Downstairs in Ethiopia

by Andrew Belk

‘AND HOW DOES that feel – to be hungry?’

The girl, Abrinet, looks at me, smiles, then looks down. She plays at a gash on her foot and I see Mitch frame it up on ‘A’ camera. Travelling from her face down her body, he pulls focus, creating edit points. He is good like that, Mitch, his sense of small things.

The ‘B’ camera holds on the two-shot of the girl and her mother. We have sat them on a woven blanket in front of their tiny stone house. A vial of holy water hangs at the door above them. After a gentle prompt from her mum, the girl responds with small soft words. 

Mitch swings back up – captures the girls face in a close-up. There is a moment between her words, and the translation from Tigray to English. The truth is in that moment. Captured on a face lost in thought.

‘She says, Sometimes, I am so empty, I want to cry.’

I nod my head and let out a small Hmm. It is meant to signify understanding and empathy, but really, what do I know about hunger? I exchange glances with Mitch – let my eye-line fall to the girl’s foot. He sits down in the dirt and puts the camera on the ground. 

‘Can you ask how she got that gash on her foot?’

She is still playing with it. Small long fingers tracing the edge of congealed blood. Dirt in it. Mitch is on his stomach now, searching for a better frame. Flies land and defoot, and I hope for a clear patch long enough for some useable vision. 

‘She says she cut it with a machete, while she was chopping wood.’

(Fuck.)

(Gold.)

‘Hmm. That’s no good. It looks sore. Does she have medicine or some ointment to put on it?’  

Abrinet is eight. The same age as my eldest daughter, though much smaller. I project my daughter onto the blanket, in Abrinet’s place. I hold the image for as long as I can. It kills me.

‘She says, No. My mother cannot afford medicine.’ 

Mitch and I let out simultaneous Hmms. I tell the translator that the next question is for the mother and Mitch gets up off the ground and repositions. I look at ‘B’ camera, sitting on sticks, rolling away unattended. Jenna has abandoned it to shit what is left of her stomach into the desert. 

‘How does she feel, when she cannot afford treatment for her daughter’s foot?’

After the words – that moment again – the reality of how it feels to be unable to help your child, captured in a look. It is terrifying. Mitch holds frame. He waits a beat past unbearable, then in one fluid motion flows down her right arm and rests the shot where the mother gently cups her daughter’s hand. Pulls focus. Dude’s an artist. 

The mother has answered with her own question. She eyeballs me. 

‘She asks, Do you have children?’

(Fuck.)

(Gold.)


ETHIOPIA IS DOWNSTAIRS. It lives in a box on my desk. I go down to the box and open it and Ethiopia comes out. I cut it and shape it and make it smaller. When it is as small and sharp as the head of a pin, I send it into cyberspace. When you open it, it will jump out and stab you.


JENNA REJOINS US. We discretely pump her full of Loperamide and electrolytes, aware that kids die in these parts for want of what we causally pull from a daypack. Introductory interview over, we get Abrinet to give us the grand tour. 

She leads us through a low stone doorway into her single room house. Here her, her mum, and her brother and sister sleep on empty grain bags on the dirt floor. In the centre of the room is a fireplace for cooking. There is a small clay grain silo – long empty – and a few pots and pans. Enough to survive and nothing more. There is just enough room for me to swing a boom, and Mitch to shoot, so we assign Jenna the mission of collecting overlay from around the village. 

‘Needy or cute,’ I remind her.

The interior of the house is full of problems. The empty grain bags the family sleep upon are the distinct red, white and blue of USAID. Even worse, a third-full bag of USAID grain sits against the wall. At one time, the house must have had power, and a single dead light cable hangs from the roof. Abrinet’s brother and sister join us. The girl, a toddler, is topless. The boy, about eleven, wears a T-shirt that reads ‘Nude aerobics instructor, first lesson free’. Next to a framed picture of St George, the patron saint of Ethiopia, hangs a poster of Beyoncé – the patron saint of hot pants.

I tuck the cable up into the roof while Mitch picks up a blanket and drapes it over the bag third-full of USAID grain. We will film the family lying on the floor, recreating Abrinet’s bedtime, so bodies and blankets should cover the grain bags there. Mitch and I like the St George picture, it’s the vibe we want, but are undecided on Beyoncé. Will her arse cheeks pull the viewer out of the story, or will they create a shared bond, a universal reference point, connecting Abrinet and our audience, ‘Australian Youth’?


AUSTRALIAN YOUTH. A defining marketing term – as soon as you use it, you know you are not part of it. It is a segment analysed beyond reason, and there are many graphs. Mostly, it seems to be a fourteen-year-old Glen Waverly girl, with a hundred and sixty-three Facebook friends, a $30 per week clothing allowance, and a deep concern for the environment and shit. Her name is Madison. 

Everybody wants a piece of Madison: her money, her time and her lifelong brand preference. She gives a third of her waking life to the world of screens – those few millimetres of glass, infinitely deep. She navigates this world with a compass where north, south, east and west, have been replaced by a single direction – like. Although she has an inkling, Madison has no idea just how deeply fabricated her random world is, and she is hammered stupid with the images, sounds and ideas of those chasing her ‘thumbs up’. I have around a hundred and eighty seconds to get her attention, educate her, and move her to act. It is a timeline not conducive to detail or complex ideas. 

Her sense of what African hunger looks like has not evolved fully from that of her parents, and was largely set in place by the Ethiopian famine of 1984. Arguably the first mass televised famine, it aired at a time when news was news and was graphic with an honesty that would now be sanitised with one eye on the sponsors. We saw skeletal children and babies. We watched families trapped in open desert – devoid of food, water, shelter or possessions. Described by BBC reporter Michael Buerk as ‘the closest thing to hell on earth’, it was despair played out on a medieval backdrop. For many, it formed our ideas of what hunger in Africa should look like.

But these people weren’t hungry. They were dying. 


I HEAR SCREAMING and ignore it for as long as I can. When it becomes intolerable I head into the backyard. A trampoline incident has unfolded and my five-year-old tells me her sister landed on her head on purpose. I tell my girls to sort it out, that I am trying to work. They beg me to get on and bounce with them. It’s Saturday. The five-year-old follows me back under the house and into Ethiopia. I give her some printer paper and pens. I tell her to draw me a picture of under the sea, with every kind of sea creature that ever existed. The feedback on the last script version is that there is still too much focus on Abrinet’s mother. The creative director wants a rewrite, but doesn’t want to have to recut the images. Sure. No problem. I play the video file and read aloud some changes over the top. I can’t see how to do it. It doesn’t flow. The messaging seems too obvious. Madison will be onto us. My five-year-old is standing next to me, holding her picture out. On the screen, Abrinet finishes drawing in the dirt and eyeballs me through the camera. The moment is probably designed as some beautiful epiphany, but it empties me.  I shut down the computer. I compliment my daughter on her whale. It’s a crab. 


MONEY FROM NON-GOVERNMENT organisations for food aid and development is needed before hunger becomes death, and Madison, if we can get her to like us, can be quite generous. Yes, she is often to be found rendered beyond vacuous with mind bling, but break through, break in, and she will advocate, fight and fundraise harder and smarter than any generation before her. She wants to be famous, but is happy to ‘Make Kony Famous’ along the way. The Kony campaign showed us she will respond to a good story well told. But it is storytelling, and Madison likes a clear Villain. The bastard with malnutrition is that it is often too insidious to make a good bad-guy. In much of Africa, half a country’s population will be under eighteen years of age, and many of these children will be malnourished. In countries such as Ethiopia, half the children under-five are malnourished or stunted. Their vital organs and brains are not developing properly. They cannot concentrate and their capacity to learn can be greatly diminished. Children – who could have become teachers, or doctors, or engineers, who could have thought laterally and creatively about new farming techniques, or better government, or erosion mitigation – won’t. Malnutrition can smack kids thin as a stick, and thick as two planks. A generation is being lost and it’s a bugger to sell to the market place. 


JENNA RETURNS TO ask if it’s okay for the telecom tower in the middle of the village to be in shot. ‘It’s really hard to frame it out in the wide shot,’ she tells me. ‘Also the powerlines, and the cars going past?’ Madison should not see the tower. An Africa where Abrinet cannot get enough to eat, but can take a picture of her empty bowl and upload it to Facebook; an Africa where a billion dollar road passes her village not to bring food in, but to take minerals out won’t fly, and she may dismiss us as fakes. It is a paradox, because Madison accepts these images from India. In India, we would deliberately leave the tower in. Mitch would pan down from the gleaming spire of its 4G satellite dishes to reveal Abrinet barefoot, sorting recyclables from a plain of middle-class bio-waste. Fifty frames a second. 35-millimetre lens wide open to the sunset. 

Gold.

Jenna is learning fast – she gets it. Her first day out though, disaster – all dicks and donuts. A village not far from Abrinet’s. Our first day in the field proper, after flying from Addis Ababa to Mekele, then driving north to Wukro, we had met a seven-year-old boy who lived with his grandmother. He had an ear infection that was slowly sending him deaf. He couldn’t concentrate at school so spent most of his time home alone, wasting away, while his grandmother broke rocks on a government food-for-work project. We had sent Jenna out to cut her teeth on some overlay. Wide shots of the village, old men walking skinny cattle, camels on the horizon, children playing in dust, anything that would help build Madison’s mood and sense of place.

That night, we viewed the day’s work on a laptop. Checking our exposure, framing and coverage – compiling a list of pickups for the following day. Had we captured the need? Can we tell the story? Have we gathered the elements necessary to build Madison a convincing three-minute Ethiopia? Buzzing on duty free bourbon, Jenna passionately talked us through her shots.

‘Fifty frames a second,’ she said. ‘Man. I wish the whole world was in fifty frames a second.’

‘Dicks,’ said Mitch. ‘Full of dicks.’

And it was. Jenna’s shots were beautiful, and life does look better at fifty frames a second, but almost every sequence had a pants-off boy somewhere, swinging jubilantly in slow motion. Camel train against the sun-silhouetted dick. Wide shot of village background – walk-by dick. Kids doing handstands – upside-down dick. Kids playing jacks with bones – dusty dick. 

‘You can hardly see them,’ Jenna said, not knowing. ‘They are kids in the desert – they can’t afford clothes. It’s the way it is…’ She sensed her argument had no sway. ‘But they are kids.’ 

This was my fault. I should have given Jenna ‘The Talk’. The same one given to me on my first trip; the time I fucked up and shot gigs of incidental kiddy bits in Northern Kenya. 

The Talk: 

You know how our job is to document and not distort the truth. How we respect the local culture as we find it, and at all times must remember not to impose our own cultural values.

Yes. Of course.

Well, that doesn’t apply to naked kids.

Why not? It’s hot. They have few clothes. If I was a kid in the desert, I would run around naked as well.

Yes. But back in Australia. When we send this vision out. A paedophile might watch. 

So we just rock up and tell everyone to put pants on before we film anything?

Yep.

But won’t this make them think there is some kind of shame in their kids being naked? Aren’t we just forcing our own screwed up cultural values onto them? 

Also, all girls must have a top on. The paedophiles…they might wank. When you film a mother feeding a child, try not to show any breasts. Definitely no nipples.

Jenna looks like she wants to cry. Mitch attempts to cheer her up by pointing out not only does one boy have his dick out, he is eating what appears to be a pink-iced donut. 

‘Not a good look during a food crisis,’ he points out. ‘The drivers. They can’t help themselves.’


THE WATER OF the bay is flat and clean and the sky above wide open. Holidaymakers from Canberra have begun to occupy their holiday houses and a carnival has set up on the foreshore. My girls play on the love swing on our back deck, deliberately smashing it into the railing. I pick at the toast and egg and bacon they have abandoned and drink my second coffee. A perfect day is forecast. I don’t want to go down there – to the small room under my house. Concrete walls and the box and decisions, but there is no avoiding it. 


WE SHOT TWENTY-THREE hours of footage over ten days in the Tigray region of Northern Ethiopia. Four hours with Abrinet and her family. After we got the kids into appropriate clothes, we followed her for the rest of the day. We filmed as her mother cooked their single daily meal of flat bread. Shot coverage of her collecting water from the village well and sweeping the dirt floor and courtyard of her house. We had her show us how she chops wood barefoot with the machete. We filmed her playing with her only toy: a discarded battery she pretends is a saucepan. 

Cooking games – big with hungry kids. 

I bring up the vision of an aid worker measuring the circumference of Abrinet’s upper arm with a coloured tape. She slowly pulls the tape tight, through the green and yellow bands and into the red zone. This means Abrinet is acutely malnourished. It is why she gets sick all the time and cannot concentrate. It is why something like the wound on her foot could knock her over in a few weeks if it became infected. But unless you really study her, and know what you are looking for, she just looks like a skinny little kid. Her body won’t shock you, even though inside she is eating herself away. In some shots, at the right angle, she even appears to have a little belly – possibly filled with pink-iced donut. 

I start to build a world for Madison. An Ethiopia 1080p high 50 megabytes wide, and three minutes long. I select images of the measuring tape showing red, cracked bowls and the empty grain store to help heighten the sense of need. Although Abrinet’s hunger isn’t written on her body, it is written on her face, and I mark the moment when she tells us what it feels like to be hungry. I play it over and over, moving the edit points, looking for just the right few seconds – that moment when she looks her weakest, her tiredest, her sickest. I scan through every frame, looking into the faces of her mother, her brother, her sister, looking for gold. Downstairs in Ethiopia, everything is flipped on its head. Bad is good. Good is bad. The worse, the better. The world may be getting smaller, but right now I need it to look as big and bad as ever.

Abrinet carries the family’s water on her back in a large plastic container. It is a two kilometre round trip and the fatigue is beginning to show – Gold. In this shot, her little sister is falling asleep, tired from hunger – looks a bit like she is dying – Gold. Here is Mitch’s close-up of the mum’s anguish, and the pan down the to hand hold – Gold. Let’s cut to a sad-eyed close-up of Abrinet. Now her mum is making firebricks out of cow shit. Let’s lay that next to a few seconds of her making flatbread – Gold. Play through the footage of Abrinet’s wounded foot. Wow. It looks worse than I remember. Too many flies feeding on her wound to use the close-up though – Bugger. Here is the stuff of Abrinet chopping the wood with the machete. Let’s put this down first, then bam, cut to the wounded foot – No – Other way round. Let’s show her pretending to cook food with her battery saucepan. It’s the only toy she has ever had. She chewed the lid off – scooped out the inside with her finger – Gold. Here she is trying to console her baby sister. The kid is crying from hunger because the mother is too malnourished to produce breast milk. Abrinet is singing to try and calm her. It’s not working. The kid needs food. That foot has to hurt. You can see Abrinet’s ribs in that shot, but I can’t show her topless. Things would be better if they had a dad, but he went to the city and hasn’t returned. 

(Gold.) 

Cry Madison. Why won’t you fucking cry? 


UPSTAIRS AND IT is still warm. From my back deck the setting sun shoots the bluff on the other side of the bay lucid, and I’d like to go and sit there by myself for a while. A family from Canberra has arrived next door. Their spare house is empty forty-eight weeks of the year, and when my recycle bin overflows I use theirs. I watch as they empty their car into the house. Suitcases. Bags of groceries. Shiny new boogie boards. Music starts. The father emerges onto his back deck and lights his barbecue. He flicks on fairy-lights, nods his head and his beer towards me. 

‘Life’s good, hey?’ 

‘Not bad mate. Not bad.’ 

We chat about fishing. Flathead off Malua. Bream in the river. His kids spill out behind him. The daughter looks about fourteen. She gazes up from her iPod, waves at me and smiles. I wave and smile back. 

My eight-year-old asks if we can have a barbecue as well. It seems like a good idea. We sit together on the love swing, and she asks me how the Africa kids are going. For as long as she can remember, she has watched me work with images and tell stories from the developing world. Often she will visit me downstairs, sit on my lap, and help me pick happy images. Shots of kids playing and laughing and cartwheeling in the dust. Shots of kittens and big-eyed camels and funky wonky donkey wagons...and nothing cracks her up more than a random penis. In a couple of hours she will be full of food and sleep, Abrinet will still be hungry. I really don’t understand how any of this has come to be.  

Tonight, while my daughters sleep, I will go downstairs to Ethiopia and add some layers of light to the story of Abrinet. There are some stunning shots of her skipping, and a beautiful sequence of her playing with her baby sister. The story we tell will be an honest one. It will be painful but full of hope. It will treat Abrinet and her family with dignity and respect. It will make a difference, and Beyoncé’s arse might be in it. That should get a laugh out of Madison. 

They are good kids, Madison and Abrinet; I hope they like each other.

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 45: The Way We Work © Copyright Griffith University & the author.