A heart-stirring tale about finding the will to survive amongst adverse conditions, Anbessa uses the perspective of a child to criticise the policies of a country. A closely observed, fly-on-the-wall documentary with a few surrealistic flourishes, it mostly works in its depiction of outcasts left behind by society.
Asalif, a bright and clever young boy, lives in a shack with his mother. They have been pushed to the side to make way for new condominiums built by the government. This is part of the largest building operation in the whole of Africa. Modeled on the housing estates of East Germany, the new project is one of the most radical social housing schemes ever conceived, yet getting one of these new flats is easier said then done. Asalif and his mother are the unlucky ones; they don’t even have stable electricity, forcing Asalif to roam the large estate looking for makeshift material in order to help turn the lights on.
Director Mo Scarpelli sharply and smartly draws contrasts between Asalif’s life in the shack and those fairly well off in the new-built houses. In one particularly sad scene, Asalif builds his own helicopter from scraps only to be told by another boy, “My mother will buy me a better one.” Nevertheless, this area with no shops, bars, or even places to play, isn’t exactly socialism at its finest either — Asalif is often contrasted against empty, graffiti-strewn lots as he looks for things to build with.
His father is completely absent, and hyenas stalk the woods, but there are worse things out there than wild animals. “It’s not the hyenas that are evil,” his mother tells him, “it’s the people” — especially the land dealers who want to buy her out of her home to turn over a quick buck. Asalif doesn’t really understand, being more interested in finding these mysterious hyenas he can hear at night. The only animal that can kill a hyena? A lion.
Anbessa is the Ethiopian word for “Lion” — a creature accorded symbolic status in the country’s mythology. The Lion of Judah, for example, was used on their old imperial flags and currency, and can still be found around the streets of Addis Adaba today. It is also strongly related to Haile Selassie, Ethiopia’s defining figure thatAsalif often swears by. Thus, by dressing up as a lion and pretending to banish the hyenas — a metaphor for the land dealers who want to take his house — Asalif stands strong as a symbol of the country’s pride under such hardship.
He might do better to listen to his mother, who has continued the oral traditions of her forefathers, spinning compelling moral tales about living a righteous life. Her stories, which serve as pointed commentary on the surrounding world, are easily the best thing in the movie, framing their modern plight within a timeless framework. Scarpelli also adds in a few dream sequences to spice things up, re-staging anecdotes that Asalif tells to anyone who wants to listen. Considering the tightness of the editing (if you told me this was naturalist fiction I would’ve believed you), these flourishes feel welcome, granting Asalif the strength of the lion he so deeply desires. The Italian Scarpelli holds both fear and hope in her hands, refusing to pick a side. Let’s hope, for Asalif’s sake, the lion will rise again.