Salambo discovering Ethiopia
Through my involvement at the Alliance Ethio-Française in Addis, I got an invitation for the opening of the Colours of the Nile International Film Festival. I didn’t know about it so I went partly out of curiosity for the festival itself and partly to see the National Theatre building. I’ve always found its architecture interesting so I was curious to see it inside.
I didn’t realise I was going to attend a ceremony given the same shine as the Academy Awards. On arriving at the National Theatre, the red carpet was out, music was being played, and a line of people in traditional Ethiopian costumes were greeting “special” guests. I didn’t include myself in that category so I used the other door, which is actually the theatre main gate. However, as I quietly stood in the hall, admiring its unique architecture, one of the organisers came up to me to inform me that I was a special guest and should therefore go back inside using the red carpet! Before I had time to react, he made me go out again and come back in through the makeshift red carpet entrance. I was so puzzled that I just followed him, and did as he told me! As they entered the hall, guests were given a red rose each. In addition, the customary coffee ceremony was there to welcome them with a traditional buna (Ethiopian coffee), accompanied with bread and popcorns.
Like everything in Ethiopia, the National Theatre is unique. The architecture is interestingly modern from the outside, but is in urgent need of restoration. However, the rundown façade conceals a splendid interior, where everything is out of scale, and where no expense had been spared on the quality of material. The grand hall must be about 15 metres high, with the main wall lined with wooden panels from floor to ceiling, and the side walls opening the way to a double granit staircase, made of unpolished stone. The amphitheatre itself is wide and spacious with an unusual geometry but perfect proportions, for the seats in the orchestra, the central royal balcony and the side boxes. In its design, the same features as an old 19th century theatre were included but they were re-worked in an entirely modern version, which makes the building so unique today.
The National Theatre was built in the early fifties on Emperor Selassié’s request, who wanted a venue to show Western type of classical music and plays together with traditional Ethiopian singing and dancing. The site chosen was an old cinema built by the Italians but never finished because they had to leave the country. The new prestigious theatre was completed in 1955 for Haile Selassié’s Silver Jubilee, and the opening ceremony which was performed by a group of young Ethiopian musicians under the direction of the Austrian composer, Franz Zelwecker, took place there. Unlike European theatres from similar times (I’m thinking of the National Theatre in South Bank in London), it is more than a minimalist concrete block. Beyond its architecture, it has kept the spirit of a modern but now bygone era, and in my view, deserves to be nurtured as a great heritage building.
The cinema festival opening was scheduled for 5pm but it started about an hour and a half later, which gave me plenty of time to observe the whole event at leisure. I felt a complete outsider as the majority of guests were Ethiopian, and not knowing any of them, I was unable to recognize if they were local celebrities. Some people were wearing very casual clothes, others were more dressed up. The usual group of farenji (foreigners) attended, including the ambassadors from the countries which sponsored the festival. By a pure coincidence, which usually prompts the old saying of “the world is a small place”, I ran into an old acquaintance from my time in Rome, a mother who had subsequently moved back to Paris and who had made the trip especially for the film festival. After an hour of loud pop music and traditional Ethiopian dancing on stage, the ceremony finally opened with a presentation of the international jury followed by the screening of the first feature film contesting in the festival: Today by the Senegalese Director Alain Gomis. Unfortunately, I was not able to watch it as I could no longer delay my other duties as a mother.
For the programme: