Anbessa - Documentary Film Review

★★★

Directed by: #MoScarpelli

Written by: #MoScarpelli

Starring: #AsalifTewold, #AlemSebisibeAyitenfsu

Documentary Film Review by: #TomWilmot

Anbessa - Documentary Film Review

Anbessa is a documentary feature from filmmaker Mo Scarpelli, who wrote and directed the film. The title, which is the Amharic word for ‘lion’, is fitting for a film that tackles change and adaptation in the face of Western modernisation. Presenting a unique portrait of life on the fringes in the East African state of Ethiopia, Scarpelli delivers an interesting, slightly meandering documentary that is beautifully shot.


The film follows 10-year-old Asalif, a young boy living with his mother on the outskirts of a new condominium complex in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Having been relocated with the rest of the agricultural community, Asalif roams his surroundings, scavenging through the vast residential area for electrical scraps to play with. The exploration of his surroundings sees the young boy encounter the effects of enforced urbanisation first-hand.


With Anbessa, Scarpelli manages to weave a compelling narrative as she documents Asalif’s journey through the expansive condominium, as he interacts and with those who have become accustomed to a new way of life. The young boy is a compelling figure to follow, and through his point of view, we are able to witness cultural change through more innocent eyes. His creativity and adventurous nature make him different from his peers, who have been touched by urbanisation, and even get him into trouble on occasion.


The film offers a unique perspective on the unseen consequences of rapid urbanisation and the influence of a Western lifestyle. Asalif’s mother talks fondly about the luscious farmland they used to own as she struggles to keep their new-found home from the grasp of eager property developers. You get the feeling that it’s not just the land that she and her neighbours have lost, but part of their way of life. The ever-expanding housing development leaves you with the impression that it won’t be too long before this existence is stamped out altogether.


This eventual change should be cause for celebration. After all, each telling shot of mother and son’s home set against the imposing backdrop of the condominium makes the huge difference in living standards plain to see. But Scarpelli isn’t concerned with the material gains. Instead, the director focuses on what is lost in the wake of modernisation, and in doing so, layers the documentary with a tinge of melancholy.


The gulf in class and difference in lifestyle between Asalif and his condominium pals couldn’t be more evident, as he looks bewildered and somewhat out of place amongst the modern furnishings and technology. The film raises vital questions about his place in this new world, especially seeing as he is outcast by many of those already living in the condominium. How much longer can his community outrun the seemingly inevitable? How will he adapt to a completely new way of life?


For as compelling as some of the points raised by Scarpelli are, there are times where the story at the heart of Anbessa drifts from focus. The shots of the landscape and the condominium are beautifully composed, particularly those contrasting the apartment blocks with the serene natural surroundings. However, these quiet moments are often accompanied by scenes that mark a stark departure from the documentary’s main subject matter.


With Anbessa, Mo Scarpelli succeeds at presenting an alternative view of urbanisation that many viewers will not have considered. Through the eyes of the captivating Asalif, we are able to explore cultural change in a manner that is both engaging and empathetic. While the shift in focus at times distracts from the more interesting subject matter, the film is nevertheless a fascinating and poignant look at the developing world.