In her debut independent feature film, Woven, Ethiopian filmmaker Salome Mulugeta stars in and creates the quintessential immigrant story. Shot in Brooklyn, New York, the movie tells the story of Ethiopian-American psychologist, Elenie Tariku (played by Mulugeta), who’s caught in between her Ethiopian culture and her American values.
Viewers see her struggle in pleasing the societal norms that come with being Ethiopian, like having an arranged marriage against her own will, but simply just to please her mother. This same reason is why Mulugeta was inspired to make this movie; to showcase that struggle, which is relatable to all children of immigrants no matter where they come from.
“When I first came to the U.S. I had friends from all over the world, like from Mexico, Brazil, India, Egypt, Nigeria, Ghana; and for me we all had something in common,” she says wearing an all black ensemble seated at a table at the Donut Plant in Chelsea. “We had one foot in and one foot out from our culture. Our parents were really firm within their own culture, and then the generation after us are really American. My generation that came here around my age we were all trying to balance it.”
Amid the cultural barriers presented in the movie, tragedy and pain are also prevalent themes. In a twisted fate of events, Elenie’s only brother gets randomly killed while taking the train. Because of that tragedy, her mother falls into a state of depression, and the only way she sees her mom getting out of it is by obliging to her demands of an arranged marriage.
Besides her own struggles, there are also interwoven storylines that create another set of themes in the film. Like that of Logan (played by Ryan O’nan), who doesn’t have a job to support his family, whose wife is an alcoholic, and his son is receiving counseling from Elenie for acting out in school. Within all this tragedy, or misfortune rather, you’ll see hints of Elenie and Logan possibly falling for each other. But yet what seems like a burgeoning love story; it never really blossoms.
Still, for Mulugeta it was important to show a diverse plot filled with different degrees of pain, because at the end of the day we’re all just humans with a different set of experiences co-existing together. “I wanted to show that humanity is all the same,” she says. “Pain is pain no matter what. It’s universal, it doesn’t discriminate.”
Visually, the Nagwa Ibrahim-co-directed film excels at showcasing authentic Ethiopian culture. Mulugeta infuses the Ethiopian language with subtitles in English. You’ll also see traditional Ethiopian weddings and funerals. Mulugeta says she wanted to show how immigrants adapt to the living conditions in America, but still practice their culture. “These immigrants are really living their lives outside their homeland, but bringing their culture here,” she notes.
Much like Elenie, Mulugeta has had many struggles of her own. Especially when it came to making this film. It took her a total of 15 years to get it done, and she took up a slew of other side jobs to make ends meet. Still, her perseverance got her through. The film premiered at the 2016 Los Angeles Film Festival on June 4, and on Sunday (Sept. 25), Mulugeta will receive an Achievement Award from The Women’s Journey Foundation for pushing through and making this film happen despite all odds–making Mulugeta the first female Ethiopian director of a SAG film shown in the states.