Andy Siege was born to German Aide workers and he has a certain younger Penn Jillette-ness (of Penn and Teller) about him, which is almost prophetic, given what he is attempting to achieve with his first feature Beti and Amare, showing at the 2014 BFI Film Festival.
Through his production company, Kalulu Entertainment , he managed to raise $14, 000 – mainly self (i.e. family)-financing and some via Indiegogo crowd-funding, and has produced a unique work which, I think, has all the makings of a cult classic.
Set in 1930s Ethiopia, Beti is forced to flee the WWII Italian invasion and all of the terror and violence that face a beautiful young woman. She finds sanctuary with her grandfather in a remote part in the southlands of the country, but arrives just before circumstances force him to journey away from her. Even here, she is not entirely isolated from the perils of a country at war, or from a wondrous adventure when Amare literally falls from the sky.
I went along to speak with director-producer Andy Siege (AS) and was delighted to find actor-producer Pascal Dawson (PD) was also in attendance. Both unassuming and gently spoken, they were incredibly pleased to be at the BFI and very much captivated by their project – a story to engage and challenge the audience, not least because it has a feel of being made by an African…
AS: We are both persons of colour – but we’re not African genetically. I’m Persian, partially, and he’s (PD) Chinese.
I liked the affirmation, the bold statement of solidarity and empathy which, as you’ll see, is not simply for the purposes of a PC sound-bite. So, Beti and Amare, this is your first feature, you’ve done a few short films, you’ve done a few stage plays?
AS: Yes, and audio dramas and stuff. I’ve never sent anything to a festival previously.
Aren’t you glad you did? (Uh, yeah…) You were born in Kenya which is near Ethiopia and you…
PD: I was born in Canada, in Vancouver.
Is that where you met? Because you (AS) went there to study your creative writing…?
AS: I went there to study creative writing, then I went to Europe, then I went to Bath where I did a Master’s in Political Science… I went back to Vancouver Island to study another Master’s in Business, which I quit after 2 months and I got my money back; and I went to a small film school, where I met Pascal. He was just fresh out of high school.
And now, you are both co-founders of Kalulu Entertainment! So, the concept of Beti and Amare… now that I am speaking to you and hearing more, I can see that this is really an amalgamation of many of your interests and influences. It’s been described as an art film, experimental, psychological thriller, sci fi, love story, fantasy, historical drama… How do you see it?
AS: … I think the more choice you give the viewer, without making it annoying, the nicer the experience is, and I really wanted to make something which allows the viewer to decide how they want to see it. So, you can watch it as a sci fi – Amare falls out of the sky, you know, and he protects Beti and she protects him. Or you can see it as her psychological state and dissociation in the face of violence of WWII in Ethiopia, which is what happens when we are victims of traumatic violence. We remove ourselves from the situation, sometimes creating alternate realities, perhaps not necessarily specific alternate realties with aliens. But that’s what I wanted to do.
Pascal, were you involved in the development of the story at all, or strictly as an actor and producer?
PD: Strictly as actor and producer. We did create the company together, then we went to Ethiopia and Andy wrote the script. He showed me the script and… right away I fell in love with the story, I fell in love with Amare. I didn’t have to tell him to change anything, because the script was already just perfect…
For your first scenes on-screen, it’s all very expressive. Did you have to discuss how you were going to approach that or was it all there on the page?
AS: It was all there in the script. I wrote it down to hand movements…I don’t remember how many pages, but it was 120 scenes… I had thought about it for a long while, but I wrote it in 3 weeks, while we were shooting a documentary in Ethiopia.
Film makers are such multi-taskers, it actually boggles the mind! So, how did you find Hiwot Asres, who plays Beti?
AS: We went to the Pushkin Cultural Centre in Addis Ababa, which is the Russian cultural centre. Actually Pushkin was the Russian Shakespeare or Goethe. He was part-Ethiopian, as well… I gave a talk to these young film makers and invited these actors to come along to an audition, which we were holding at the University – the Addis Ababa University. Hiwot was the 8th person we saw and when she left I told Pascal, “That’s the one!” …
PD: There were still a lot of people outside – like, at least 15-20 and I said, “At least, let’s look at all of them before we make a final decision!”
AS: And I was like, “Yeah, of course, but she’s the one!” This is her first starring role. She’s been in a bunch of Ethiopian films. Ethiopian directors tend to cast a different look, so I think that’s why she’s often been a supporting character, which will hopefully change now, because she really is extremely accomplished.
Why Ethiopia? Was that from your historical studies; was it that particular period, that Italian invasion that was foremost in your mind? Because you’re actually from Nairobi…
AS: I’m a pan-Africanist, and so Haile Selassie has always interested me in that respect. He was one of the founders of the African Union and so on. I had spent some time in Ethiopia, I wrote my Master’s thesis in Ethiopia for Bath. I wanted to go back – I just love the country… They say that the Holy Grail is in Ethiopia…
Beti and Amare has been described as being very much in the style of, “… oral legends passed down through generations…” (- Durban Review, Twichfilm), and Siege admits that his writing is very oral. He found that he put a lot of himself in the movie, so a lot of it flowed naturally for him. With his creative background, Beti and Amare does reflect the oral tradition element as well as the Monomyth structure. What about the language…
AS: It was filmed in Amharic. I wrote it in English and then got a local writer Yonas An Kidane, who is also one of the writers in the movie to translate it into Amharic.
Not only promoting the continent, but also using local talent! Speaking of the continent…Presumably it was shot on location?
OK, what kind of experience was being naked under the African sun? Because you do spend a bit of time naked. The hut looks very rustic and real, how did you cope with that, or did it all help with the slight bewilderment of the character landing on a completely new world?
PD: Yeah, of course. Well, being naked was a must for the script. For the first shot… that was OK, because I was lying on my stomach, so I didn’t really have to move – I was just lying in the sun. We put some sun cream on me, otherwise I would definitely have got sunburned. I think actually, it really worked for the camera, because I had a little shine on my skin from the sun screen. So, it looked a bit science-fictiony and ethereal. The second time I was naked, that was when I had to run and that’s when I had to just let my bits dangle!
Funny story, I was in the hut and Andy was outside saying, “OK, the camera’s rolling. Whenever you’re ready, Pascal.” And I was like, “I’m not ready, I’m not ready!” He said, “It’s OK, just tell me when you’re ready, and then we can shoot it.” I said, “I’m never gonna be ready. Just yell ‘ACTION!’ and I’ll come out!”
So this score! I thought it was quite beautiful. I loved the way that some of it was hummed, using the a cappella human voice and the same passages were then translated to acoustic guitar or flute. Then you used electronic music. Who helped you with the score and is it how you imagined it?
AS: I wrote the screenplay whilst listening to and hanging out with a specific musician in Addis, called Alula Araya. He’s a refugee from Eritrea – originally a land developer – and then was in the refugee camps for 10-15 years… He got himself a box guitar and became a musician. Beti is a refugee and so when I first heard Alula play in this bar in Addis… I saw the movie. I saw what it was gonna look like, because of the music. I asked him to record the different parts of the song separately – the instrumentals and the vocals, then I got some local Ethiopian musicians to play on local instruments – the krar and the… Ethiopian flute. I recorded everything together and everything separately and then, while editing the film… I asked the flautist to do a kind of jazzy thing with it – to improvise quite a lot. That really worked well. I was able to find any kind of emotion I needed… I also intended to bring in those sci fi elements. I had a friend from Vancouver, who is schizophrenic, come up with a bunch of electronics … and I used that… Later on, I got a German musician to kind of work on it again to make it a unified score. So, a lot people worked on this score. It’s gone though a lot of stages.
Pascal, how did you feel seeing yourself as an alien (with a completely different look) put to such evocative music?
PD: Watching it for the first time, I was just so drawn in by the whole film and how Andy edited it, just made it a masterpiece. The music in it is so beautiful, I just felt really excited when I watched it for the first time…
AS: … When I’m working on something, I’m able to work on things with different part of my brain. Then when we watched the rough cut for the first time, in one go, Pascal was surprised, because it was a real movie. I was kind of surprised as well.
… I read the Durban review from July this year. Was that the first time it was shown?
AS: No. The first time was in the main competition in Moscow at the International Film Festival. Durban was the African premiere.
Do you think there are any more African-based films for either of you?
AS: Oh yes, definitely. I’m African! I definitely wanna tell more stories… Steve McQueen, the Oscar winner said in a recent interview… he was sitting at a round table with a bunch of other directors. All of them were white Americans and he asked them straight up “Why don’t you make movies with black main characters?”… Nobody wanted to say anything. They didn’t know what to say. I saw that as encouragement…because I want to make movies with African main characters. Most Africans are black, so… Often I’m interpreted as full white, but I don’t think that should matter.
We are getting to the point where it won’t matter, but I think it’s still a novelty, certainly in this country. It’s interesting, because on the continent, in Europe… Cannes has a very good track record with African film within the competition itself and the pan-African competition… Germany, Vienna, Moscow – all of these places also seem to embrace (African film)…I have to ask about the effects. Everyone else talked about the powerful imagery, your use of colour and effects and… I think there was some animation used, from what I could see… Was that a budgetary constraint or an artistic choice, how you envisioned it…?
AS: Both… I feel like low budget… isn’t necessarily negative, because it makes you feel more creative. It makes you problem-solve and that’s when beautiful things happen. When I was editing I did them (the VFX) really simply with my effects skills. I’m not a visual effects artist at all. Then I had a specialist work on them, David Teng Olsen was, at the time, teaching animation at Wellesley in the US. He’s an artist and he got what I was asking for… I decided on this kind of 80s visual effects…
Battlestar Galactica, actually. It was very reminiscent of the original series, I thought. Now knowing that there is this blurred perception of whether its real or a psychological journey that Beti is on, it makes (it)… a lot more powerful in that respect. You come from quite a solid line of film makers on the German side of your family…(Grandson of actor Rudolf Siege (active 1958-1967) and the great-nephew of director Wolfgang Staudt, a legend himself.) Did you know your grandfather?
AS: I never met my grandfather or my great-uncle… Yes, I heard about them quite a lot. I think that had something to do with when I was really small in Zambia, wanting to become a cowboy or a film director…
Is there an acting legacy or a film making legacy in your family, Pascal?
PD: My father did do one documentary in Vietnam when he was travelling over there. But other than that there’s no film or acting legacy. He’s not with us anymore.
Can you tell me anything more about Beti’s grandfather, the actors who portrayed him?
AS: The grandfather was a local – a security guard. He wasn’t an actor at all – he was just himself. He just IS that person and I think that worked really well…I was really lucky with him.
The Militia, who are the immediate threat in this context, were they also local?
AS: Yonas An Kidane, the translator is one of the Militia; Biniyam Kore is the main rider; the main Militia is Mahdere Sisay, who is our co-producer. They weren’t actors either, apart from Delelegne Sharwe, who has done theatre.
Was there anything in particular you wanted to say or to put out there, either about your character (PD) or the film (AS) or about the company?
AS: …The name Kalulu – all over Africa there are these stories about a rabbit, who tricks the bigger animals, who isn’t strong, but he’s smart. In Zambia, his name is Kalulu… He was actually brought over to the States by slaves where he turned into the Uncle Remus stories. He came to the UK as Brer Rabbit. So Kalulu has had lots of children all over the world and one of them was Bugs Bunny! So, I like to say that Kalulu is Bugs Bunny’s grandfather. When I was a small kid, I grew up on these stories of Kalulu, because I lived quite rurally in the villages with my friends.
Kalulu take Beti and Amare up to Scotland next – to the Africa In Motion Film festival where there will be a couple of special Halloween screenings: Free/non-ticketed in Glasgow on Thursday October 30 (7pm), and £5 entry at Summerhall in Edinburgh on Friday October 31st (7pm). They are really looking forward to it, as they are going to dress up for a fun costume screening! After that, the film goes to Nigeria, then Bahamas and Singapore at the same time.
Beti and Amare showed at the BFI on October 17-19, so I apologise to the TBB faithful and to my interviewees for the late notice. However, distribution is currently through Aya Distribution. Kalulu are looking for a theatrical distributor with the hope of gaining a general release. Maybe, with the help of social media and a genuinely positive buzz, Beti and Amare will touch down again soon! See the trailer until then…
interview for the british blacklist by @DescantDeb