2 August 2016

Ethiopia: Kana - Good or Bad?

Photo: Kana TV
KANA TV is an Ethiopian general entertainment, free-to-air, satellite TV channel.

It is now time we address the elephant in the room. And by room I mean Ethiopia, and by elephant, the TV channel, Kana. I promised myself I wouldn't write about the channel - I thought it was just a phase that would soon pass. And as a writer, I have consistently tried to look towards the less obvious and rise above the histrionics - not pander to the morbid transient inclinations of the masses. But, just this Friday, the following happened.

I was sitting in a barber shop, having my hair cut by the same Barber who has been cutting my hair for the last four years. Two customers entered the shop, and before I knew it, the conversations turned to Kana. In fact, it was time for one of the more popular shows - 'Tekur Fekir'. As the show played, he cut my hair. Later, after I got home, I realised I had received the worst haircut of my life.

Even though it may not seem like it, considering how famous the channel has become, Kana only began airing last April. It is partly owned by a media group based in Dubai and partly by Ethiopian shareholders. Its dominant content material is dubbed Turkish and South Korean soap operas.

In just weeks, Kana mercilessly engulfed the Ethiopian film industry - that is, if there was anything worth being called an industry. The effect on the masses is epic - by each coming day we are learning of various incredible stories. Of people getting up in the middle of the night to catch a rerun; or worse, people missing their work to watch an episode. Somewhere, I heard a married couple broke up because one of them couldn't stop watching the show. It all proves something I have always suspected of parents - that they are just as susceptible to the addictiveness of TV serials as the children they admonish for the very same offences.

Consequently, it's being suggested that Kana should be discontinued for the simple reason that people are finding it hard to do their jobs. But wouldn't that be throwing democracy right out the door? And besides, it is not like we Ethiopians are world renowned for our unremitting love of work. I mean, there will be no love lost between us and diligence. If Kana made certain people lazy, it is because they were last in the first place.

But Kana does pose a serious threat to our culture and way of life. But not in the way most people think. Ethiopians are not going to start speaking Turkish or take-up South Korean culinary. It is just that they won't be getting any more Ethiopian movies or TV shows. Sadly, a lot of people don't believe this a great loss. They are saying "good riddance, Ethiopian films were never good to begin with"; that the only reason anyone ever watched them was for lack of choice or simply because most people have a problem understanding English to watch Western, or foreign, films.

And for a long time, I stood side by side this general view. Ethiopian movies are really bad. Based on the general path they were taking, I thought them unlikely to ever improve. For confirmation to my assumptions, I looked towards Bollywood and Nollywood. India and Nigeria each produce more movies than America every year. But very rarely do the two countries make anything that could be considered artistic; Nollywood much more than Bollywood.

Now I see that both countries have a sustainable and lively film industry, which in itself is a positive path towards creative movies. Primarily it supports a lot of livelihoods. Aside from that, their film industries serve as major sources of cultural display. Who would know India existed if it wasn't for all those silly Indian musicals? But most importantly, such a large industry allows room for experimentation and artistic indulgence.

That wasn't true for the Ethiopian film industry even before the emergence of Kana. There were no legitimate film studios, since they also produced advertisements, music clips and other relevant products. It simply wasn't financially viable to sustain a company on just film production. But even in that manner, the companies could only afford to make proven hits. If a film doesn't have a recognisable actor, and wasn't a romantic-comedy, the chances are that it will lose a lot of money and bankrupt its producers. That is why we had a lot of romantic comedies, because they were so cheap to make, and so easy to sell.

And from these microscopic blockbusters, I now believe the companies could have afforded to gamble, and experiment by throwing some money into films that are edgy and maybe even artistic. Furthermore, a sizable film industry, which rewards its participants, even with only money, could have attracted talent, both local and foreign. The two most sought after fields in Ethiopia are Medicine and Engineering, and that is because they both promise a financially comfortable future. Art isn't viewed in the same manner. It isn't hard to recall all those famous artists on national TV, begging for money on their deathbeds. But with a growing number of movies, TV shows and film theatres that have been evident over the past couple of years, the film industry looked promising. But then Kana came.

The most obvious and least effective defence most Kana admirers take up is that Ethiopian movies should simply try and compete with that of the ones on Kana. Competition is the essence of capitalism, and if Ethiopian films had reached the technical proficiency and financial potency of the Turks and Koreans, I would have agreed. I have heard of one great TV show made in Turkey (it isn't on Kana) and I have seen some of the movies the Koreans are capable of making (The Host, Memories of Murder and many more) and to think that our movies could compete with such films is ridiculous. We started making movies a decade ago, and very recently our filmmakers started looking towards films like Citizen Kane (instead of Transformers) for inspiration. Asking them to compete with the South Koreans in filmmaking is like asking my 5-year-old brother to dunk a basketball like Michael Jordan. It is insensible.

It is one thing to ask for competition when our side has a winning chance, but quite another when the only outcome is being squashed by giant corporate media groups.

And if people want better evidence that competition is only healthy between equals, so that it wouldn't be a monopoly altogether, I say look to Europe. The European Union is now asking for a quota from on-demand video streaming services like Amazon and Netflix, calling for at least 20pc of their contents to be films that are produced locally. Even Europe, with such wealthy countries like Germany, France and the UK, acknowledge the fact that they can't compete with Hollywood.

Talking of content, I believe I have to address the quality of the shows on Kana. How good are they anyway? I haven't seen all of the shows on Kana (I have a life), but I have tried to analyse the three most popular ones. 'Yewebet Esregnoche' is the most innocuous series about human trafficking, where victims get opportunities to escape their captors (without even having to ruin their makeup). It is such an ignorant series in that, if human trafficking was that glamorous, people would join willingly. 'Tekur Fekir' is a silly reworking of every tired cop movie, but only more tiring because it has an annoying love story at its core.

And it is only typical of Ethiopians that 'Zara and Chandra' - that agonising, insufferable, decadent hodgepodge of a TV show - is the most popular show in the channel's catalogue. Never in my life have I seen such atrocious acting. It is as if the world's worst filmmakers, actors, writers, composers and cinematographers got together to make a TV show. When one day the next generation looks to us for answers as to why the country lacks a film industry, we have got to be able to give them a better answer than 'Zara and Chandra'.

Christian Tesfaye Is a Film Reviewer Whose Interests Run Amok in Both Directions of Print and Celluloid/Digital Storytelling. He Can Be Reached At Christian.tesfaye@yahoo.com


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