Film reviews

Finding Sally – Film Africa 2020

Ethiopian documentary Finding Sally is a deeply personal tale from director Tamara Dawait.  Tamara is of Ethiopian, Eritrean, Ukrainian and British ancestry; she was born in Canada, and holds both Ethiopian and Canadian citizenship.  Now based in Addis Ababa, this is her first feature as a director.

Finding Sally deals with the disappearance of Tamara’s aunt, Sally, in the summer of 1973.  Sally was of an upper class background, and had travelled to her home country of Ethiopia for a holiday.  Narrated by the director, the film picks up in the present day with the tearful memories of now-elderly women (one of whom is the director’s grandmother) discussing the country as it was in that time.

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They talk (in Amharic, with English subtitles) of the violence of the time; the Derg – the military junta that ruled the country from the following year right through to 1987 – massacring anyone they considered an intellectual threat.  The narration (all in English) then sets the scene of internal uprisings led by students wanting greater freedoms.  Dawait talks of her upbringing in Canada and how she did not move to Africa until her late-30s, and how it was not until this time that she began to learn of the country’s – and her family’s history – as the collective grief caused by the violence described led to a culture of silence.

Within the first five minutes we learn that Tamara knew of four aunts, but upon arrival in Ethiopia, learned of a fifth – a lady of whom she had never heard, and was never discussed by the surviving family.  From here we move on to introduce the aunts – Kibre, Tsion, Brutawit, and Menbie.  Very different ladies – an artist, a teacher, a television talk show host, and a United Nations representative; they are a group of women with diverse experiences gained in far flung areas of the world.  All are articulate screen presences, and their conversations with Tamara are undertaken in English.

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Having introduced Sally’s sisters / Tamara’s aunts, the film moves on to some family history; setting the scene with the political sensibilities of their father, and the sense of freedom fostered within the family during their childhoods.  Attending international schools, the girls were raised to respect their country; with their father spending decades serving Haile Selassie, long-time emperor of Ethiopia.  This incorporates discussion of Sally’s personality, as well as setting the scene for the political activism which was to follow.  The family moved to Canada in 1968 in order to work in the establishment of a new Embassy there.  At this stage, Sally was 17 years of age.  Two years later, their father is redeployed, while the daughters remain in Canada to complete their education.  They retain a belief that their long-term futures belong back in Ethiopia – a value fostered by their father’s patriotism.

At the same time as Dawit is setting the scene with the development of her aunts, she takes a parallel tack of exploring the Ethiopia of the time; in particular Addis Ababa.  By 1973, it was a bustling modern city, one of the few in Africa never to have been colonised.  The seeds of revolution were being sown, however, by the iron rule of the emperor; where he was the only law of the land and dissent was not tolerated.

Having set the scene as to how revolution was born, and how a group of worldly, politically-aware young women end up in their home country – for a 1973 holiday – with little feel for events there; the film moves on to events of that year.  The next act deals with Sally staying in the country at the end of the holiday, and on to events of 1974, with Sally becoming friends with members of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP), a communist organisation, one of the leaders of whom become Sally’s boyfriend.  The film moves expertly between talking heads, in-person conversation, and narrated footage explaining and contextualising 1970s footage; particularly the cover-up of a major famine that year.  This first half an hour of the film ends in the 1974 revolution; with the Derg taking power, and brutality – including towards members of Sally’s family – following.

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The next section deals with the EPRP activism in the face of growing repression from the new regime.  Sally’s attempts to protect her family, by keeping her largely out of the loop of her activities are explored; all while the film continues to show us the evolving story of the Ethiopia of the time.  In perhaps the weakest strand of the film, Tamara parallels her growing appreciation of her heritage with Sally’s.  This is somewhat of a stretch in what is a very different time, and is examining two women both of different generations, but also of different ages; with Tamara being a worldly filmmaker of nearly 40 years of age.  It is perhaps the sole part of the film to feel like padding – it isn’t, because it is such a personal tale: but it doesn’t resonate.

The final section deals with the disappearance of Sally; the attempts at the time to piece together what had happened, and the fallout that followed.  Despite the title, Finding Sally really isn’t focused on what happened, no matter how much this might be discussed during the running time.  We do learn what happened to her; but this is more in service of painting a picture of violence – in her disappearance, and loss – in examining what her eventual fate did to those she left behind.  The resulting harrowing memories leave a family irrevocably changed by what happened.  Although the aunts tell their niece that there was no conscious decision not to discuss their sister, it is clear that the modern-day silence was a deliberate one.

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At a mere 75 minutes, Finding Sally shows what can be achieved with a slight running time.  A family and a country is laid bare in a well-told tale.  The film has two minor flaws.  The first is that the director tries too hard to link the experiences of her aunts to her own.  This simply doesn’t work, as these ladies tell a tale of pain and fear, all experienced while they were very young; there is clear empathy demonstrated, but there is simply no way any of her experiences rhyme with this.  The second slight issue is that Sally is not illuminated in a way that makes her in any way as compelling as her sisters.  She remains a slight figure, while her surviving siblings are vivid, fascinating people.  The film falls away a little in the second half, as the most interesting parts of this tale are concerned with scene setting both a family and a nation.   For a terrific first 30 minutes alone, Finding Sally is worth investigating.

Finding Sally is available through a Dine and View online Screening on Friday 6th November at 7pm, through  BFI Player and Facebook. The film is also available on the BFI Player throughout the 10 days of the festival.  BFI Player offer a free 14-day trial, so you can watch the Film Africa 2020 films for free without commitment.

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