6 October 2018

Ethiopia: Mister Rogers - Abbaba Tesfaye's American Version

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Mister Rogers was the American version of Abbaba Tesfaye. Won't You be My Neighbour? traces the undeniable charm and sincerity that Fred Rogers expressed on TV as he taught children about the more complicated sides of life. Christian Tesfaye awards 8 out of 10 stars.

Before satellite TV, movie rental houses and access to the internet became abundant in Ethiopia, children did not have many other choices than to watch Tesfaye Sahelu, endearingly known as Abbaba Tesfaye.

He told tales, did magic tricks and chatted with children. Far more memorably, he counselled of the importance of responsibility, respectfulness and morality. He was a good man, one of those that believed a child raised well can change the world. Of course, he was never a match for the adrenaline-infused, mass-produced imports of the West's childrens' entertainment industry.

And neither was Fred Rogers, endearingly known as Mister Rogers, to whom the documentary Won't You be My Neighbour?

Rogers had a grand idea, to engage with children in a non-condescending setting. He did not wear animal costumes, talk in a funny voice or battle pirates in his show. He merely appeared as a friendly neighbour willing to listen to children and talk to them sincerely about adult matters such as death.

His show did feature a fictional story, one that took place during the medieval period and featured kings and castles. But those too were symbolic of real-life events, with themes mostly believed that children's over-sensitive minds will either not understand or bear their sophistication.

The documentary does not concern itself too much with the life of Rogers before the show started but carefully traces his rise to popularity, why he was able to grab the attention of the public and what his legacy has been.

One overriding argument throughout the movie is what Rogers was like in real life. On TV, he was soft spoken, slow and preternaturally in a good mood. That was fine for many to stomach, but as he made one public appearance after another, a man with the same disposition as the show's Mister Rogers comes out.

Some believed that he had a tattoo down his arm and wore sweaters to hide them. Others believed that he used to be an assassin. But one friend or relative after another in the documentary vow that he was a calm and friendly person who only played himself on TV.

It is from his personality that the success and entire legend of Rogers emanates. He was a gravely serious man - despite the many pranks he might have been a part of on the production of the show - who believed in the virtue of his work. He saw mass-produced entertainment for children with a highly critical eye. He hated the rush and the lack of any attempt to allow children to learn anything of value.

A devout Christian, he also believed that all children were inherently good and capable, repeatedly telling them that they are special. One of the most inconceivable moments in the documentary shows him having to defend his stand on this fact after he was accused of making a whole generation of Americans lazy by telling them they are special without having to work hard.

The film is directed by Morgan Neville, who also made the 2013 academy award-winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom, about backup singers. He directs Won't You be My Neighbour? by infusing it with comedic moments and poignancy.

One gets the feeling that the documentary is emulating the show. There is a similar level of ease and friendliness. It is quickly obvious that the intention here is not to uncover some grand truth about the show or the man but accurately redraw the character of a man that meant a great deal to many.

Neville effectively uses stock footage and interviews Rogers gave before he passed away to compliment the accounts of colleagues and family.

When the 93-minute movie wraps up, despite the absence of Rogers to re-evaluate his life and work from the vantage point of today, nothing is left unaddressed. It should have been enough of a tell to his detractors that he was indeed a man that lived as simply as he seemed to on TV.

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