And instead of telling us he’d been displaced he said something like, ‘I’m like a bird in the night, I fly off into the sky and that’s where I sleep’. So I was like, ‘who is this?’. I’ve filmed all kinds of people but I’ve never felt this enigmatic kind of energy. So I asked if I could film him talking to my translator and right away he was very camera friendly and didn’t care that I was filming.

I went to meet his mum and decided that he could be our guide through this story of rapid development and the annuls of that. Really, he was situated in the perfect place to explore this because he was on the edge of this condo but so connected to the farmer, traditional way of life.

It’s so amazing to hear how the process unfolded. So I guess the story came out of a love for Ethiopia paired with the shock of never seeing that development before…

Yes, and I was curious about the tension I felt there. Ethiopia has fallen into a complete civil war since I made the film but it was unfolding during the process of filming. There was a state of emergency because of these development projects swallowing up land which was very sacred to these families. So it was the beginning of that tension and I could kind of feel it. But the thing about Asalif that’s so interesting is that he inhabits that tension but then, of course, the biggest tension he feels is coming of age- needing to be a man now for his mum.

To what extent do you think he was aware of that social tension and change going on around him?

It’s interesting because when you’re making a film with someone, especially a kid, you can influence them over time. He would come along with us at the beginning and I wasn’t sure he was that cognisant of everything but he grew into it. He’s a very clever kid so he would pick things up. He was learning to read so he would try to understand the news and tell his mum about what was happening. I think if we didn’t make the film it wouldn’t have been so present, or it wouldn’t have had to be. But because he was always around me and my translator asking people about development and displacement, it became more ripe for him.

It’s really important to hear the way you take responsibility for the impact your presence and your making of the film had on Asalif and his perspective on the world around him. Do you feel that creating the film has supported Asalif and his community in any way?

There has been a civil war in Ethiopia since the film came out which has affected all Ethiopians in a really horrible way. People watched the film- we screened it at the festival in Addis and went with Asalif. Everyone was so excited about him! So, for Asalif it’s been amazing to see the way his own community sees him in relation to all of the conversations it opens. But because of the war, the film hasn’t been so topical. However, as of a few weeks ago, this particular condominium is going to be given back to the farmers who had it. So the film has more to offer now in light of this recent news.  I also think that outside of Ethiopia, nobody really knew that these land grabs were happening. So the film does offer a portal into this reality which is really important for people becoming more aware.

I agree. It’s amazing that this story is also now coming to younger audiences through Lyfta. What drew you to want to work with us?

When you told me about this world, like this literal globe that you created, it seemed so great for students to have the opportunity to drop themselves into Asalif’s world. That’s what I try to do with my films- to give the viewer a setting and, once they walk into the cinema, drop them into the world of the protagonist. And I thought it was amazing that students can do that with a kid their age.

Yes. It’s incredible to be a part of facilitating that connection between people in such different contexts. And overcoming those geographical barriers just by listening to someone’s story and watching the ways they play and interact with people. How did you decide on the story you were going to tell in the Lyfta cut of your film?

In thinking about a young audience, I was really freed up to focus on the message that the end of the feature film is really about, which is that a beautiful truth in the world is that no matter how awful things get, we always have our own creativity. So, no matter what situation, if we really keep that perspective and that curiosity and that kid inside alive, we’re going to be ok. Asalif taught me that and it makes it to the end of the feature as a tribute to creativity. So, in the Lyfta piece, I got to only stick with that narrative. And that was a joy!

How did you find incorporating the 360 element to your story?

I really liked it! It was my first time but it was easier than I expected. It was really fun to set something up and watch life unfold and allow it to keep unfolding unobstructed. I try to do this with my films anyway! And the other thing that was cool is that sometimes when I’d show the film to people they would be like, ‘I don’t know what Addis looks like’. So it was amazing to have the opportunity to show the different parts of it.

Yes, and the complexity of it! You mentioned how in your films you like to watch life unfold and your films really are so poetic and observational. What draws you to this style of filmmaking?

Some people use cinema to create worlds, but the thing I love the most about cinema is that you have the opportunity to let image and sound transmit way more layers of meaning, especially when they’re put together and used in certain ways to tell a story. I do think we’re here on this earth to ask what kind of stuff is around us and why and bounce these emotions we have about it off ourselves and each other and that’s part of being human. So, what I love about observational filmmaking is that we can sit there and in one frame or scene, distil something really epic that can’t be said in words or transposed in other ways. We’re just able to observe things in their spontaneity and juxtaposition and hilarity and sadness and observational cinema is a way to linger on those things. It’s something you can only get from cinema, you know.

Yes, and I guess the opportunity of shooting and viewing observational documentaries is actually to bring you further into the world. Last question, and you’ll probably say ‘whatever they want’, but what would you like people to feel and think when they watch your film on Lyfta?

Whatever they want or whatever they feel! But I would also say to let the curiosity and care they feel permeate other parts of life. There are real people all over the world who are like Asalif in many ways- one of them being that he gets bullied, as we see. The film is a portal into his private life because it’s very much about his private creativity and how he gets something out of that. So, of course, that’s really inspiring. But I also think it’s good to think about the fact that kids, or people, aren’t fitting in in all kinds of situations and maybe it’s good to assume the best and that they have some sort of private something going on. To keep in mind the layers to people’s lives and struggles and their strength to deal with them.