Talent On Tap – Tamara Mariam Dawit Takes Us Abroad in Finding Sally

From the moment we’re born our personal journey begins. No two lives are exact and our personal experiences are what really set’s us apart. Have you ever found yourself asking how somebody could commit such a horrific act of violence that we see on the news oh so often? If we read their diary the answers might be in there. (clearing throat) Clearly we don’t all use diaries/journals but our experiences are recorded in our mind and our influences are certainly shaped by them. Deep down or maybe just below the surface, we have a cause worth fighting for, no matter what the price. Somehow and somewhere it was ignited and that flame spread until it absolutely consumed you. Did it derive from your parents, your friends, a cousin or from politicians taking advantage of power and letting a population of youth with big dreams become a casualty of their abuse and ruthlessness? 


If you live in Ethiopia and know the history of its politics then they must certainly have impacted you. Tamara Mariam Dawit set out to find her aunt in Ethiopia with the help of her other 3 aunts and document it along the way. She did not expect to unravel a story of bravery, heroism, advocate for change and sacrifice. This is her first feature documentary and I’ve had the incredible opportunity to watch it. The film hits all the same arcs as a film would with ‘the all is lost moment’/act III at the end, as we realize the truth to Sally’s disappearance. This film is available on CBC gem and CBC Hot Doc’s so please watch it and be inspired by an intriguing film that traces political travesty and that inner advocate for change… no matter what the cost.   


Tamara Mariam Dawit
 is a producer/director born in Ottawa and is now based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where she runs a production company, Gobez Media producing Ethiopian film, TV, digital and music content. She has produced music content, tours, creative documentaries, digital content, and television for CBC, Bravo, MTV, Radio Canada, Discovery and NHK among other networks. Tamara is now branching into producing dramatic films. She directed the short film Grandma Knows Best (Bravo) but Finding Sally is her first feature documentary. 

We spoke through the magic of Skype and had a very pleasant and informed chat discussion on Finding Sally and this is how it went down;


“This is a incredibly fascinating story but a terribly sad story. How much did you know about your aunt Sally before pursuing the documentary?”

“I knew that she had been missing, I knew that she had passed away and I knew that the family didn’t get the news of her death until much later. It was the other details of ‘why did she stay’, ‘what was her ideology’ and what was she doing? I didn’t know any of this until I started digging into it. My aunts had tidbits of information but nobody had the big picture.”


“Did you create this film because it was a story that needed to be told or was it because you needed to know what happened?”

“It’s more so that I’ve always wanted to do some sort of piece of content about The Revolution and The Red Terror. Digging into Sally’s story gave me something that you could build a film around, it gave it more of a traditional story arc to follow her life and the investigation. Personal stories are much more compelling and relatable. If I had just made a film about the horrible things that happened in the 1970’s with people that witnessed things and historians, it wouldn’t be that compelling.”


“Having watched the film, you really did an amazing job of intertwining your aunts life and her political views with your grandfathers history of politics. Have your discoveries changed your political views?”

“I think it’s a good connection that you’ve made between Sally and my grandfather because they were both trying to make a better Ethiopia, they just approached it through different means. As much as I was researching Sally I was also getting to know the rest of my aunts. I hadn’t grown up around them very much and I’m trying to understand my Ethiopian identity and who am I most alike. At a certain point into my research I almost started to idolize Sally because she was the only one in the family that was willing to stand up to say, ‘this isn’t right’ and risked her life for it. I find that refreshing, brave and compelling. I don’t know what I would do if I was in the same situation but I’m an activist at heart and quite outspoken.  I wouldn’t take up arms but I would certainly be doing something to get people to think critically and for me, that’s what this film is about, getting people of Ethiopia to think critically and look for information from the past that can better inform the future.”

Tamara goes on to add that Ethiopia is in a very difficult situation in terms of ethnic tension, ethnic violence and displacements happening across the country. Ethiopians are turning on each other based on their ethnicity. In the past it was always based on class and overthrowing the emperor or based on political ideology. This is something new and it’s dangerous. 


“At the end of the documentary, it mentions that the country has been under new leadership within the last couple of years. Have things gotten better?”

“I don’t think so. It was 2018 when the previous prime minister stepped down and the new one came into office. It’s kind of like when Obama came into office, there was this huge hope and huge expectations but Ethiopians don’t have a history of a democratic process. This means that they’re just buying into everything the politicians say and when he can’t deliver on those things, immediately people start to lose faith. One of the issues that -haven’t been addressed is the ethnic violence, which is what’s tearing the country apart. There was suppose to be an election happening but because of the Corona virus, it’s been postponed and we don’t know when it will happen now.”


“How are things down there with this virus, have people been staying in their homes and do they have adequate supplies?”

“The people that are in the social economic bucket and can afford to stay home are certainly doing that but like many African countries there isn’t the same access to medical equipment and hospital beds. The ability to do testing is quite limited and there’s still a huge portion of the population that go out everyday and earn their income and find their dinner then come home and have to live with a number of individuals. They’re not able to stay home because they’d have no income and social distancing doesn’t translate in the same way.”


“In some countries, the government is able to supplement peoples incomes that are staying home. Is the Ethiopian government able to offer any assistance?”

“It’s not something I’ve seen them doing yet and to me it’s really scary, I don’t know what their priorities are. What do we invest in and is it better to be investing in that right now? We also have to remember that Ethiopia is one of the most populated countries in the world with 110 million people. I don’t even know if they would have the logistics to give money out to each individual, should there be money available to give out.”


“How are you dealing with this virus in your personal life?”

“I work as a director and a producer so I already had a home office and I can afford to stay home but not indefinitely. We’ve had a lot of projects cancel so it’s a time to sit back and reflect/work on projects at a script stage or do research for projects that are in development.”


“When you made Finding Sally, what size of crew dihud you use?”

“I had a Canadian crew from Quebec which consisted of a camera operator, sound mixer and usually a producer or a PA with us pretty much everywhere.”

Incidentally, Tamara had intended on coming back to Canada for Hot Docs and a number of other reasons but has been grounded in Ethiopia since March 14. 

“Because the theatres have been shut down, where can we see your film?”

“Right now, there is the Hot Docs at home program with CBC. It’s a primetime broadcast and the film will also be on CBC Gem for people that may have missed it and want to watch it again. As far as the rest of the world, we’re figuring things out one day at a time in terms of what can happen in other territories and when we can start the Canadian screenings.”


“I’ve been talking to other filmmakers that have new films coming out and they’re going straight to TV to find their audience because so many people are staying home and watching more TV. Does it concern you that your film won’t reach/find its audience?”

“I think it depends on where you’re trying to reach your audience. The big concern is trying to reach the Ethiopian audience because the internet isn’t at a speed level or affordability level for the average person to stream something online through an Ethiopian platform like Netflix or Amazon, it’s just not the reality yet. I think we need to monitor the types of films people are getting access through those pipelines to see if it’s only action or romantic comedies, is it only English content or are we also seeing doc and art house or films like mine that follow a different point of view?”


“Once your film was completed, how did you go about finding networks or locations to screen it?”

“The CBC was our first partner on the film. We had pitched it to them in early development and they helped with financing that. They came on as the Canadian broadcaster of the project. Regardless of Covid-19, it would’ve been broadcast on CBC but it would’ve been on the CBC Doc channel and now they’re giving us the CBC network, which is primetime and a huge platform.”


“When did you begin preproduction on this film?”

“We started in 2015, that’s when we started to raise the development funding and we went to do the shoot.”


“How about the rest of the Canadian crew, were they able to make it back to Canada?”

“Yes, my crew is mostly Canadian and my aunts are kind of spread out between Canada, the US and Ethiopia; everyone is isolating in different regions.”


“What was the most surprising thing you learned about your aunt Sally?”  

“I think the most surprising thing I had found out from my grandmother was that she had been involved in assassination attempts. My aunts knew she was doing ideology stuff and nursing but I don’t think they had the clear picture that she was actually engaged in assassination attempts or taking up arms.”


“Do you feel like your aunts have become closer, having gone through these revelations together about your aunt Sally?”

“I think it definitely has. It’s brought them together at a time when they hadn’t been talking about Sally. My grandmother died fairly early into production and she had been the linchpin in getting everyone together, which hadn’t been happening that much. This film was a good reason/excuse to get everyone together.”


“It’s an incredible story but very sad at the same time. I was relieved to learn that she did not die from being shot. The film doesn’t mention how her husband died, did you have any information on that?”

“Yes, her husband was shot. There is some confusion around whether or not it was accidental by friendly fire or if it was a targeted assassination. Because of that complexity, we didn’t get into it that much in the film.”


“Have any of your aunts been able to see the film?”

“No, because we were planning to have a big gala screening in Ethiopia but that’s been on hold, however one of my aunts is in Canada so she’ll be watching Thursday night (April 30).”        


This really is an extraordinary film that will captivate you till the very end. It will educate you on the atrocities of a tainted/corrupt/barbaric government and about the brave that stood up to them to say, NO MORE!  


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