The slab-like grey bulk of the Ethiopian National Theatre in central Addis Ababa could not be further removed from the sparkle and attention-grabbing headlines of the Cannes Film Festival.
Nevertheless, 37-year-old Yared Zeleke was still more nervous about being in the Ethiopian capital for the premiere of his film Lamb, which earlier this year became the first Ethiopian movie to be selected at Cannes.
“I did not sleep last night,” Mr Yared says, two hours before the premiere.
“You cannot get more prestigious a film festival than Cannes, but still it feels more important here—there is the power of home, the power of identity. This is part of who I am.”
Mr Yared says he was born and raised “in the slums of Addis Ababa” until, aged 10, he moved to the US, along with his family during Ethiopia’s communist dictatorship, the Derg – a time of upheaval across the country due to war and famine.
Lamb tackles the issues of displacement and loss in the form of a young boy, Ephraim, who is sent by his father to live with his extended family far from home.
Ephraim’s best and only friend is a lamb called Chuni, but his uncle wants to slaughter the lamb for a religious festival. The clock is ticking for an unlikely cinematic pairing.
As part of the Ethiopian diaspora, Mr Yared is acutely conscious of how Ethiopia and Africa are often negatively stereotyped in media. Lamb aims to offer a counterbalance, he says.
“This film is a celebration of being Ethiopian,” Mr Yared says. “It is about the love, struggle, complexity and beauty here that you usually do not see portrayed.”
Mr Yared says Africa has a major PR problem in the mass media and that it is “high-time to reassess these Africa misery stories”.
“I want Ethiopians to take away from the film a reassertion of identity and a positive sense of it, and Westerners to understand that Ethiopia is not a desert but green.”