Friday, September 12, 2014

Sosena Solomon: Building Homes for her Art

The title “Female Ethiopian Documentary Filmmaker” is not one that you hear very often, but exists brilliantly via Sosena Solomon. The Nairobi-born and Maryland-bred Sosena always knew that she wanted to be a filmmaker, but compromised with her father to study television production instead at Temple University. However, Sosena was lucky enough to learn how to shoot film from Temple faculty, and decided her passion for film could no longer be contained. After an eight-month stint in Ethiopia, Sosena was inspired to shoot her documentary short, Merkato, which follows the lives of people who work and live in the sprawling market in Addis Ababa. She shot Merkato as the thesis project for her masters in social documentary film from The School of Visual Arts in New York City. Merkato recently won the Best Documentary Short and Audience Award at the BlackStar Film Festival in Philadelphia. Sosena also teaches cinematography and documentary filmmaking when she can. Sosena sits down with Habesha LA to talk about her experience creating Merkato, upcoming projects, and mission as a culture preservationist.

Habesha LA: What are some of your inspirations behind becoming a filmmaker?

Sosena Solomon: I never really understood documentaries until grad school. I went to SVA for the social documentary film program and that’s when I really developed my own visual style but also learned from other documentary artists, the cinema verite style for documentaries, which is kind of like the fly on the wall approach to shooting. They [documentaries] can be so beautiful yet so real. I’m inspired by real stories that are universal. I want to inspire people like how I am inspired by other artists to be a better person. We don’t see enough of those images, especially from the African continent. Also I’m inspired by the idea of creating a time capsule; that’s what this work is, it’s culture preservation and capturing a time that will be no longer. I’m obsessed with documenting stories because I feel like that is creating history and culture and different ways to engage with these concepts. Even as a kid [I have loved], documenting, art direction, and creating beautiful images.

HLA: Does your documentary short Merkato encompass that same ideology?

SS: I went to Addis for the first time after college; my Dad and Grandmother live there. I went for 8 months just to explore and it really changed my life and I reconnected with my heritage and changed how I saw the world. I love Merkato because I love markets no matter where it is. I have a huge love for market culture because it really does encompass the culture of whichever country you are in. You can learn everything you need to learn from a country in its markets, I feel like. Everywhere I go I always try to find a market. I would go there and lose myself: I was drawn to the space and people and hearing the sounds. I had such a huge fascination and every time I would go there I noticed that they were knocking down some of the buildings. It wasn’t until the second time I went back [to Ethiopia] that I saw a difference within just a year and a half and I thought, “I really need to document this”. This was something that I wanted to preserve and it so happened that I needed a thesis topic for grad school and I just knew immediately, Merkato! I wanted to cultivate stories and the experience of the space and what the energy reflects.

HLA: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced while working on Merkato?
SS: There were so many! I knew going in I wanted it to be an emotional story and a personal experience for Merkato. The challenge in the beginning was getting people to open up and have that conversation with me. Especially with media, people have a different idea of what that performance is, so I found that a lot of people were giving surface-level answers and conservative dialogue when in front of a camera. I realized it’s gaining trust; in Merkato everyone is so suspicious of everything, you kind of have to be! It’s a survival mechanism. In any big city you have to earn that respect.

HLA: What were your next steps after shooting Merkato?
SS: I see Merkato as part of a larger installation; it’s much more powerful to present the film in that space. I wanted to create a multi-dimensional experience. This idea came later on, it took me a long time for me to figure out how to present it [Merkato]. We had the first trial run of it in Philadelphia and it was really successful. I got hundreds and hundreds of plastic bottles and recreated Menalish Tera which is a section of Merkato that you see a lot in my film. It’s like you literally walk in and you’re in Merkato. There’s also photography and a soundscape so you can smell it and see it and then you watch the film. It took it to another level with this idea of culture preservation and the dialogue became community engagement, which is really important to me. We are planning on bringing it to New York, DC, and California this year and we are really excited. It’s not just the film, it’s the art behind it. I want to eventually make a full circle and bring it back to Merkato. As an artist it’s so important for me to have work that lives somewhere.

HLA: Are there any current projects that you are working on?
SS: I’m really excited about a short film entitled Mizan. Mizan is a singer born in Ethiopia that is living in New York who is incredibly talented and is on the break of becoming this indie-sensation. She has a lot of interest around her in signing her first recording deal; I’m trying to capture this space before an artist blows up. She’s very raw and interesting and has been doing everything herself. I want to capture this intimate space of an artist creating, I love the creative process. That will be out very soon and we are putting it out with her EP online. Our work chemistry together is amazing; it’s a very honest portrayal of this woman. Capturing a story around music is a new experience for me and I’m really excited for it.

HLA: It’s amazing that despite your success, you’ve been able to remain grounded and humble. When most people reach a certain level, they become inaccessible.
SS: A lot of people call me or Facebook me and ask me for advice, and I love it I love sharing. Community is everything. If it wasn’t for my mentors, if it wasn’t for the encouragement around me and the environment I was in I wouldn’t be able to keep going. I really feel like this is something that I was born with, and to be unable to cultivate a gift is unfortunate. I teach [film] which is part of my work as well so I really want to encourage to artists in Ethiopia as well and create a support system. It’s scary because as an artist you are so sensitive to everything [laughs] so for me that would be a dream to accomplish.

HLA: What words of advice would you give for anyone that’s interested in learning filmmaking?
SS: The number one piece of advice I would give anyone who wants to be a filmmaker is to make films. Whether you went to film school or not doesn’t matter but it’s more of what are you producing. What’s amazing with living in the Digital Age, these DSLR cameras are awesome! As soon as I saw this idea of a photography camera being able to shoot HD I knew this was going to be revolutionary. Anyone will be able to capture moving high-quality images and the intimacy of it is so great for documentary. Go make a short film, shoot an interview with some B-Roll or do something creative with it and post it on Vimeo, post it on Facebook and there you go! You have an audience, you have a piece of work that can be shared. By doing it over and over you can almost teach yourself. What was great about going to school is that you were able to affiliated with this community that can give you critique to help you grow. It was wonderful, but not necessary. Don’t let that discourage you, if there’s something in you, and stories that you want to tell, than do it! ***