How a trip to Ethiopia shattered stereotypes, spurred documentary

Amen Gibreab (right), director of the film Horeta: The Journey Beyond Culture, enjoys a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony performed by Fanaye Debalke at Gojo Ethiopian Restaurant on Aurora Ave. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)
Amen Gibreab (right), director of the film Horeta: The Journey Beyond Culture, enjoys a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony performed by Fanaye Debalke at Gojo Ethiopian Restaurant on Aurora Ave. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

Traveling to Ethiopia changed me forever. In the two months I worked there in 2008 I met a proud country that fought off Italian colonialists, a diverse nation that communicates in over 80 languages and a complex people who challenged my assumptions and helped shape how I see the world today.

But that wasn’t what I was expecting. I grew up in the 1980s and 90s, decades that saw famine and political unrest in Ethiopia, as well as growth to our region’s significant Ethiopian-American population. For me Ethiopia was a country that evoked images of starving children, refugees and war.

And I’m not alone. Many Americans think in broad, and often grim, generalizations about Ethiopia specifically and Africa overall. But one local Ethiopian-American filmmaker and a small group of college students are hoping to help challenge those stereotypes.

“Some students…all they knew of Africa was famine, terrorism, a lion and a tree,” says 25-year-old Amen Gibreab over strong cups of Ethiopian coffee at Gojo— an incense saturated restaurant tucked into a strip mall in north Seattle.

Two years ago a group of fifteen UW Bothell students met with Gibreab and the founder of the program, professor Panagiotis “Panos” Hatziandreas, in this very spot to discuss the first Seattle-area study-abroad program to Ethiopia. It was a trip that would focus on re-imagining Ethiopia for a new generation and Amen, a Media and Communication major and aspiring filmmaker, knew he had to document it.

“If I’m going to be in media I want to contribute something positive,” says Gibreab who spent the first half of his life in Addis Ababa, the capitol of Ethiopia, “…I know there is more and I wanted to tell that story.”

The result is “Horeta: Journey Beyond Culture,” a 90-minute documentary premiering tonight at 6:00PM at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute — just a few blocks from Washington Middle School where Gibreab first landed as a 12-year-old immigrant.

The film opens on an ethnically diverse group of students laboring over the beautifully squiggly Amharic alphabet and follows them from that fluorescent-lit classroom to the rain-slicked streets of Addis Ababa. The footage is clear and intimate and the revelations are personal (the role of religion in one student’s life) and political (traveling abroad as an American of color) as the students learn Ethiopia is much more than what they see in the news.

It’s a movie that feels very much of Seattle in this particular moment — young but growing, self-referential but with a global point of view. A film made by and for a generation whose diversity is unprecedented, a generation that is questioning old assumptions and refusing to be easily labeled.

The program that sparked “Horeta” no longer exists; the professor who led it, Hatziandreas, has since moved to Ethiopia, where he was born and raised. But Gibreab hopes to help find a way to resurrect it, especially since Ethiopian Americans approach him regularly asking for details on the next trip.

“Ethiopian elders they’re always asking me ‘when are you and the professor going to do this again? We want to send our kids so they can learn. Please do it again,’” says Gibreab.

Amen Gibreab in front of vintage posters advertising tourism to Ethiopia. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)
Amen Gibreab in front of vintage posters advertising tourism to Ethiopia. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

It’s not unusual for study abroad programs to only exist once says UW professor Raymond Jonas who was a consultant for the trip and explained, via email, that programs like these are labor intensive but extraordinarily valuable — especially for young people.

“Study abroad is important because… [it] shows us just how varied human society can be,” wrote Jonas, “When we return, we see our existence with new eyes.”

That has certainly been true for the travelers in “Horeta” (which means “to journey” in Amharic). Few will be in attendance at tonight’s premier as many are currently scattered around the globe from Vietnam to India, Brazil to Rwanda.  

“They wanted to find themselves and they know there is more to life than the life they live currently,” says Gibreab describing the original fifteen, many whom had never traveled abroad before Ethiopia, “They want to journey.”

If you’re interested in the journey you can buy tickets for tonight’s screening online at horetadoc.brownpapertickets.com.

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Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at sarah@seattleglobalist.com.

Sarah Stuteville

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