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TORONTO 2019 Discovery

Zeresenay Berhane Mehari • Director of Sweetness in the Belly

“My siblings and I had to think about this challenge of what home means and what a community means”

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- Cineuropa spoke to Zeresenay Berhane Mehari about various aspects of Sweetness in the Belly, his adaptation of the Camilla Gibb book

Zeresenay Berhane Mehari • Director of Sweetness in the Belly

Zeresenay Berhane Mehari is an Ethiopian-born filmmaker, whose first feature, Difret, about forced marriages, won audience awards at Sundance and Berlin. His sophomore film, Sweetness in the Belly [+see also:
film review
interview: Zeresenay Berhane Mehari
film profile
]
, screened in the Discovery section of the Toronto Film Festival, is an adaptation of Camilla Gibb’s book of the same name, about a young British girl abandoned in Morocco as a child, who moved to Ethiopia in the 1970s. Ejected from the country, she seeks refuge in Britain, where she helps Ethiopians unite with their families.

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Cineuropa: When did you first hear about the book?
Zeresenay Berhane Mehari: I actually heard about the script first. I was at the Berlin Film Festival with Difret and was doing press for that movie. A producer approached me, who had just seen Difret, and said, “I have this amazing script for you to read.” I started reading the screenplay between press interviews. It was amazing. It captured whatever I felt as an Ethiopian immigrant in America.

The book and the film take place in the immigrant community in Britain; are the experiences depicted in the film universal?
It was really, really close to home. I’m one of seven kids. Six out of the seven children migrated to different parts of the world. I was in America by myself, my brother and my sister were in Holland, and another brother was in Sweden. So we were trying to make whatever we could of ourselves in a place that was foreign to us. We all had to think about this challenge of what home means and what a community means, as well as how to build a community. That was at the centre of it for me.

Sweetness in the Belly goes into fascinating detail about the fall of Haile Selassie in 1974 and the subsequent military dictatorship. Was that also an attraction?
Number one, the fact that it was an Ethiopian story, that Ethiopia was at the centre of it, and I’m an Ethiopian director allowed to make stories about Ethiopia, about our history and our culture, was very important. Secondly, this is the story of my aunts and uncles; my family was torn apart during that time. I was born two years after the revolution but grew up in that military dictatorship. It was not something you could escape. Then it was the characters, the portrayal of Muslim Ethiopians and Christian Ethiopians living together. We take it for granted because I think we have one of the best communities in the world in that sense: the Muslim and the Christian communities live together and intermarry.

Before the film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, it was accused of whitewashing because Dakota Fanning was wrongly perceived to be playing a white Ethiopian. What was your view of the furore?
It’s unfortunate that people thought about it that way. That doesn’t mean that those things don’t happen; it happens left, right and centre. It happened recently with regard to an Ethiopian story made by Israeli filmmakers, but this is not that. This is a book about a young British girl who grew up in Morocco, then came to Ethiopia and became a displaced person in England. We didn’t use a white person to tell an African story. She is part of this story, she came to Ethiopia, and we followed the book. She is not a vehicle; she didn’t assume or take on someone else’s story. 

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