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A young Ethiopian boy and his rust-colored ewe are the protagonists of Lamb, the beautifully crafted if rather familiar first feature from Yared Zeleke. Unusually, this is the second year in a row a feature from Ethiopia debuts at a major festival, after Difret, which was executive produced by Angelina Jolie, premiered in Sundance last year. This is certainly a positive sign, though despite some handsome observations about how Ethiopian society is slowly changing even in the remotest parts of the country, the general thrust of Zeleke’s narrative might be a little too familiar to earn the film any kind of wide distribution in arthouses. Festivals, however, and especially those aimed at younger audiences, will be thrilled to add it to their lineups.
Pint-sized protagonist Ephraim (Rediat Amare) is forced to move away from his village of birth after the (never explained) death of his mother has made it unsafe for the boy and his father, Abraham (Indriss Mohamed), to stay there. Together with his mother’s sterile ewe, Chuni, Ephraim is taken to relatives in the countryside much further south, where the lamb will keep the boy company while his father will make the trek to the big city to look for work. Ephraim’s uncle, Solomon (Surafel Teka) wants to make a man out of the young boy, though Ephraim’d much rather stay at home with the women, under the benign eye of the matriarch, Emama (Wolela Assefa), and dedicate himself to his passion: cooking.
The main conflict is thus easily understandable even for smaller viewers, with the dramatic tension deriving from the clash of the protagonist’s desires with established, gender-dictated customs, a familiar trope that has propelled such recent arthouse hits as Wadjda and Bad Hair (Pelo malo). Ezeke’s set-up is clean but also somewhat facile, though a subplot helps reinforce and further explore some of the story’s themes, with Ephraim’s female cousin, Tsion (Kidist Siyum), refusing to marry despite being the eldest unmarried girl in the village. Instead, she prefers to read newspapers all day and learn new things about the world. The differences in the way the conservative Solomon deals with both youngsters suggests Ethiopian society is trying to (and to an extent is perhaps forced to) adapt even as the people in the country want to respect traditional mores.
Lamb, which was co-written by the director and French screenwriter Geraldine Bajard (La Lisière), also has something of an ironic twist that further adds some dramatic tension: Ephraim might love to cook but he needs to work really hard to keep his only friend, Chuni, from being sacrificed and eaten during the upcoming holidays. This results in him having to “park” the animal in places it can’t be found, which both leads him to bond with Tsion, whose help the timid boy needs to negotiate alternative pasture for the animal, and which forces him to make money to pay those looking after it in his stead, which he does by selling food he’s made at the market.
Ephraim, embodied by the meek-looking Amare in a sturdy performance, is thus quite the little entrepreneur, resourceful and certain of his goals, so the fact he doesn’t stand up at all to his peers who start to bully and blackmail him in the market rings somewhat false. It also saddles the film with the rather problematic notion that a boy who wants to do girly things simply undergoes severe beatings because he’s assimilated ideas of the “weaker sex,” which is not exactly a welcome development. The fate of Tsion is similarly left somewhat ambiguous in a final reel that’s a little too open-ended and dramatically underpowered to send viewers out on a high. However, this might be a desire on the director’s part to give audiences something that stays close to the current state of Ethiopian society rather than a kind of wish-fulfillment ending. Nonetheless, it feels like something of a surprise in a film that seems otherwise very considerate and carefully balanced, with for examples the different religions of Ethiopia beautifully integrated into the story without making a particular fuss about any of them.
French-Canadian cinematographer Josee Deshaies, who most recently shot Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent, gives the beautiful green landscapes, often veiled in mist, so much room, the characters’ occasional complaints about droughts and lack of water feel somewhat unsubstantiated. The film also feels richly textured, visually, with the camera drinking in everything from Chuni’s thick, chunky fur to the dried-out earth and wood used for the huts and the finely woven, colorful scarves that everyone wears.
Production companies: Slum Kid Films, Gloria Films Production, Heimatfilms, Film Farms, Wassakara Productions
Cast: Rediat Amare, Kidist Siyum, Surafel Teka, Wolela Assefa, Rahel Teshome, Bitania Aberaham, Indriss Mohamed
Director: Yared Zeleke
Screenplay: Yared Zeleke, Geraldine Bajard
Producers: Ama Ampadu, Laurent Lavolé, Johannes Rexin
Director of photography: Josee Deshaies
Production designer: Laurence Brenguier
Costume designer: Sandra Berribi
Editor: Veronique Bruque
Music: Christophe Chassol
Sales: Films Distribution
No rating, 96 minutes