Imagine a boy alone in the mountains: the horizon a haze; the thin soil covered with luminous green grass, freshly sprouted after the rains. Sunlight cuts through the thick layer of clouds. Here, EphraÏm, age 9, stands with his beloved pet sheep Chuni, his last faithful friend in this world.
EphraÏm’s story is common to Ethiopia: his mother (who happens to be Jewish) dies and so his father Abraham takes him on a journey to leave him with distant Christian relatives. Arriving at a tukul (circular thatched hut) in the mountains, EphraÏm’s father leaves to find work in Addis, leaving him in the hands of the matriarchal aunt Emama and her adult son Solomon and his wife.
With the Feast of the Holy Cross looming, EphraÏm quickly realises that Solomon has his eye on Chuni for the cooking pot. Fearing for Chuni’s life, EphraÏm spends most of the time in the corner of the earth-floored hut cuddling him protectively and taking shelter from the winds that rattle the wooden door. Having discovered he is useless at farming, (much to Solomon’s disgust), he decides to raise the bus fare home by setting about cooking his own lentil samosas as his mother taught him – an act which further inflames Solomon who views this as a woman’s domain. EphraÏm, however, turns out to be a great cook and his samosas are a huge success in the market.
But more than one person has an eye on his new wad of birr: the pack of boys that roam the village and his new family who have Solomon’s sick and malnourished daughter whom they have not been able to afford to treat.
Directed by Yared Zeleke, the film has a semi-autobiographical theme. Zeleke grew up in the slums of Addis and was sent away to live in the States when he was 10. Lamb was born thanks to his patience to navigate the in-country bureaucracy and also the process of auditioning 7000 people to find the stars of the film, many of whom have no professional training according to Zeleke, who spoke to the audience after a screening of the film at The Rich Mix in Shoreditch.
Thanks to the international attention the film has received at Cannes (Lamb was the first Ethiopian film to be screened at the festival), Lamb has since received coverage by The Guardian and the BBC as well as being screened at the BFI London Film Festival .
Why does Lamb deserve its acclaim? Ethiopia’s Bale Mountains provide a beautiful showcase for the skilful shooting of the landscape, while the villages around Gondar were used for the market. The film is a vivid close-up of Ethiopian life. Details and incidents re-ignite memories of my visits: an argument over live chickens inside a bus, foreigners as fuel for jokes rather than aid, scuffles in the market and the huge oval eyes of Ephraim, often downcast with the sunlight streaming through his eyelashes.
There’s very little to criticize about Lamb. Perhaps the ending left some loose threads, but this is a story about rural Ethiopia, not Hollywood schmaltz, so it’s not a given that things will always work out. Although set within a poor family living the subsistence life, poverty is not central to Zeleke’s themes.
Lamb is a journey through Ethiopian culture, as complex as a spider’s web. It’s about a child’s grief, about male and female roles in society, about religions living alongside each other and the intricate and enduring traditions that make up rural life.
Lamb is showing at Hackney Picture House tomorrow (3rd of November), as part of the Film Africa festival including Q&A with Yared.