Vixen Exclusive: Director Yonie Solomon + Actress Helen Gedlu Talk 'An Ethiopian Love'
Cultural pride is and will always be on trend, but even more it's what's right. Removing the typical Hollywood standards, such as an over-the-top urban character or ghetto baby mamas, Yonie Solomon decided to construct an indie, classic love story, An Ethiopian Love, that salutes his heritage and has a universal relativity. Starring as the lead character, Desta, Yonie plays alongside rising on-screen talent Helen Gedlu, Augisha Tesfasilase, Sara Gebremedhin, Jonathan Woldaub and Syed Bukhari. From the trailer alone, this romantic comedy seems loaded with good-hearted humor, relationship drama and depth. While building great content on the back of guerilla marketing, rehearsals and the like was no easy task, Solomon was determined to send a message. Sure, the Ethiopian community will be able to directly identify with the film, but all first generation persons or immigrants of this country will see themselves in this feature that tips its hat to self-identity.
The cast is set to kickoff a screening tour in late April or early May, hitting major cities in the U.S. and several college campuses. Naturally, the international audience will get a chance to view it as well. VV tapped Solomon and Gedlu--both first generation Ethiopian Americans--for an exclusive chat about pride, the film's exploration of love and how they incorporated style to get the message across. -Niki McGloster
What are the top common misconceptions about Ethiopia?
Helen: What they show on TV, kind of making it seem like everyone in Africa is just poor and starving. That's [only] part of it. They just make us look horrible on TV. It's frustrating because it's like, wow, it's not like that everywhere. I don't know why they do it.
Yonie: That's a huge one, in terms of being Ethiopian and living in America. It was crazy because that was one of the reasons why I wanted to do the movie. There's a central theme surrounding African immigrants, and that is that they come from this savage country, where ever they're from, be it Ethiopia or West Africa or where ever, and that Africa, as a whole continent, has nothing to offer. It's crazy because I didn't go there until I was 12 [years old], so I was exposed to the same things growing up in society. I shared those same views, whether they were subconscious or conscious, even with my parents in my ear saying [Ethiopia] is beautiful. So that's the biggest one, by far. You mention Ethiopia, and it's synonymous with starvation and political conflict. Not to say there isn't trouble there, but if you look at the numbers, it's like 80 million people in Ethiopia at this point, four million suffering from famine. It's not something I'm trying to neglect putting out this type of movie, but what I'm trying to do is primarily empower Ethiopians, as well as abroad, in addition to kind of show a different side of Ethiopia to the world.
What was the reason for targeting love and relationships in this film?
Yonie: I moved to L.A. in '05 to become an actor. Initially, I was there to do what everybody does in L.A.: get an agent and audition. I'm too impatient; I had to do something, so I started to dip my hands in different areas. Basically, I started creating projects. I work in the music video industry, and I was doing a lot of projects that were being deemed as urban because that's what I was labeled as in L.A. and growing up in America. It wasn't until I kind of looked into my own community to see that there's an audience there, a demographic that's untapped, that basically nobody's catering to. I know that love stories kind of rule everything, whether it be Titanic or Avatar. It's always love stories at the center of those. That's where the love angle came from--just being able to be universal. Living in L.A. and seeing how the industry works, and realizing how to capitalize the most on something that's untapped.
Helen, tell me how you got on board with this project.
Helen: Me and Yonie have known each other for a long time, since we were kids. I used to go to church with him, and his mom would teach at our church and stuff like that. I was out in L.A. dancing professionally, and he knew that I wanted to get into other things as far as acting, singing and all those types of things. He asked me to be a part of it, and I jumped on board. I think it's dope. I support it 100 percent. I'm Ethiopian, so I would love to be a positive face for the Ethiopian community.
For people that don't know, or for people who haven't seen the trailer, what are your roles in your characters in this film?
Yonie: My character's name is Desta, and he's a first generation Ethiopian American, as are the other people in the movie. He's going through trials and tribulations of being a young 23-year-old college graduate in a relationship, and the movie explores the relationships between his friends, his girlfriend and all that. But, he's kind of a square, and I say that in regards to kind of how the market value is of urban characters in movies. In white movies, there are always normal, regular characters. Adam Sandler's a regular character in a lot of his movies, and Matt Damon. Any of these romantic comedies, there are regular characters. A lot of times you have the "urban" characters being extra, where the latin dude is broke or the black dude is a player. You know, it's always extras that go along with those guys. So in this movie, he's a very central character that a lot of people can relate to. They watch the movie through his eyes. He's kind of neutral to a certain extent.
Now, the movie dabbles in stereotypes and the down sides of relationships, too. What would you say is your worst dating experience to date?
Helen: I don't think I have one. I'm not a serial dater. Usually, I'm just in a relationship. Like, I haven't been on multiple dates and had a horrible date.
You've been lucky!
Helen: Yeah, I guess [laughs].
Dope. Yonie, have you had a bad dating experience?
Yonie: I haven't really been on dates like that. I guess it's always been hanging out.
I would say that you guys are two lucky ass people. No bad dates? That's awesome. But let's talk about this then--Do you believe love has a specific type? What are your opinions on love and dating and being in relationships with people of different cultures?
Helen: If you want to date outside of your own culture, great. More power to you. I don't think there's anything wrong with that at all. Or even, to go as far as same sex dating, I don't have a problem with it. I'm pro gay, lesbians, which ever. Whatever you prefer is whatever you want to do. I don't judge anybody. I don't seeing nothing wrong with it at all.
Yonie, how do you feel about it?
Yonie: I don't discriminate at all. I feel like there are too many women in the world to be like, 'Yo, where you from?' That's my last concern.
That's good. You both have very open-minded feelings about love. So, while you guys were filming and shooting this [movie], was there a stylist on set? How was it set up?
Yonie: When I say 'guerrilla,' this is the epitome of that. Right now, you're talking to the director, producer, writer, actor, location scout, the person that drives the little vans--everything. [Laughs] But nah, I gotta give a lot of credit to Helen because all her looks in the movie saved the movie in terms of fashion. When people see the movie they're going to be like, 'Yo, who did her make-up? Who did this, that, the jewelry, everything?' Like, she swagged it out.
So, Helen, you pretty much had an eye for style and what it needed to be in the film?
Helen: Not even necessarily what it needed to be in the film. I just wanted to see an edgy look for my character. I didn't know how everybody else was going to do it, but I just was like, I want my character to be funky and edgy.
In your real day-to-day life, are you a glam girl or are you more dressed down?
Helen: On an everyday basis, I'm not as up to par as my character (laughs). I mean, that's just on a day-to-day, but you know, when it's time to get done up, I'll get done up. I may throw on some leggings, some Uggs, a cute little top and call it a day as long as my hair is cute--I won't do too much on a regular day.
Dope. I like it though. You can glam it up when you need to. Yonie, with the "I am Ethiopia shirts, is it the same kind of message that you're trying to send in this film?
Yonie: Yeah, I just wanted some type of statement that kind of embodied pride. Really, I wanted to stay consistent--have the t-shirts and the logo stay consistent with the movie which is pretty much just creating an identity. I think that with everybody that migrates here, they find that they have to adapt to this society. Foreigners that come here kind of adapt, and I think there's a risk of kind of losing an identity. And [growing up] I never saw anything mainstream, movie or magazine or whatever, that showed any specific identity of someone like me as first generation. So that's what I'm trying to do, create an identity. "I Am Ethiopia," was just consistent with the identity I see myself having.
And being proud of it! When are you guys going to start going on tour for the film?
Yonie: I'm looking to have it start up in April, early May. We have been approached by several colleges. We're going to be doing a world tour, but in terms of what dates and cities? [That's] yet to be determined. But I definitely plan on hitting any city that has any Ethiopian community.
Helen: It's not even only Ethiopians that are in it. I have a following that has been asking me about the movie who aren't Ethiopian that are interested in watching it. And everybody would be able to relate to it.
Yonie: This is a very independent movie, and it was very non-traditional in terms of how we were doing it. You know, guerilla rehearsals. A lot of times, an hour on the day of initial shooting would really be rehearsal. [The cast] did their thing. Why the comedy? Comedy is universal. If you're able to do it, and you're able to do it with a subject matter, I think it's a lot easier to kind of communicate and also to open up people's perspective.
For sure. If you make somebody laugh, you can get your message across.