Sewmehon Yismaw: A Cinematic Odyssey



What does it take to become a good film director? Some say you need the best equipment, others say it’s all about skill, and others say it has to do with natural talent. Whichever it is, our guest in this article has it. Sewmehon Yismaw is a director, screenwriter, and producer who’s leading a revolution in Ethiopia’s cinema. In this article, we’ll delve into his life story, challenges, inspirations, and philosophy.

Early Life

Growing up in Gondar, Sewmehon was infatuated with movies from a young age. He says that he used to prefer slow-paced drama films instead of fast-paced action films. He later moved to Addis Ababa to attend university. During that time, Sewmehon stayed with his uncle, who was a photographer. He remembers following him around as his uncle went looking for gigs. Through that process, Sewmehon learned photography. Sewmehon says that he learned photography using a film camera instead of a digital one. But he sees it as an advantage “Once you take a picture, you can’t see it immediately. So, you have to make sure it’s good.”

Bit by bit, filmmaking started taking over Sewmehon’s life. He eventually moved on to learning videography, sharpening his artistic skills. He cites Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” as his major inspiration to start his film career. The non-linear storytelling of the movie inspired him to create something similar. This inspiration fueled Sewmehon's desire to create something similar, ultimately pushing him to make his very first film.


Sewmehon's venture into filmmaking hit a rough patch. Armed with 5,000 birr from his uncle, he eagerly embarked on his inaugural film project. However, the unforeseen expenses associated with filmmaking quickly became an uphill battle, causing him to reluctantly abandon the project. Despite grappling with disappointment, Sewmehon found a silver lining in his uncle's encouragement, which spurred him to give filmmaking another shot.

Sitting on a tight budget of 15,000 birr, Sewmehon wrote a script that was set in a single room for the majority of the runtime. His reason for writing such a script was his tight budget, he says. With his producer, Biniam, they went on to look for actors. Although being way out of their budget, Sewmehon decided to contact Girum Ermias, one of Ethiopia’s biggest movie stars. Girum, who liked their idea, was more than willing to work with them. In fact, he used his connections to secure additional funding for the movie, resulting in a budget increase from 15,000 birr to over 70,000 in a short time. During filming, Sewmehon discovered he lacked some technical skills needed for movie-making. Despite this, with encouragement from friends and improvisation, he directed his debut film, 8:62. 

The film was controversial. Sewmehon received polarized feedback due to the novelty of the concept and the storytelling of the film. Sewmehon says that he benefited from the controversy as it helped him spread his name in the industry. “Your first shot is important,” he says to new filmmakers now. 

Fikir Eske Mekabir: The Adaptation of an Epic Novel

Since then, Sewmehon has become an unstoppable force in Ethiopian cinema. His name is now synonymous with multiple classics, such as "Aleme," "Ye Tsehay Mewcha Lijoch," "Adinas," "Balageru," and "Sewnetua." Beyond the silver screen, he has left an indelible mark on Ethiopia's music scene, directing iconic music videos like Teddy Afro's "Tikur Sew" and "Mar Eske Tuaf." Yet, a pivotal moment awaits in Sewmehon's filmography as he joins hands with the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (EBC) to direct a television adaptation of the cherished Ethiopian novel, "Fikir Eske Mekabir." Sewmehon pours his heart into this project, recognizing its significance among Ethiopians. With high expectations, he is determined to exceed them, adding another illustrious chapter to his cinematic journey.

Challenges of the Film Industry

Sewmehon sheds light on the current state of Ethiopia's film landscape, asserting that it has yet to evolve into a fully-fledged industry. The absence of a conducive environment for filmmakers to access resources, collaborate effectively, and outsource tasks remains a persistent challenge. Dealing with outdated equipment and financial constraints further hampers the quality of cinematic creations. Recognizing these obstacles, Sewmehon confronts them head-on. In his latest endeavor, the production of "Fikir Eske Mekabir," he strategically collaborates with external firms to manage various aspects of the project. A keen observer, he addresses the escalating costs of costumes by investing in sewing machines, giving rise to Kanatera, a local garment brand. Beyond attire, Sewmehon is pioneering the establishment of firms dedicated to crafting props, including furniture. Rather than succumbing to limitations, Sewmehon is crafting a narrative of resilience, actively shaping and building a film industry on his terms.

The Importance of a Film Industry

“Art defines a nation,” says Sewmehon. He cites countries like Italy, India, Nigeria, and Russia, highlighting that their cinema has created an image of their national identity. When it’s done well, cinema has the power to transform a country, he adds. Financially speaking, the revenue that is generated in the film industry is staggering. The economic and cultural power of cinema makes it an important tool of nation-building, he adds.

Focus on the Frame

“If it’s not in the frame, it doesn’t exist,” says Sewmehon explaining his directing style. When directing, his eye becomes the frame and all focus goes into it. “Directing is all about being focused,” he adds. Focus must be placed on what the film is trying to say. That should be the primary goal of a filmmaker; communicating a narrative. 

A Decline in Filmgoers

Anyone who lives in Addis Ababa agrees that over the past decade, cinemas have become increasingly depopulated from patrons. Sewmehon attributes this phenomenon to different factors. The first one, he says, is an apparent “weakness” in content. Lack of creativity, repetitive and predictable stories, and a lack of quality have disillusioned Ethiopian filmgoers. Another factor he outlines is the growth of social media and short-form content. In a world where people now can watch dozens of videos in an hour, the idea of watching a single film for more than an hour might be unpreferable. He describes a certain genre of films called “YouTube Movies” where emphasis is put on quantity and not quality. These movies are often low-budget are produced in a short timeline and are somewhat profitable. The advent of these movies has discouraged moviegoers as well.  The third factor contributing to the decline of cinema is Television. There has been a sudden growth of television channels recently, and these channels often purchase movies and display them on their channels, which in turn makes cinema irrelevant. 

But Sewmehon sees a case for optimism. For one thing, filmmakers today are learning their craft. There are now far more capable film professionals than there were in earlier times. He also mentions a shift in ambition where instead of producing films only for the local market, filmmakers adopt an international mindset and market their films internationally. Although he’s a critic of them, he also believes that “YouTube Movies” hold great potential. If the filmmaker knows his craft and is able to produce quality content, YouTube could be the best place for it. 

Advice for Aspiring Filmmakers

Sewmehon imparts invaluable advice to budding filmmakers, emphasizing the importance of continuous self-improvement. He encourages them to stay updated, never ceasing to learn, and remain open to new ideas. Understanding one's potential and value is crucial, with a resounding plea not to become easily replaceable in the industry. Sewmehon advocates for filmmakers to carve out their unique voice, ensuring their work transcends being labeled as "just another movie." His counsel extends beyond the realm of filmmaking, urging individuals to embrace an exploratory mindset, break free from routine, and wholeheartedly embrace new experiences. 

Comments (0)
No comments yet