SOAS University of London

Centre for Creative Industries, Media and Screen Studies

The Role of the Cinema in the Contemporary Ethiopian 'Video-film' Industry

Speaker: Michael W. Thomas

After a ban on screening DVDs and VHSs in Ethiopian cinemas was lifted in 2002, local ‘video-film’ productions in Amharic, the lingua franca of Ethiopia, proliferated exponentially. This popular, low-budget and commercially-led cultural phenomenon has dramatically changed the meaning of cinema in urban Ethiopia, usurping the once ubiquitous (Hollywood action, Bollywood and Chinese Kung-Fu) movies. The popularity of local productions has inspired increased numbers of cinemagoers which has in turn fuelled the construction of cinemas in the country at a rate not seen since the Italian’s sought to use cinema as a tool of subjugation during their brief five year occupation of Ethiopia from 1936 to 1941.

At a time, then, when scholars note ‘The Decay of Cinema’ (Susan Sontag, 1996) across the globe due to the onset of the digital revolution in the new ‘information age’, why is it that cinema-building and cinemagoing are enjoying a local renaissance in urban Ethiopia? Unlike in most ‘video-film’ industries across Africa which have favoured a ‘straight to VCD’ distribution model, the Ethiopian industry favours theatrical releases in the many cinemas that populate Addis Ababa and other urban centres throughout the country. This study will present an analysis of the built cinema and the informal distribution and exhibition networks which govern the ‘video-film’ industry in Ethiopia and discuss cinema’s changing position in society.