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The TV series mania

As TV series are becoming popular in Ethiopia, in substitute of movies whose popularity has come to a sudden halt, Samuel Getachew discovers the faces that once populated local cinemas are now at internet cafes downloading the latest of TV series from aboard. Local TV stations are catching the wave, offering imported series to capture a segment society that is fascinated by foreign cultures.

Churchill Avenue, located in the area of Piassa, the ever changing business district of the capital is where the first cinema in Ethiopia opened. That is where locals experienced the magic of movies for the first time. Those that experienced it found it magical as it was reflected for them on a white fabric on a wall. It seemed foreign to an Ethiopian audience who dubbed the cinema as the “Satan House”.

The experience was seen too forward and imaginative for many to comprehend. That was more than a century ago. Since then, Ethiopia has modernized its cinemas and earned a wider acceptance within Ethiopia. Foreign films from India and the United States, especially during the Derg regime became the norm as that era subdued local artistic freedom. The likes of Charlie Chaplin and Eddie Murphy and Indian movies such as Mother India became everyone’s favorite.

In time, that influence moved in to the production of local movies, giving film makers something to emulate as the old regime ended, giving way to a new artistic freedom with a new government.

In the last two decades, local movies have managed to reach a new high and experience some dotted success. Many saw as the millennia population lined up at theatres to a sell-out cinema, creating local stars and production institutions. Some efforts even managed to earn international success, as was the case with Defret, which won a rare recognition at the Berlin Film Festival. Even Hollywood superstar, Angelina Jolie allowed her name to be used as a marketing tool to market the film, giving it a push to be shown in North American cinemas.

However, that hard earned success came to an almost halt when soaps imported from Turkey and the Gulf States became popular, along with locally made productions. Kana TV, sensing that popularity started offering dubbed productions from abroad. Many people decided to stay at home and watches better produced soaps rather than go to the movies and pay for something that had a relatively lower production quality.

The new Ethiopian society has slowly transitioned to watching a series of productions, with narratives that are tempting to watch rather than a one-time 90 minutes production with a sudden conclusion. Because local TV’s do not show the latest of a series production, many have found a way to watch as their contemporaries in the United States. With lax copyright laws in the country, many are rushing to internet cafes to watch and download their favorites.

According to an internet café owner in Bole, the demographics are those under the age of 40 and with resources to spend on what is not a necessity. The favorites are Game of Thrones, a fantasy dreams series, Hour, an espionage thriller, Band on Theory, a smart sitcom of high intelligence, Suit which is a legal dream and Empire, a serious loosely based on the working life of an ambitious CEO running out of time. The later has specifically continued to gain popularity as locals are identifying with the black characters in the midst of an American entertainment industry.

Post-Apocalyptic TV dramas such as the Walking Dead, The Hundred, Falling Skies, The Last Ship, and Lost are among the most popular in Ethiopia. The likes Lost and Walking Dead have gained larger acceptance among the urbanites in capital. The former narrates the story of the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 were 1,000 miles off course when they crashed on a lush, mysterious island with each survivors harboring deep secretes and the Island portrayed as another character. Lost originally aired on the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) from 2004 to 2010 and it is believed to be one of the most popular drama series of all times.

The Walking Dead on the other hand is a story of a police officer leading a group of survivors in the weeks and months following a zombie apocalypse which reconfigured life on earth. These were the simplest values and norms that human beings take for granted. It premiered in the United States in 2010, exclusively shown on cable television channel (AMC) and internationally on Fox International. This post-apocalyptic horror is due for its eight season on October of this year.

Mildly successful (Globally) TV series like 24 and Prison Break were the ones which broke ground in Ethiopia, more specifically in Addis Ababa as long as television series are concerned. In fact, 24 has done so well in Addis that it has eventually opened the door for others like Prison Brake, Alias and Kayle XY which enjoyed lukewarm success in the US and around the world. This, in a nation that is known to mimic and imitate popular American cultures.

“There was definitely an impact on locally made movies”, filmmaker Henok Abebe told The Reporter. “However, many people are coming back to the cinemas, surely but slowly and enjoying movies made in Ethiopia”. However, the producer of Yewondoch Gudaye movie is certain that the audience is no longer as it used to, when he started producing movies at the high of Ethiopia film making post Ethiopian millennium. He sees better production and convenience as reasons why people initially abandoned locally made movies and became addicted to soaps.

At Edna Mall, the boutique cinema in Bole, there has been an influx of movie watchers and that is the case on most weekends. However, it is rare to see the same traffic on weekdays these days. The cinema has been forced to offer discounts and partnership with nearby restaurants to lure customers. That was not the case before.

At Alem cinema, owned by Olympian Haile Gebreselassie is no exception. That is where Helen and friends, on a school break from Adama University, came to watch a movie on a Tuesday afternoon. For them, soap is something they watch with their parents and grandparents, but today, it was a chance to escape from them and do what they used to do. “I like soap, but I also love movies,” Helen said. “But movies are expensive to watch, when we have plenty of options at home”.

But there are side effects with soaps, according to Biniam Alemayehu of the Ethiopian Film Producers Association.

“If you were to look at Ethiopian films, there are at least 10 people associated with it and offer many talented professionals jobs”, he said. “We act accordingly, advocate for better ideals in our movie making according to the local norm, while those imported soaps promote things that are out of the norm in society. They do that, while undercutting our capacity to produce good movies”.

Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (EBC) is also about to join the soap phenomenal as it has began to advertise a new South Korean production that will start to air in the Ethiopian New Year. Joining the bandwagon are also local charities, who are in a rush to addict viewers while preaching their preferred cause. A year ago, Mercy Corps, a noted charitable entity brought in experts from Warner Brothers to train a number of producers and help them produce soaps for public consumption. They showed them how they can engage viewers and have them become addicted to watching their production.

The charity group has since produced many works in multilingual languages, in a number of regions within Ethiopia – in the Somali, Afar and Oromia regions – preaching their cause to a wider and mainstream segment of society. They hope to reach more than 1 million pregnant and soon-to-be pregnant women on the issues of healthy eating.

Proving the soap phenomenal is in a long haul, they also announced that it would be a three year an ongoing project for them.

“Ethiopian movies have had a number of challenges, on the financial, on quality and many others, but soaps have put yet another pressure on the industry,” said film maker Dereje Mindaye. But this has been a blessing-in-disguise, as those that are now in the arena and can compete ably are those with passion, not just make movies for the sake of making a movie”.

“That was not the case previously”.