This film by a young Ethiopian currently living in the United States is set during a failed coup d'état against the Emperor Haile Selassie in 1960. It tells its story from the point of view of the coup participants, focusing on a young aristocrat who is forced into hiding and, eventually, self-confrontation. Its beautiful images and powerful story have earned it a variety of awards in Africa and the U. S. In Amharic with English subtitles.
1996, Ethiopia/U.S., 117 min.
directed and produced by Yemane I. Demissie; screenplay by Demissie from the story by Wassy Tesfa & Demissie; cinematography by Costas Kitsos & Jeffrey Crum; sound by Jon Oh; production design and editing by Yemane Demissie; with Jima Assefa (Yoseph), Seble Tekle (Yodit), Eskinder Berhanu (Dejen), Tabl Gebre-Hiwot (Meheret), Samson K. Guma (Tesfaye), Mulumebet Anteneh (Weizero Zelleka), Samuel Abebe (Colonel Adenew), Abdosh Abdulhafiz (Gebru), Sehalu Tafesse (Asseged). In Amharic with English subtitles.
A group of aristocrats sit at dinner in a lovely, palatial home. Some engage in meaningless chatter, others look bored and distracted, others carry secrets or perhaps a hidden malevolence. A kind of malaise hangs in the air, attenuated a bit by the appearance of the vivacious young daughter of the house, Yodit, who surreptitiously wipes off her lipstick before entering the room and paying her respects.
It could be a movie from the Sixties, from Spain, France, or Italy, a scene from La Dolce Vita or The Exterminating Angel. But this aristocracy is Ethiopian, and the question mark that hangs in the air is the spectre of an impending revolution that will suddenly blaze, and then sputter.
The drama of Tumult is set in 1960, during the later years of the long imperial rule of Emperor Haile Selassie. The Emperor, born Ras Tafari in 1891, had been ruling the country in his own name since 1930, and as regent for years before that. The emperor steered the country into a policy of modernization and international outreach. He inaugurated a modicum of constitutional reforms, with an elected lower house of parliament and a supposedly independent judiciary. In fact, though, power remained in the hands of the emperor himself, his advisors, and the powerful oligarchs who continued to exercise authority in the countryside.
Of course, few of these changes had any positive effect on the everyday lives of the farmers and villagers who made up the great majority of the populace. They remained tied to the land, virtual serfs to the feudal lords (a situation that we saw in our third Festival, in Haile Gerima's great film, Harvest 3,000 Years).
As part of the emperor's reform efforts, the sons and daughters of the aristocracy and the wealthy were sent abroad to study, or enrolled in the new universities in Ethiopia. However, exposed to the new possibilities that their education afforded them, they became impatient with the slow pace of reform, and began to question the need to continue the tired imperial regime. (The film actually opens, not accidentally, with allusions to Adam and Eve's fall from grace upon eating from the Tree of Knowledge.)
By the end of 1960 many of the educated government officials and military officers felt that the country would move ahead only when the imperial regime was ended. In December, while the emperor was out of the country on a state visit to Brazil, members of the security and military forces attempted a coup d'état. The coup rapidly unraveled, but the nation was shaken, and in fact would never recover its dreams of imperial glory (though the aging emperor would cling to power until he was finally deposed in 1974).
This, then, is the backdrop to Yemane Demissie's first feature film. Demissie creates the character of Yoseph, a young aristocrat.. His uncle is the Baron Lord Yacob, Deputy Prime Minister. His mother lives in the country on a large estate. His friends drive big American cars, go to nightclubs, wear fancy clothes, associate only with their own kind. But Yoseph is secretly one of the masterminds of the coup d'état., together with army officers Haile and Belaye. When the coup falls apart, he runs for his life.
With the failure of the coup, Yoseph seems to lose his bearings entirely. He seeks refuge with his mother, then with a number of other people (including his playboy cousin Tesfaye and his fiancée, Meheret), in a series of encounters that reveal his basic weakness and inability to turn his ideas into effective action. He has suffered an apparently slight physical wound, but it is really a metaphor for a deeper, spiritual injury. He speaks little, so we can only surmise what is going on inside him, but we are helped by a number of flashbacks to childhood memories and fantasies, where we see him always separate, fearful, being chased, unable to escape.
Yoseph's final hope is his childhood playmate, Dejen, who works as gatekeeper for Yoseph's uncle. Dejen takes him in, but their relationship is strained, for they are both aware of the chasm of class difference that now lies between them. The unexpected arrival of his cousin Yodit quickly complicates matters. Despite his illusions of working on behalf of "The People," in the end, the old class prejudices and resentments cannot be easily overcome. "The People" are not necessarily grateful.
Ultimately, Yoseph emerges as more of a schemer than a revolutionary. He is ultimately enmeshed in his attachments to his class and mired in its lassitude and prejudices. We see the extent to which the members of that class, priding themselves on their Europeanness, are cut off from their fellow Africans. Without that connection, it is hard to see how any revolution could succeed. In the end, these aristocrats will be able to do little other than continue to play out the final years of the doomed imperial regime in their usual, trivial way.
In making this film, Demissie is resurrecting a moment in Ethiopia's history that has long been ignored, a brief moment of possibility, of wasted opportunity. However, it is more than just a period piece. In exploring the failure of the 1960 coup, he is unearthing deeper conflicts and tendencies that will return to haunt Ethiopia during the horrific years that would follow the deposition and murder of the Emperor in 1974 (which we saw depicted with such eloquence in Salem Mekuria's Deluge, screened two years ago in the Festival), and which still plague the country today.
Seven years in the making, Tumult is a skillful blend of historic footage shot in Ethiopia and dramatic reconstructions filmed mainly in black & white in the dry countryside of Southern California. The coup itself is shown only indirectly. Don't look for expensive, operatic battle scenes, explosives, or billowing smoke from this film; the director is more concerned with the underlying dynamic of the coup. The take-over of the state radio station-and its eventual recapture-becomes the focus of the struggle. This strategy makes a lot of practical sense for a low-budget film, but it also works well to de-romanticize the coup and keep the viewer focused on its effects and underlying ironies. The director makes effective use of his soundtrack, juxtaposing sound and image in an interesting way: we hear propaganda messages (from one side or the other), but we see stock images of peasants or urban dwellers who are of course completely oblivious to the inflated messages on the soundtrack. Similarly, most of the drama and inner workings of the characters is left unstated, left for the viewer to piece together and ponder.
Tumult has been very well received at festivals around the world. It won first place in the 16th Annual National Black Programming Consortium Film & Video Competition, won top awards at various festivals in Africa, including FESPACO, and has been featured at a number of festivals in North America and Europe.
-Notes by Michael Dembrow (TENTH ANNUAL CASCADE FESTIVAL OF AFRICAN FILMS, February/March 2000, Portland, Oregon, USA)