This was my first Ethiopian movie premiere. I came of my own volition; enticed by the premise of diaspora themes and assured by the film festival accolades. By the end of the movie, I had only one feeling- relief. I was relieved that my non Ethiopian co worker had bailed and that I was finally released from this captivity. The sparse audiences sweeping applause startled me. I feigned a smile once I found the source of the applause- the filmmaker, Messay Getahun, was going to treat the audience to comments. I was perfectly content to confine my review of this movie in slapstick fashion to my sister and file it in the depths of my memory palace–but the Q&A with the Director careened me to a different direction.
He stated essential truths; a) This is an Ethiopian film b) The film portrays contemporary Ethiopia in a non-defamatory light c) Lambadina resonates with diverse audiences.
Lambadina invokes a soap opera. The hard-dramatics used to progress Joseph’s narrative abandons all verisimilitude. Bare with me; upper class Ethiopian boy named Joseph is parted from his dotting father and dispossessed to the streets by his extended family. Joseph the street child is accosted by compassionate white business-tourists who stipulate his guardianship upon an unenthused elitist Ethiopian businessman. Joseph the house ward falls for the daughter of elitist Ethiopian business man. Family leave teenage Joseph (ward/prev. street child/ originally upper-class Ethiopian boy). Adult Joseph get’s DV and crosses paths with his childhood love- but she is engaged and so sets the premise for Lambadina. By the opening of the 2nd American half, I was strategizing routes to exit the hall. The movie was awful. I didn’t feel attached to Joseph because his Oliver Twist tale was addled with comical plot-holes and dry writing. The first scene lays out all the flaws: Joseph recounts his Oliver Twist story to Ruth (weren’t they living together for years…) the flashback opens with the dissolution of Ethiopia’s Marxist regime, the Derg, but you wouldn’t know that from the film because Joseph is jettisoned from his Western inculcated class spearheaded by a foreign teacher- an implausible setup for that epoch.
I didn’t believe in his relationship with Ruth because we were never exposed to Ruth. Even the heel, Mr. elitist business man, came off as the only genuine person in the film- he’s the bad guy! The arc of the love story was a farce.
Lambadina does not give glimpses of Ethiopia or Ethiopian society. This implicit acknowledgment comes from the filmmakers vapid perception of the opening scene: The two teenage lovers (Joseph and Ruth) are overlooking Addis from a skeletal-building’s rooftop vantage point. According to the filmmaker, this scene is a “visual display of the incomplete nature of their love”. In this scene I saw two young Ethiopians forcibly looking to the West as they stand on the rubbles of IMF developments plans- an arresting portrayal of failed urban development policies. Addis Abeba (our New Flower and headquarter of African Union) is teeming with dilapidated construction sites and incongruous vanity projects. But Lambadina evades any subtle nods to consequential overtones, preferring instead to wallow in elementary romantic literary devices.
Upon Joseph’s arrival to the U.S. he knows the lingo, dresses to the latest trend and is culturally fluid to snag an American raised Ethiopian. Basically what FOB’s think they are when they approach “us” at hook lounges. So unreal. The American act is also thematically glib, in its portrayal, Lambadina evades struggles of assimilation, internal class dynamics and hybridity. First generation Ethiopians and their diaspora communities lives are complex, fluid and inexplicably tied to Ethiopia. The group in Lambadina are a disparate community fixated upon the here. I did appreciate the attempt to explore the tension between family expectation and Western individualism in the relationship between Ruth and her father but this flailed when in a most absurdist scene; the hospitalized elitist Ethiopian father wheezed what could have been his last breath in broken/struggle English—in lieu of Amharic! In what reality!
I disagree with Lambadina’s filmmaker. This didn’t tell “an Ethiopian narrative” as he so touted at the Q&A. In its preoccupation with the sprawling epic-romance, Lambadina sacrificed the integrity of the film to the point that it devalued Ethiopian art. Ethiopian films and Ethiopian Diaspora films should export our day-to-day, lifestyle, struggles and culture – this movie held no merit.