Dr Michael W. Thomas
Born and bred in London to a Welsh father and a mother of mixed Polish, English and German descent, it was through family connections that I first travelled to Ethiopia in 2010 as part of a gap year. I quickly fell in love with the people I met and the cultures I experienced in Ethiopia, early on deciding to commit myself to this place where my heart had found a home. Coincidentally, my deferred entry to SOAS as an undergraduate student later that year on the Development Studies and African Studies BA required me to learn an African language and, to my good fortune, Amharic was on offer.
Learning Amharic opened up many opportunities for me in Ethiopia and in my studies, none more significant than being able to understand the Amharic films that are ubiquitous in the movie theatres across Addis Ababa. It was my interest in Amharic cinema, encouraged by Professor Lindiwe Dovey during my BA, which led me to research the films of the Ethiopian born, US based independent filmmaker Haile Gerima during this time. Lindiwe also took me on as the Ethiopian Film Advisor for Film Africa 2012 and recommended I contribute to the Journal of African Cultural Studies’ first “contemporary conversations” section dedicated to the 2009 film The Athlete.
After completing my MA in Film Studies at UCL, I resumed my studies at SOAS under Lindiwe Dovey’s supervision for my PhD. My doctoral thesis (2019) investigates notions of a culturally specific Ethiopian melodramatic imagination and its impacts on the system of genres in the Amharic film industry. During my time as a PhD student at SOAS I worked with Dr. Alessandro Jedlowski and Prof. Aboneh Ashagrie in the co-editing of the first volume dedicated to the study of film and screen media in Ethiopia and the wider Horn of Africa region entitled, Cine-Ethiopia: The History and Politics of Film in the Horn of Africa (2018).
I am currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Ethiopian Screen Worlds on the ERC-funded project “African Screen Worlds: Decolonising Film and Screen Studies”. This project allows me to further my research interests in the cinemas of Ethiopia and challenges us to address the Euro-American bias of mainstream Film and Screen Studies. Most recently, I have begun work on a few fictional film projects and as part of the postdoc I am also directing a documentary relating to my research. Please see www.screenworlds.org for more information on the project and I welcome anyone interested in the cinemas of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa to get in touch.
My research analyses the trends and themes in Ethiopian (Amharic) Cinema based around a comprehensive historical and ethnographic study of film production, distribution and exhibition in Ethiopia.
Despite Ethiopia’s rich and long relationship with cinema, studies on the contemporary and booming video-film industry or on the committed development of film in the 70s and 80s by the Marxist Derg regime are practically non-existent apart from a couple of less scholarly works recently published in Amharic.
The aim of this research is, therefore, to highlight crucial developments within the history of cinema in Ethiopia. As the Ethiopian context has been mostly overlooked, the study will set out to weave together a contextual criticism along with formalist analysis and close readings of selected film and video texts. This country-specific focus, moving from the earliest days to the contemporary moment, will not just engage in close analysis of films and history, but also consider the role of culture, people's taste and desires and cinema-going practices. With a particular focus on certain important films as markers in technical change (ie. From 35mm film, to analogue video-films and finally to digital video-films) I explore how cultural, social and political sentiments are reflected on the big-screen. Crucially, cinema will be read as a symptom of modernization and urbanisation and, therefore, as a catalyst where local and global desires meet.