Filmmaker Melissa Donovan talks about a new Ethiopian documentary film, Zemene

Melissa DonovanBy Cynthia Corral

Q: Tell us a little about the origins of Zemene, from concept to financing.

I never set out to make a film in Ethiopia. Actually, I was working as a cinematographer on another project and following Dr Rick Hodes, a potential character in that film, when we bumped into Zemene on the street in Gondar, Ethiopia in 2007. Zemene was so fragile looking with a severely crooked spine, and this is what Dr Rick spotted as he crossed the street that day. Dr Rick Hodes is the medical director in Ethiopia for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and has spent a majority of his time helping rural children with crooked spines get medical care. This chance encounter really was a miracle; Zemene had just been told by the hospital that there was nothing anyone could do to help her. Zemene captured my attention from that first moment. Her spirit, her courage just radiated out of her beautiful smile, a stark contrast to her small, fragile frame. At that moment, Zemene took my hand, as I held the camera in my other hand, and took a piece of my heart. This serendipitous meeting confirmed for me that what’s in front of you is what you should focus on. I’ve never made a film before, only working as a camerawoman, but after meeting Zemene, I realized there was nothing better I could do with my life than to figure out how to share her story. And so that’s how this all began. This film was made over the course of 5 years. Initial funding was personal savings and then family and friends came on board. I was fortunate after production to get a foundation gift to get me through the majority of the editing. I’m still fundraising to help me with the marketing aspects as well as getting the film to festivals.

2Q: Zemene has done quite well at other film festivals. Will you be less nervous now at Cinequest? Does this process ever get any easier?

I’ve been in four festivals so far and they have all been wonderful experiences. I realize how much goes into putting a festival together now and I have so much respect for the people that are behind them. I am especially excited to attend Cinequest, it will be my California Premiere! The Cinequest team has been so organized and positive about “Zemene” that I’m just excited to be there!

3Q: What was your best and/or worst experience while making Zemene?

My best experience was seeing Zemene turn into the amazing, inspiring young woman she is today. My other best experience was having the privilege of being around Dr Rick and realizing how much impact one person can have on another’s life.

4Q: Festival audiences often have to make hard decisions about what to see, and the catalog descriptions sometimes run together. In your own words, why should people see your film?

I would say that if you’re interested in seeing an amazing, inspiring true story and a glimpse of life in a beautiful part of the world that you probably haven’t seen, well this is the film you should check out. It also has great music!

5Q: Time to pre-plan: You just won the Oscar for Zemene. Give us your acceptance speech.

I would like to thank the Academy for this incredible honor. Thank you to everyone who helped me bring Zemene’s story to the big screen. Thank you to Dr Rick Hodes and Menormelkam for giving a 2nd chance at life to a little girl who now wants to help others. And thank you to Zemene for never giving up on life.

Screening: Cinequest Film Festival, March 5, 2015, Camera 12 Cinemasm San Jose, CA 4:45 PM

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