Film Festival

‘Finding Sally’ Movingly Resurrects a Forgotten Activist

Hot Docs 2020

Editor’s Note: Hot Docs was among the film festivals postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Goomba Stomp is reviewing select fest entries that elected to premiere digitally for critics.

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Like many documentary filmmakers, the director Tamara Dawit excavates her family’s history and crafts art out of it. But what at first seems like a minor family drama in Finding Sally is revealed to take place at a sweeping scale that encompasses the modern history of Ethiopia and touches upon the lives and struggles of countless activists fighting for a freer, more equitable nation. Dawit synthesizes her immediate personal concerns with the political struggles of her family’s homeland and in turn, creates a moving and captivating document of her family’s search for an aunt she never knew of.

Dawit, who was born to a black Ethiopian father and a white Canadian mother, reveals early in the film that she has moved to the Ethiopian capital Addis Abada to pursue her filmmaking and to be closer to her four aunts, who have all moved back to the country at various points after decades abroad. But as she reintegrates into her paternal family, she’s shocked to learn that she has a fifth aunt after glimpsing a photo of her on a mantel. Selamawit Dawit — known as Sally by close friends and family — was never mentioned to her, despite how close she and her sisters once were. Dawit learns that Sally was the fun-loving, sociable sister, an Ethiopian dignitary’s daughter who spent most of her childhood and adolescence in embassies around the world. After her family left Africa to set up an Ethiopian embassy in Canada, she entered university there, along with her sisters and brother.

Finding Sally

But after finishing her schooling, she moved back to Ethiopia in 1973 and became involved in a communist organization called the Ethiopian People’s Revolution Party (EPRP), comprised largely of students who protested the corrupt Emperor Haile Selassie. He was deposed by a Soviet-backed military group known as the Derg in 1974, which also became a corrupt government that violently quashed dissent. Sally and her future husband became more radical, living underground and participating in terrorist bombings against the government.

Dawit learns all of this through interviews with her aunts, but their knowledge of Sally’s life after her radical politics took precedence is cloaked in shadows and cobwebs. What they’ve learned of her comes second-hand, from her friends and comrades, but even they only know bits and pieces of what went on, what personal struggles she went through, and many more of her comrades were murdered or executed. Dawit has a fairly conservative style, and many of her interviews with family are simply sitting talking heads, yet she breaks up the potential monotony at crucial moments, such as when she brings a bounty of painting supplies to one aunt who trained as a painter but hasn’t touched a canvas in years. Seeing the unbridled joy in her eyes as she lays the paints on the ground to take in all the colors reveals how much she has repressed part of herself. It’s not long after she begins her first painting in years that she opens up about her time with Sally, and the many years without her. In a chilling scene later in the film, Dawit accompanies another aunt to an interrogation and torture site where she was imprisoned for a short period when the Derg hoped to learn Sally’s whereabouts from her. She breaks down in tears as she enters a seemingly forgotten room. It’s cluttered with junk now and the white paint on the walls is peeling, but she remembers how it looked decades earlier when the walls were painted with blood.

Dawit also adds visual intrigue to the film with extensive use of archival footage illustrating the protests and military actions that rocked Ethiopia throughout the 1970s and ‘80s. But it’s her aunts who provide the film’s most captivating moments. They all have a knack for storytelling; even when they’re relating more mundane episodes, they latch on to details that instantly make their stories immediate and compelling. But even with their storytelling flourishes, Sally is ultimately an enigma. Many elements of her life are inspiring, but so much more is unknown, and will probably always be a mystery to her sisters and niece. We spend our lives in a constant struggle with the past, which is ungraspable and resists our efforts to comprehend it. Dawit has tried to wrap her hands around the stable public elements of Sally’s history, but the roiling secrets that made up so much of her life are too unstable to grab hold of. Finding Sally could never be a complete picture of Selamawit’s life and passions, but Dawit has gotten as close as she possibly could have and painted a portrait worthy of an honorable person.

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