Ethiopian life through the eyes of a precocious and imaginative boy in ‘Anbessa’

Vino Vérité Presents: Anbessa

FilmScene — Sunday, July 14 at 6:30 p.m.

Director Mo Scarpelli will join his ‘Anbessa’ at FilmScene on Sunday, July 14. — video still

FilmScene’s Vino Vérité series presents Anbessa, directed by Mo Scarpelli — its first feature from Africa — on July 14. Vino Vérité is a joint project of FilmScene, Little Village magazine and Bread Garden Market. The hors d’oeuvres and wine tasting, part of the experience of the series, start at 6:30 p.m.; the screening starts at 7:15 p.m. Scarpelli will be present at the screening and available for a dialogue, along with desert and wine, at the 8:30 p.m. reception after the movie. Tickets are $20 for members, $25 for the public, and include food, wine and movie.

Anbessa, which means “lion” in Amharic, follows Asalif, a 10-year-old who lives with his mother on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in a new development of condominiums. Asalif is a curious, precocious and camera-friendly kid, continually creating new devices from the broken scraps he forages. The movie wisely focalizes its scenes through him, capturing the sense of wonder that is the universal gift children give. The world is a vast place, and like most 10 year olds, Asalif understands small fragments of the vast pieces that are reflected to him.

One gift of the movie is disclosing the universality of this half-understanding, the twilit realms of dawning comprehension. Anbessa does not play tricks: It captures how Asalif sits, half-bored in his hut; how he listens to conversations about politics; how he plays with the neighborhood kids; how he imagines; how he walks. The apparent poverty, in some ways, is inconsequential to how many 10-year-olds move through life. Much of what occurs resembles, in a way, how I remember spending a lot of my summers when I was 10 — and how (cell phones aside) kids still do things. The adult world is louder, but it remains possible to walk on its boundaries and preserve a safe amount of unknowing.

In addition to the world of adults, Asalif’s life is bounded by the presence of wealth, represented by the condominiums. Anbessa — in showing the stark contrast between different assumptions of reality, through the mirrored experience of Asalif as protagonist — invites audiences to encounter how innocence can deflect strange cultural gaps that adults find impossible to traverse.

The key to this navigation, in many ways, is imagination. Asalif listens as tales are told to him, and he tells himself his own stories in ways that prove empowering. Given the implacable pace of expansion and the strange rules that govern the pace of city life (which Asalif finds unfriendly) the movie shows it as natural that the boy would turn to the wide wilds beyond the space of city to identify with that form of power. The imaginative sequences in the film are simple, but stirring. They show the basic human impulse to create that which eventually transforms into ritual or religion — the metaphoric, imaginative way of creating power, beyond simple child’s play.

‘Anbessa’ will be screened at Sunday’s Vino Vérité event. — video still

Asalif is also complex, as humans tend to be: Although a young boy, he’s a genius with electronics. Figuring out how to fix broken objects scavenged from a trash site near the condominium projects, Asalif constructs a variety of motors through his own wiring system. He makes toys and lights; he brings a broken phone to life. There’s little drama involved in the process, and he seems far more engaged in the activity than most kids who (like me) simply expect their electronic objects to work.

The movie is beautiful, humorous and thought provoking. Anbessa provides a portal into what makes human experiences universal, but it also provides access to a unique story and situation far from here. Even without the trappings around the Vino Vérité experience, the film itself is quite worthwhile as a way to begin thinking about the way our culture wrestles (or doesn’t) with the issues spotlighted.

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