Growing up in Denver, Ethiopia-born Hellen Kassa (BA ’12) knew her classmates weren’t getting the whole picture when it came to her homeland.
“Any time I was in school or in class, people were like, ‘Oh, you’re from Ethiopia? What’s that like?’ It was very negative,” she says. “It was like, ‘We see famine and we see hunger,’ and even though those are very real and pressing problems, there absolutely are people there who are doing something about it every day.”
To shed some light on the positive things happening in Ethiopia, Kassa teamed up with her friend, Los Angeles-based filmmaker Nathan Araya, to create the documentary “Sincerely Ethiopia,” which premiered in summer 2013. Kassa, Araya and two other team members spent six weeks in 2011 and 2012 in the African country, filming people and associations working to create positive change.
Among those profiled are the Adugna Community Dance Theatre, a group of dancers who tell powerful stories of social injustices and personal challenges through their art; Yohannes Gebregeorgis, founder of Ethiopia Reads, which builds free public libraries in the country; and Eden Gelan, founder of the Beza Community Development Association, which helps people living with HIV and AIDS.
Kassa, a student in the Josef Korbel School of International Studies when the project began, received a Partners in Scholarship grant from the University to pay for her airfare.
“The idea behind the research proposal was that my research wouldn’t be a paper at the end of it, but it would be a film,” says Kassa, who recently returned to Denver after working for a nongovernmental organization in Ghana. “I was going to go and try to find as many people as I could who are doing really positive and encouraging work in Ethiopia. The goal was to have storytelling, but in a very personal way.”
“Sincerely Ethiopia” premiered in Ethiopia in December 2013; this fall, the filmmakers screened the movie at film festivals and on many college campuses across the country, in an effort to get young people talking about Ethiopia and the way it’s portrayed in the media.
“We’re trying to create dialogue and conversations about perceptions of Ethiopia and all of Africa in the media,” Kassa says. “Africans aren’t necessarily getting their own voices out there, and why is that? Is there some important reason why what we see in the media is very negative, and what can we do to change that?”
Another goal, she says, is to get people directly involved by supporting some of the organizations profiled in the film and create a network of people and programs with similar goals.
“It’s a good way for young people to realize you can do anything,” she says. “To see these people’s stories and see where they came from, their backgrounds, it’s very inspiring.”