Projecting Rastafari voices through film

Joining African Studies Centre of the University of Leiden comes from my Pan-African passion and background. In my mind, one does a higher-institution-study to prepare for a future career. My aim is to create a visual media platform where the untelevised African issues are presented and discussed. As a Rastafari from Ethiopia, who experienced the hardship faced by this community, I chose my research project to focus on this cause. I got the opportunity to work with visual methods during a try-out module within the methods course African Studies, which prepared me for fieldwork amongst the Rastafari in Shashamane Ethiopia.

This research resulted in the thesis The Rastafari in Ethiopia: Challenges and Paradoxes of Belonging (link to Leiden University repository), which was accompanied by a two hour film, which originally consisted of 17 hours of footage- consisting of a selection of short videos made during the fieldwork. This film followed the structure of the research, which basically provided an historical overview of the Rastafari and set out the challenges they faced in Ethiopia (amongst which the acquiring of a legal citizenship status), and the ironies and paradoxes that presented themselves at the fieldwork. From there the thesis broadened to shared challenges amongst Rastafaris in Ethiopia and elsewhere and the transnationality of the movement.

The videos selected from the interviews unveil the humiliation and determination of the Rastafari. The agitated body language of the Bobo-shanti caused by the delay of the promised national ID issuance of the Ethiopian government; the vexation of another Rasta brethren against the ill-priced visa expiration penalty- 10 US dollars per day; the humbleness of the barefooted Ras Kawintseb, even after 21 years of the state negligence; and the calmness in the voice of the powerful Rastafari sistren, Mama Desta, as she reassures Ethiopia is home and challenges are better faced at home; the strong, vivacious and gracious Rasta sister Ijahniya who tells it like it is and the Rasta youth’s urge to get answer for “where is home?” … and many others would not better be captured elseways than visually.

After the thesis was approved of, I was offered the chance to work with the V4T team on the film material, seeing what could be made out of it for the film to be valid for academic purpose and to be a trusted source that could be published on an academic site. This resulted in an intensive working period in which we worked on two films. My imagination of telling my research in film should be in the same order of the chapters in the thesis. Simply because I like how the events and episodes of the methods developed and have shaped the research while in the field. However, the more I insist that concept to be accepted by the team, the more feedback I get from the team that my reflection should be included in the film. But adding a footage of mine will only make the already-long-enough film to be longer. Therefore, Sjoerd came up with the idea led to the idea of making two films out of the 2 hour film. One sticking with my idea of telling the research through the film as per the order of the chapters, while the other one is a shorter one focusing on my thinking behind making the film in the field.

We first worked on a new film ‘Sankofa: Voices of the Rastafari from Ethiopia’, which involved a process of retrospection and for which I was interviewed. This film was published in 2019. Next to that, my original film was cut down by at least half in order to bring it to the classic 46 to 55 minutes film and combined with interview fragments from the Sankofa film. This film, follows more of the order of the thesis and includes additional film footage from archives. It was published in 2020, see the section Paradoxes of belonging. Kim and Sjoerd are the ones who edited, filmed my reflection and designed Sankofa: Voices of the Rastfari from Ethiopia, Arnaud was a volunteer that was assigned to edit the longer film, The Rastafari in Ethiopia: Challenges and Paradoxes of Belonging.

The journey

My imagination of telling my research in film was focussed on remaining the same order of the chapters in the thesis. However, the more I insisted on this concept, the more feedback I got from the team that my reflection should be included in the film. For the Sankofa film, tit was to be edited into a 26 to 30 minutes film, including my reflection on the process. The process of selecting on which scene was intensive but led to new insights.

Reflecting back, this film set the tunes right and shed light on some controversial issues. Besides the footage of the interview collected from fieldwork, this video added additional footage to give contextual meanings of the setting. Musics by Ras Kawintseb, and footage from fieldwork collections, are sewed together perfectly. It involved me through visual and voice and with that allowed me to assert my position as a researcher-activist. The film did justice by shedding light on the black supremacy idea that was misperceived by the team.

What came completely new and was difficult for me to accept in the beginning was the proposal by the team of “Sankofa” as a title. It is true I used it in my reflection and one of my main participants used it while I interviewed her at the fieldwork. Yet, I did not like it at first. I felt it tells more about my story – teaching my children about their African roots as they live here, while the Rastafari are already at home, Ethiopia, Africa, after making that connection of looking to their past. Due to all this, I had a struggle of finding a bondage between the main title, “Sankofa” and the subtitle, “Voices of the Rastafari from Ethiopia.” However discussion with the team opened my eyes somewhere in our correspondence, a line reads “they always look back,” which caught me and helped me to think through. The fact that repatriation to the promised land is an ongoing movement and the quest for belongingness continues, the concept of “sankofa” will be past present and future through generations.

Afraid to Let Loose…

I usually describe myself as an open book who is not afraid to tell-it-off-all. To my surprise, at the outset of the filming process, I found myself afraid of letting loose. Sjoerd did all the filming, i.e the interview in the library taking footage in my apartment with my family. I remember it was on Wednesday and a half-day school, so I had to bring my children to the African Studies Center Library where the interview was held. They were looked after by a kind friend for the most of the interview part but they came before it finished so I had to attend them. Sjoerd quickly turned the camera towards us as I talked to them. This kind of irritated me because not that my family is not part of the reflection, but due to not knowing the purpose of it. I assumed my family would only be filmed at my place, so it was difficult to let them be filmed in the library. Moreover, as we walked to my place I remember asking Kim what kind of questions were going to be raised during the interview at my place and how we use that in the film. She read me like a book and told me “…But Mahlet you should let yourself loose, believe me you will like the work…[smiles]. That smile was reassuring and I felt safe from there onwards.

I live by the rule of Oprah Winfrey… For me, the purpose and motive behind each action is important. My worrisome nature was due to not knowing the purpose for what the footage of will be used. Now that I see the final film, footage that I thought was not important are perfectly sewn and embedded with the interview. As an editor, Sjoerd knew what he was looking for and Kim as the editor/designer of the film saw its importance, but I felt insecure in this particular process, but definitely learnt a lot for my future projects.

Another moment of uncertainty was to make available the whole data of the interviews. I was literally afraid that certain segments of the interview of my participants would be used as out-of-context. There is a part one of my participant talks explicitly about apartheid in South Africa and his vexity over the white oppressors and what they did to the black people. For a viewer who looks at this segment there is a high tendency to label the participant as racist, but as a researcher, listening to his whole story for hours, I understood where it came from, because this subject has been on death row because of his identity. When the editor asked me to include this, I said No. Such choices are made with no regret and the trust my participants had on me while they tell me their stories with no reservation is what makes me even more protective from unnecessary misperceptions that may be applied on them.


The journey of this film making was not an easy one. Particularly, for me. From a close-to-one- year-time, I had to take time out for about four solid months, disconnect from work to get a clear state of mind and rejuvenate. In the mid of June 2019, I had to evacuate myself and my family from the student housing because the building was going to be demolished. Finding a house from private housing was not on my budget and to get the Netherland government’s housing was a far-fetched dream. The stress of becoming homeless was picking on my film work and other projects I wanted to execute in the same year and it’s literally making everything worse. The fear of homelessness caused an anxiety and depression that threatened to kill this film work. The only remedy was to be open about it and share my story. And that is exactly what I did to my team. Remarkably, this feeling of unbelonging-ness reminded me of the insecurities of my Rastafari participants and their quest of belongingness in the Promised Land. This suddenly sparked a-thought-of-myself-becoming-of-my-own-research.

On the day of the interview, the first question asked by Kim was how I was doing and coping up with all the stress and looking at myself in the footsteps of my subjects. I can’t let my own ego get in the way and wear a-mask-of-looking-ok. And I guess Kim spent so much time with me that the mask will be thinner to look through and so does for the viewer. That is what the visual field is susceptible to, revealing about the reality the camera captures. Exactly why I advocated for film captures more than writing.

Opinion: Pros & Cons

The intros and outros of the film made by Arnaud are super exciting! Undeniably, Arnaud did justice to the 2hr film not only by bringing it down to 1 hr but also gave it a meaning by adding footages which the collection from the fieldwork missed out. He understood the aim of the film and therefore strictly followed the videos as per the chapters from the original 2hr film. He tried to create content by adding footages sometimes by asking me the motives of certain videos, and other times listening to conversations from interviews. He carefully added details that makes it pleasant to watch- relatable music in transition from one topic to another.

Being Sankofa made earlier and it gave opportunity to the editor of this film to have a footage of my reflection interview. The other side of the coin for using same interview is it becomes a bit of confusing after watching Sankofa. It will be only few viewers who would really see deep into the story and try to put the difference between the two films. My preference was to have my reflection with another filming different from Sankofa’s interview. This is not only to bring a different footage of interview but also there is a lot to be said to explain viewers and guide them in their understanding the research as they watch through.

The other tumbling stone in the process of editing both films was the time it took to be finalized, which made me doubt if the end result is relevant at all. I am saying this because the Rastafari issue is so dynamic in Ethiopia and continentally and globally as well. A lot has been changed ever since the research is conducted, and this research covers only until February 2018. For instance as mentioned in the research, their legal status was starting to change at that time already and by now almost all have their Ethiopian national ID. Countries like South Africa and Zimbabwe have legalized the use of ganja sacrament. Legalising marijuana is slowly becoming a global phenomena. However other challenges for instance with regard to land grant remains to me a major challenge and creating conflicts against the local community in Shashemene.

Final words…

It was really enjoyable watching the final version of the film and seeing how my film on the field work is combined with my interview here. To be honest, whilst making the film, I was questioning my choice to be in the film as I think this film should completely be dedicated to the voices of the Rastafari who I dearly love and heavily indebted to. But now, having made the film, and looking back at the film process, I am glad that I decided to. It was really interesting to see what the team came up with and I particularly enjoyed how through the journey of making Sankofa, I ironically became my research!

I am happy with the work done and I am able to deliver to what I committed to the Rastafari community. I plan to screen the film The Rastafari in Ethiopia: Challenges and Paradoxes of Belonging to the Rastafari community in Ethiopia and on the upcoming All Africa Rastafari Gathering in Tanzania, November 2020 and cover what is uncovered on with a question and answer interaction.

This post is part of a series. It was first published on the Innovative Research Methods website (May 2020). Other posts:

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