The first film screening in Ethiopia was in 1896; the location was Menelik’s palace, commonly known as Gibee, and the film and was the “Story of Jesus Christ”. 

In 1897/8 a Frenchman from Algeria brought the first cinema to Addis; the theater was often referred to as Satan Bet or “The Devil’s House” despite the worthy content of early films.  Menelik was keen to encourage the church to value film as a spiritual and ideological support, not a threat, but the clergy continued to disapprove and remained very suspicious of this development.  Menelik continued to support the development of the cinema industry and the building of cinemas, but all the existing cinemas burnt down as a result of the Italian Invasion.

The Italians built their own cinemas, 40 in 1939 and a further 55 in 1940, many of them on a very grand scale. We saw a picture of the one in Gondar which is now a bank. The Italians also had a travelling cinema “a battleship on wheels” used for political and social induction but this failed as a ploy for fascist indoctrination as the Ethiopian audiences found the love scenes very funny and the heroic deaths depicted in the films brought the most laughter.

Photographs of the Travelling Cinema, set up for a viewing by a bemused Ethiopian audience, shows the car’s headlights shining into the crowd beneath the screen showing a film. It’s not clear who is watching what or who. a short episode from one of these films brought laughter from the audience in the lecture theatre too.

By 1964 the first Amharic language film “Hirut Abatua Mannäw” had been produced and in 1974 the 1st colour film “Gumma/Blood Money” was released with the premiere of the film being attended by Haile Selassie. This film was screened predominantly in Ethiopia with over 100,000 people seeing it across the country.

In the Derg era the whole film industry was nationalised, with the establishment of the Ethiopian Film Centre (EFC) within the Film Development and Control Department in the Ministry of Culture.  Cinema was still primarily seen as useful for ideological and propaganda purposes. The EFC was disbanded in 1999. Video film distribution never really took off, partly due to concerns about pirating but also because very few people had VHS players in their own homes.

Films still have to operate with a license, but an example of how the cinema industry is blooming is in the number of licenses issued, 10 in 1997, 125 in 2005 and 504 in the last 8 years.  The number of cinemas, including multiplexes, is also expanding across the country.

While private institutions such as therespected  Blue Nile Film & TV Academy have been offering courses in film, the first university courses in film studies was just introduced at Addis Ababa University. 

A couple of recommendations for short films that you can view online: http://www.ethiotube.net/video/18231/Lezare–Short-Ethiopian-Film   

“Menged”, a film of a father and son travelling with a donkey to market and the conflicting advice they get given and follow on route: https://vimeo.com/15117163.

With thanks to: Deborah Hardy (Anglo Ethiopian Society writer) and Michael Thomas (PhD student studying Ethiopian Film Industry and Cinema)