Interview: Documentary film maker Chris Flaherty
Ethiomedia | May 31, 2008
Chris Flaherty: Let me thank you for taking the time to interview me. Well, I tend to see things somewhat metaphorically. I suppose I could have used a descriptive title like “Ethiopians in America”, but that would not have captured my personal experience with Ethiopians and their culture. Those who know me are aware of my deep appreciation of Ethiopian culture and its people. For me, Migration of Beauty signifies the tremendous contributions Ethiopians have made to the American experience, and how I have come to appreciate my own civic responsibility in America. Ethiopians truly are a beautiful people not just in outward appearances but also in character. Their kindness is legendary. I know of no people who will literally fight you to pay the bill for a restaurant meal. Most beautiful, as far as my film is concerned, is witnessing the moment when they assert their rights as Americans and use the American political process to help their homeland and their people. They brought with them to America a beautiful culture and empowered themselves through the democratic process. Ethiopian Americans who engage vigorously in the American political system breathe fresh air into it and make it stronger.
Ethiomedia: But when you started the project, as I understand it, the film was focused on general aspects of Ethiopian Diaspora life in America. If my understanding is correct, did the film evolve over time to cover the “civic life” of Ethiopian Americans?
Chris Flaherty: It most certainly did. I approached making “Migration of Beauty” in the “cinema verite” or “cinema of truth” style of documentary film-making where the unvarnished truth is presented to the viewer. You are quite right that initially I thought the project would be more about the cultural and social adaptation patterns of the Ethiopian Diaspora in America. But as I became more aware of the extraordinary contributions of Ethiopians in America, I came to realize that there was a far more compelling story to tell, a story about those Ethiopians who emigrated to the U.S. because of political persecution and in search of freedom.
Ethiomedia: Let me probe a little deeper. What inspired you to make “Migration of Beauty”?
Chris Flaherty: I have always been inspired by immigrants, the reasons they come to the U.S. and what they add to the mix. I believe one of the most compelling reasons for people the world over to come to America is because of political freedom and democracy. That holds true for many Ethiopians. I would have to say that hearing testimonials from survivors of the Derg era inspired me the most. Their harrowing stories of personal persecution, extreme hardship and loss of basic rights awakened my conscience to the need for telling their stories. I was also greatly inspired by those who worked tirelessly to bring democracy to Ethiopia in 2005. From an American perspective, this is a timeless story, one that cannot be told too often. From the beginning, I had the idea of weaving their horrific stories of persecution, denial of basic rights and so on into the American experience. It’s a story that we are all familiar with in American history, the long and hard struggle for equality, justice and the basic right to participate in the democratic process. I was deeply moved by the stories of those Ethiopians who have suffered greatly under different regimes, and the common desire among all of them for freedom, justice and individual rights. I gradually realized one simple but important truth: Those who most appreciate democracy are actually those who yearn for it.
Ethiomedia: You have taken such a deep interest in Ethiopians, could you tell us more about your personal ties to the Ethiopian community?
Chris Flaherty: You could say, I basically live in my own little Ethiopian world. I am married to an Ethiopian. Her sisters and their children live on the same block. Every day we have coffee ceremonies and eat injera and wot. The primary language in my house is Amharic. I have learned a little Amharic, and hope to speak it reasonably well in a little while. This is really my life. I have been in Ethiopia in the past. I hope I can visit there again in the future.
Ethiomedia: I suspect your documentary touches upon several themes. Would you tell us the main themes developed in the documentary?
Chris Flaherty: Perhaps the biggest theme is the human one. It was important for me to convey to the audience that the characters are real people who experienced real pain and suffering under extraordinary conditions. I attempted to reveal their humanity in order to provoke the viewer into thinking, “What if this had happened to me? What would I do in a similar situation?” By personalizing these circumstances, I think one can better appreciate the larger human predicament, the longing for freedom all over the world. In the end, our humanity is measured by the way we respond to the most trying circumstances in our lives. Another major theme in the film has to do with closure, that is coming to terms with the past however painful that may be. In the film, the principal characters in the story suffered greatly under the Derg. But that experience did not change the inner beauty of their humanity and their capacity to fully enjoy freedom and democracy in America. The ugliness of their past experiences could not rob them of the beauty of their deeply cherished beliefs in freedom and democracy. I believe they found healing in America for the deep wounds their suffered under the Derg.
Ethiomedia: Why or how is this documentary important or unique?
ChrChris Flaherty:I don’t believe there have been any films made about Ethiopians in America that span the last three decades, or focus particularly on events after the May 2005 elections. Much of what has been reported is journalistic in nature. In the case of the 2005 Ethiopian national election, it does not appear that Ethiopian or other documentarians have attempted to deal with the highly controversial issues. That election was truly historic for Ethiopia, the whole idea of free elections, free debates and the incredible turnout of Ethiopian voters. That is a unique aspect of my documentary. It was one of the main reasons why I thought it important to interview the actual people involved in the election and post-election process and preserve it for history. I want to express my appreciation to the many Ethiopians who have come to me and thanked me for making this film because they were worried information from the original sources could be lost or purposely changed in the passage of time. I realized this was an important story and it needed to be told. In this sense, I believe the film is very unique.
Ethiomedia: What do you aim to accomplish with your documentary?
Chris Flaherty: As any documentary filmmaker would say, I want to get people talking and thinking about the issues. I believe that dialogue is one of the best remedies for conflict resolution. That’s how I live my life. I hope this film will encourage Ethiopians as well as Americans to honestly discuss issues of freedom, democracy, human rights and so on in a process of civil and respectful dialogue. If I can get even one person to at least look at the opposing side and spark dialogue, I would have accomplished what I set out to do. I don’t have any grand ambitions with the film. If people talk about the issues and seek to achieve a greater understanding, I will be content.
Ethiomedia: Well, as you know, some documentary film-makers just make the films that they want to make, and they know what they want to make before they start. Did you know what you wanted to make before you started?
Chris Flaherty: Yes and no. I did know that I wanted to make a film involving Ethiopians and their life in the U.S. because of my intimate association to them. There was never a script or anything pre-planned on how to do that. I wanted to find myself with the story. But I didn’t realize until halfway through the production what the story was really about. It was in front of me the whole time. I suspect some people may be upset with me because I did not follow what I thought would be the focus of the film initially. But the creative process changes many, many times while a given work is in progress. Doing a documentary is not the same as doing a commercial film with a script. The documentarian follows a path in search of the truth about his or her subject matter. But there are many forks in that path, as there are people of different beliefs, values, ideas and so on. And as I traveled the path, I found things that proved to be more interesting and people who could tell a very important story. As is evident in the interviews for the film, the whole range of viewpoints on the issues is presented. I hope in the future I will be able to make a cultural film about Ethiopians in America.
Ethiomedia: Who is the audience for the documentary? Ethiopians in the Diaspora, Americans? Others?
Chris Flaherty: In one word, everyone. I’m hoping that most Ethiopians will find something of interest in the film, even if they may not agree with everything in it. But it is a story that everyone should be aware of regardless of my film. For me, the story is more of an American experience than anything else. Besides recording something significant from contemporary Ethiopian history, the film also touches on contemporary American history and how immigrants have always shaped America’s destiny. I am encouraged that people all over the world can use the language of democracy and human rights to communicate about the most important things in their lives regardless of which corner of the planet they occupy or come from. It is also somewhat of a critique of what we take for granted in America. Some Americans believe that if we “paint” democratic values on any country they will eventually see the light and join in. I do not try to hide the fact that I am totally committed to democracy and human rights anywhere in the world. And the film is a case study of sorts for the long and arduous struggle for such things. Because my film deals with these issues, I think most thoughtful people will find it compelling and interesting.
Ethiomedia: How did you raise funds to support the production of the documentary?
Chris Flaherty:In the beginning I had nothing but an idea and plenty of optimism. I withdrew $20,000 from my own bank account to buy a movie camera, lights and other equipment. This was and still is the sum of SandyBeagle Productions that is producing Migration of Beauty. Everything else came from the helping hand of Ethiopians and Americans who wanted to see the story told, without any preconditions. I am grateful to all of them. But beyond financial assistance, many people, particularly Ethiopians provided me artistic and technical support. I give them all full credit. I am solely responsible for the quality of the film, and if there are any failings, I take full responsibility.
Ethiomedia: Is the documentary in the “advocacy” tradition, that is in the Michael Moore genre or an expository documentary which tells a story?
Chris Flaherty:It is principally expository. It tells a compelling story of democracy and the longing for freedom as I mentioned earlier. The subject matter is controversial and some people may see it as an advocacy piece. For instance, some people may believe any critical discussion of the post-2005 election period is some sort of advocacy. But the truth of the matter is that the facts of what happened then are fully documented by many human rights organizations and even the State Department. Most of the information in the film is already well known. What I added is the human element. Yes, we know about the killings of individuals after the Ethiopian 2005 election, but not enough is known about how that violence has affected Ethiopians as individuals both in Ethiopia and in the Diaspora. The film is really about that individual story. How did they feel about what happened when it happened? How did they react to it? What did they do and why? That is the story in the film.
Ethiomedia: How did you select your interviewees? Did you have difficulty getting cooperation from people you wanted to interview?
Chris Flaherty:In the beginning when the story was not clearly defined there was no problem getting interviews. So, I basically spent a lot of time interviewing people in search of the story line. After the focus of the story became more clear, it became much harder to get interviews. There was a period when I thought I may have become “radioactive”. When some people learned that I was making a movie that will be looking at the 2005 election and its aftermath, they became terrified. In time, I also found out that there were just as many Ethiopian Americans and Ethiopians who wanted to talk about it freely. Most people who participated in the interview felt that it was important to preserve this piece of Ethiopia’s history. I thank them all for their time.
Ethiomedia: What kind of research did you do for the documentary?
Chris Flaherty: I did quite a bit of research. I figured there would be some people who would challenge the film for whatever reason. I spent considerable time at the U.S. Library of Congress as well as countless hours interviewing people across the spectrum. What I present to the audience, I hope most people will agree on the facts. But the testimonials of the witnesses will always be in dispute. The best I could do is fairly represent the opinions and viewpoints of all sides. I’ll let the audience decide for itself if I have met that objective.
Ethiomedia: Most documentaries tend to be controversial for one reason or another? Do you expect Migration of Beauty will be controversial?
Chris Flaherty:In a recent interview for another web magazine, I commented that the subject matter in my film could be “potentially flammable”. Someone commented back saying that my use of the word flammable was a way of dividing Ethiopians. What I mean is that the electoral issues of 2005 are still hot today, and passage of 3 years has not diminished their importance or urgency. The film shows that Ethiopians are still deeply interested and concerned about the situation in Ethiopia. In American democracy, such robust and intense debate and discussion is commonplace. We are all free to express our view points, and the government can not punish or imprison us for speaking our minds, regardless of how controversial our viewpoints may be. In a way, Migration of Beauty is a testament of that very idea itself. Controversial issues and debates are perfectly acceptable in a democratic society.
Ethiomedia: Do you anticipate any specific criticisms of your documentary, and if so what?
Chris Flaherty: Of course. The subject matter is obviously touchy to many people. There are some people who would rather not draw any attention to the 2005 elections or what happened after that. They want the world to forget what happened. I fully expect those people to offer their criticisms. But I also expect the vast majority of the viewers to appreciate the film and the intention behind it, and support it fully. Only time will tell.
Ethiomedia: What is your background as a documentarian?
Chris Flaherty: I do not have any formal education in filmmaking, but I have been making films since the age of 9. I originally learned using real film, both super 8 and 16 mm. As a youngster, I made many “mini documentaries” and the like. Later, with the advent of video editing technology it became possible to make full feature films without going bankrupt. I’m sort of a late bloomer in this game but I always relished telling stories in visual terms. I did take some classes on filmmaking but virtually everything I apply in the art is self taught. You could say I am a self-taught artist in the same tradition as perhaps the majority of all documentary film makers. Documentary film making is really a labor of love. One spends an enormous amount of time not only on the technical things, but also in refining and implementing ideas. In this regard, I am not very different from most documentary filmmakers. Like me, most of them are self-starters and driven by a passion for their subject matter.
Ethiomedia: What problems did you face in making the documentary?
Chris Flaherty: The usual. Finding financial support, securing and arranging interviews, editing and the like. But once the film is completed, all of those problems recede into the background. The result is worth all the effort.
Ethiomedia: Was the Ethiopian community in general helpful and cooperative with you in producing the documentary?
Chris Flaherty: Some were and some weren’t. As I said, some were a bit suspicious of my motives in doing the film. But the vast majority were supportive and helpful. As I mentioned earlier, Ethiopians are very kind people. They would help me with whatever they can, and without any preconditions. I thank them all.
Ethiomedia: Did you interview representatives of all the stakeholders in the subject matter of the documentary, both in Ethiopia and elsewhere?
Chris Flaherty: One thing I knew I needed was access to the players involved in the story. It’s one of the essential elements to a good documentary. I was able to interview some very valuable witness’s to the 2005 election with the exception of PM Meles Zenawi himself. Through an email from the Ethiopian Ambassador, I was told that my request came too late and it wasn’t possible to arrange an interview. I would like to also add that I offered to go to Addis Abeba and meet Mr. Zenawi at his convenience. I am confident that all of the views to the issues are represented adequately. I believe most people familiar with the story will be impressed with the number and diversity of the people interviewed for the film. It took me more than a year to get most of them to agree to be interviewed.
Ethiomedia: Do you think American and Ethiopian audiences will get different messages from the documentary?
Chris Flaherty: It is possible that Americans and Ethiopians will see my film differently to some degree. For one thing, there are cultural and historical issues that are readily more familiar to Ethiopians than Americans. But in terms of the major themes of democracy and freedom, I think that message will resonate equally with both audiences. For instance, democracy, respect for rule of law and human rights in Ethiopia have tremendous importance to many of the Ethiopian Americans in the film. However, as you know many Americans are most concerned with Ethiopia’s role in the war on terror and what it can do for us in that respect. The interplay of these two perspectives is fascinating to me as a filmmaker.
Let me also say that I always kept in mind that many who watch the film will not know anything about Ethiopia or the election events. Most Ethiopians know something about what happened in 2005, but much of the rest of the world doesn’t. I did my best to tell it in such a way that the story is readily understandable by any viewer with a minimum of familiarity with Ethiopia and the issues addressed in the film. Since I focused on the human element, I’m hoping the story will have meaning to all who view the film.
Ethiomedia: What did you learn about Ethiopia and the Ethiopian community in the making of this documentary?
Chris Flaherty: So many things. Every day I learn something new about Ethiopians and Ethiopia. I believe this learning process will never end. In the course of time, I hope to also learn more about myself having made this film.
Ethiomedia: Did you travel to Ethiopia do any of your interviews, perhaps with public officials?
Chris Flaherty: No, I never attempted to interview people in Ethiopia about my film. I was in Ethiopia in 2006, but that was barely a year after the election and things seemed rather tense in Addis Abeba. I saw large trucks loaded with heavily armed soldiers roving throughout the city. It was rather intimidating to someone like me running around with a movie camera. I was stopped twice by security troops and given a hard time.
Ethiomedia: How long did it take to complete the documentary?
Chris Flaherty: A little more than two years. It is still a work in progress. I’m still polishing it.
Ethiomedia: What difference do you think the documentary will make in understanding the situation better in Ethiopia?
Chris Flaherty: I sincerely hope that non-Ethiopians will be better informed about Ethiopia and the situation there. I hope Ethiopians will see a bit of themselves and their own history in the film. Most Americans know that democracy comes at a price. I hope they will see that what many Ethiopians are struggling for is exactly the same types of things Americans routinely enjoy and take for granted in their society. I believe it is human nature to have an intense desire for freedom and have the ability to express oneself, politically, artistically or otherwise. I also believe that when people are informed, they are likely to do the right thing.
Ethiomedia: Do you have a trailer on Youtube or some other internet resource?
Chris Flaherty:There will be one soon.
Ethiomedia: What are your plans for screening the documentary in the coming weeks or months?
Chris Flaherty: My hope is to be able to screen the film in such a way as to encourage discussion about the issues. I would really like my film to be shown in coffee houses and other community driven establishments where people can talk not just about Ethiopia but the issue of democracy in all of Africa. Of course, we have plans to eventually distribute the film in most major cities in the U.S.
Ethiomedia: Do you have plans to submit it for any international film festival competitions?
Chris Flaherty: Certainly, I will be entering it into some festivals for 2009.
Ethiomedia: Any other projects in the pipeline?
Chris Flaherty: Nothing specific right now. I will always make documentary films that tell human stories with an international angle. I have some ideas, one of them involving Africa again. I love Africa. I would love to make films there.
Ethiomedia: Thanks, Chris for doing this interview with Ethiomedia. We wish you the best of luck on Migration of Beauty. We look forward to seeing it on the West Coast.
Chris Flaherty: Thanks to you and Ethiomedia for inviting me to do the interview. We will be happy to come out West and screen the film.
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