Exclusive clip: Tamara Mariam Dawit talks Hot Docs film “Finding Sally”

Filmmaker Tamara Mariam Dawit’s Finding Sally will have its broadcast premiere Thursday (April 30) on Canadian pubcaster CBC,  documentary Channel and CBC Gem as part the multi-platform “festival experience” Hot Docs ...
April 29, 2020

Filmmaker Tamara Mariam Dawit’s Finding Sally will have its broadcast premiere Thursday (April 30) on Canadian pubcaster CBC,  documentary Channel and CBC Gem as part the multi-platform “festival experience” Hot Docs at Home.

From Montreal-based Catbird Productions, Finding Sally tells the story of a 23-year-old woman from an upper class family who became a communist rebel with the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party.

Sally landed on the military government’s most wanted list. Soon after, she went underground and her family never saw her again.

Four decades after her disappearance, Dawit (Girls of Latitude) pieces together the life of her mysterious aunt and revisits the Ethiopian revolution and the massacre that followed, during which half a million people died.

Her quest leads her to question notions of “family, identity, belonging, personal convictions, idealism and political engagement,” in a time when Ethiopia may be on the brink of another revolution.

“Usually, films about Ethiopia are made by Western directors through a white-gaze and the talking heads are also often other international experts, journalists, and academics. When there is an Ethiopian voice it is almost always a man and often a victim of some misfortune. In making this film I was very strategic to only interview Ethiopians and to only feature women,” Dawit tells Realscreen. “For me, the biggest theme or question raised in the film is related to the idea of critical thought. How can Ethiopia, as a country, escape the hangover from communism and the fear of being repressed by the government? Why are we not taught to think critically as individuals, why do we not feel safe to raise our ideas and our voices?”

The film, distributed by Cinema Politica, premieres April 30 on  CBC TV and CBC Gem at 8 p.m. ET/PT and on documentary Channel at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

Hot Docs at Home on CBC kicked off April 16 with new films airing every Thursday until the end of May. This year’s Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival had been scheduled to run from April 30 to May 10, but was postponed on March 13 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Realscreen caught up with Dawit (pictured below) to talk about the film ahead of its premiere.

director tamara_dawitt

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What is the genesis of Finding Sally, and what drew you to tell this story?

I had always been interested in Ethiopian history and specifically what happened in the country after the 1974 revolution, but it was not something I expected to make a film about. That changed when I found out about Sally nearly a decade ago and started researching her life… I felt that Sally, her life and her ideals, could be an entry point to have a bigger discussion about the trauma the country had gone through and how that is still affecting us today.

What were some of the biggest challenges you encountered in making the film?

Like with many films raising money is always challenging and slow. Filmmaking isn’t a cheap pursuit. But with this film, in particular, it was time-intensive to fact check and track down the missing details of Sally’s life. This meant spending years, taking many trips and having many long distance phone calls to build relationships and trust with Sally’s former comrades in the EPRP (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party).

I think related to that I was also dealing with a film whereby many people with opposing views and memories are piecing together one single story for you. So that means having sometimes to cut through the veils of truth, and realize that some people are telling you the truth they are comfortable with sharing or the version of history that aligns with their political ideology today. Essentially the research into Finding Sally was like peeling an artichoke layer by layer.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic, and the subsequent re-imagining of the Hot Docs Film Festival to ‘Hot Docs at Home,’ impacted the premiere of Finding Sally, and your work as a filmmaker?

The partnership between Hot Docs and the CBC has the potential to give us a larger TV viewing audience then we may have had with the film initially in Canada under normal times. But it is unfortunate to not have the experience of seeing the film with an audience in a theater — I really wanted my aunts (the characters) to have had that experience.

I think more broadly the impact of COVID is very hard on a small production company like the one I run. We’ve had about six months of contracts canceled or productions postponed so that is hard of cash flow to stay afloat. It does give me time to work on writing my next film but also missing out on festival appearances is challenging in an industry where you need to constantly show your face and take meetings with people to advance your projects.

Looking ahead, what are your goals for the film following its premiere as part of ‘Hot Docs at Home’?

The good news lately is that I’ve been chosen to take part in Good Pitch Kenya (run by Doc Society and Docubox) with Finding Sally. So this will help me with drafting a new impact release strategy to replan how to get the film and related discussions in front of audiences post COVID.

Watch a clip of Finding Sally below:

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.