”LOVE FOR MUSIC” – AN INTERVIEW WITH MACIEJ BOCHNIAK, THE AUTHOR OF ”ETHIOPIQUES - THE REVOLT OF SOUL”
”Ethiopiques – the Revolt of Soul” is one of the six Polish films competing for an award at this year's IDFA Festival in Amsterdam. Maciej Bochniak'sdocumentary will be presented in the Music Documentary section. Daniel Stopa talked to the director.
Daniel Stopa: Director from Poland making a film about Ethiopian music – one could write several scripts about it. Where did the idea to talk about music movement in far away Ethiopia came from?
Maciej Bochniak: My fascination with Ethiopian music started after I saw ”Broken Flowers” and heard MulatuAstake’s music from Jim Jarmusch’s film. After that came the whole series of ”Ethiopiques”. While listening to these albums I've discovered that Ethiopian music is not only instrumental, but first of all vocal. That crazy singing, throaty sound, strange harmony and incomprehensible language made a big impression on me. I was listening to it for a long time and wearing it in me. After reading ”The Emperor” by RyszardKapuściński I've started to connect the dates and found out that Ethiopian music was being created on the vergeof collapse of Haile Selassie’s ruling. I thought that combining these dates and looking at Ethiopian history from a Polish perspective can be a good impulse for a cinematographic story. The starting point was Francis Falceto, French publisher and music promoter, whose name was on every album of the ”Ethiopiques” series. I went to meet him with my camera and I heard an incredible story, which became a foundation of my film.
”Ethiopiques” – the legendary albums being published for 20 years all over the world. No one has tried to make a movie about Ethiopian music before?
Over the years various film crews from Canada, France or the USA have tried. The projects fell through as their authors encountered the problems that I have also experienced. Ethiopia is the only country in Africa that has never been colonised, that has its own alphabet and adopted Christianity before most of the European countries did. It makes people living there have a sense of national superiority and convincing them to our own ideas is a challenge. Gathering some information orarchival footage is a very troublesome process. Perhaps for the previous crews the missing ingredient was the Polish flair which allowed to break through this Ethiopian wall and make a movie with numerous characters in it. Facing the country's difficult history and connecting the various threads wasn't easy and took us almost five years.
Your flair led you to Francis Falceto, the protagonist who connects all the stories. How did you convince him to take a part in the movie?
He got interested in the parallel between my fascination with Ethiopia and the way he was discovering this country in the ‘80s. That's how the bond was forged and the idea to make Francis our protagonist appeared.
You are dealing with a music film genre. The problem with these movies is that they often target a small group of amateurs of particular type of music. How did you try to avoid this?
I think that the turning point was meeting with AmhaEshet, a producer who at the end turned out to be one of the three protagonists. Flying for the first time to Ethiopia I had no idea what to expect. I've talked to an awful lot of musicians, people from the industry, witnesses of that era. I was looking for something to build my story around. When I met Amha I've asked him one question about his first contact with music. Amhaanswered with an over two hours long story. We finished talking with tears in our eyes. I had a feeling that he must be the centre of my story. I've understood that Amha'sstory about smuggling albums, going against the Emperor, fighting the communist regime and building everything from scratch in the United States – his unfulfilled American dream – is the direction that I'm most interested about. At first, I thought that I will base the film mostly on music, but I like when narrative takes over and since Amha's story naturally came forward itdidn't leave me any choice. Thanks to that we could touch the universal cause that can be read and experienced by the people around the world.
Apart from the music you were dealing with an awful lot of archival footage. How did working with them look like?
It was a big challenge. With this kind of production the work moves towards research and good choice of footage. We needed to edit well the videos shot by someone else. For me the key was to build a certain world and put it in a particular context. Apart from that, I wanted to combine three different cinematic worlds: contemporary, archival and animated one. Our job was to find a proper connectors which would bring those elements together and fluently guide the viewer. I worked on it already at the stage of writing down the animation sequences, which were later amazingly done by Tomasz Bochniak. The film editor – ZiemowitJaworski – also deserves the highest praise. The editing took us almost two years as we were trying to fit the footage for at least 6 films in one. The production took longer also for the sake of the final story of GrimaBeyene. We really wanted to meet with him but he kept refusing. We eventually met in an old hotel in which he apparently had debuted fifty years ago. Grima took is as a sign and let us film. His story touched as deeply: it's a story of a man forgotten in this whole contemporary renaissance of Ethiopian music. During our meeting he tried playing the piano that the had used during his debut.It turned out he completely lost his grip. Later, after half a year, I got a phone call that Grima is preparing for his show in Paris.
Grima’s story is one of many stories of Ethiopian musicians of the lost generation. In this sense ”Ethiopiques – the Revolt of Soul” is a nostalgic film...
On the one hand the film's protagonist is Francis Falceto, the representative of a French generation of baby-boomers, which was the most influential generation in the European culture of the 20th century. We can only envy them as we will never even get close to their level. First of all, we have no one to rebel against; our revolutions are marginal. Secondly, there's too much wealth surrounding us, technology started to do everything for us, so we simply stopped living by our wits. That's why touching their work was for me a time travel into the era I’d like to live in myself. On the other hand, the film characters come from the Ethiopian generation that began to face the same things as their French peers did, since they went through and filtered the experiences coming from the whole world. They wanted to be a part of the western current, but when they finally got there, the communists came and brought them down. They are the lost generation and we can relate to them a little bit since our artists also faced the similar struggles.
”Ethiopiques – the Revolt of Soul” is a film supported by the Creative Europe programme, HBO and the Polish Film Institute. What has determined the project to be interesting for the co-producers?
We took part in many pitch presentations and meetings, consequent trailers came to life but there always was one universal password: love for music. This love brings our characters together: they were ready to sacrifice their lives for music and put their freedom at stake. This sentence has been our motto not only at the production stage but also during editing when we were looking for that common element cementing the whole film. I know that thanks to that our film had a chance to be universal. I remember that during our talks with HBO questions were raised about the lack of connection to Polish history. The only trace we had was Mahmud Ahmed's concert in Warsaw. When I brought the next film montage to HBO and show them the fragment where musicians with no visas escape Ethiopia and flee to the USA, where their American dream falls apart, Hanka Kastelicova told me: here you have your Polish context. Then I’ve realized that in a wider aspect some mechanisms in people from the communist countries, dreaming about freedom and American dream, apply to the half of the world. That's why it's universal.