MADE IN ETHIOPIA (Tribeca 2024)- Review by Leslie Combemale

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Intensely ambitious and emotional Chinese business woman Motto, hopeful and tenacious Ethiopian teen worker Beti, and frustrated, hardworking Ethiopian farmer Workinesh and her daughter Rehoboth are the three very different perspectives represented in directors Xinyan Yu and Max Duncan’s documentary Made in Ethiopia. The film examines the growing industrialization taking place in the country, and the larger impact of China on Africa, through the microlens of what’s happening in one enormous Chinese industrial park located less than an hour outside of Addis Ababa.

As you might expect, it’s complicated. Motto is under pressure to break ground and build the second phase of the complex, but it’s on land that’s just been taken away from farmers like Workinesh, who haven’t been properly compensated. While 1/2 of Ethiopia’s population is under 18, and new opportunities need to be found for a demographic coming of age, the factories and other work at the industrial park don’t offer upward mobility for Betti and other female employees, who make up a huge percentage of the workforce. Farming is part of the history of Ethiopia, and Workinesh believes industrialization may be the country’s future, but she can do nothing, including sending Rehoboth for proper schooling, if not paid for the land they’ve lost. It’s a messy cycle, made even more bizarre by watching Motto’s wrong-headed moves like hugging an old farmer giving Motto the stink eye in the field that her corporation has taken from her. After the hug, the farmer says right into the camera, “It makes my blood boil. I swear to God.”

What will most cause conversation and argument, is that each of these three perspectives show a genuinely desire for what’s best for themselves and their communities. It is bigger than life Motto who is in a position to enhance or wreck the dreams and lives of the other two subjects. By extension, it follows that the industrialization of Ethiopia, spearheaded by Chinese business interests, offers the possibility of bringing more poverty or more prosperity to the people of the country. It’s not cynical to say that means that there is way too much power for one group of people to have over another, especially when money is involved.

Motto cries with her Ethiopian factory manager when things start truly going sideways. She calls herself more Ethiopian than Chinese. And yet, she tells the workers on the factory floor to increase production from 3000 to 5000 units without a dialogue with them as to whether that’s possible. Self preservation meets self aggrandisement. Yu and Duncan do a good job of presenting the different views of the same situation, but Motto is such a powerful presence, it’s hard to feel that Betti and Workinesh, both of whom are soft spoken, get the same onscreen attention.

Made in Ethiopia presents a sort of slow burn in how it reveals issues, in part because it was filmed over the course of 4 years. Those years include the pandemic and a civil war in Ethiopia. What starts out as optimistic devolves and derails before the viewers’ eyes. It’s compelling filmmaking, but unfortunately tragic for the subjects living the experience.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars.

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Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale writes as Cinema Siren on her own website, CinemaSiren.com, and is a frequent contributor to MPA's TheCredits.org, where she interviews filmmakers above and below the line, with a focus on women and diverse voices. She is the Senior Contributor at AWFJ.org. Leslie is in her 9th year as producer and moderator of the influential "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con. She is a world-renowned expert on cinema art and her film art gallery, ArtInsights, located near DC, has celebrated cinema art and artists for 30 years.