Rasun fetro new ende yehé deha?
(Do the poor impoverish themselves?)
Mirt unfurls like a fable across the political and physical landscape of mountainous Gondar, a town then small and at the dusk of feudalism. Feudalism in Ethiopia, last overseen by Haile Selassie’s empire, is an unbreakable curse to the working poor, who tend the land only to watch their harvests slip into the hands of the elite, generation after generation. For the elite, the landowners and their cronies, feudalism requires delusion and deadly force to maintain.
Gerima moves us deliberately through those polarities—his camera is a curious and patient observer evoking those same qualities in us. In Mirt, class politics begin at dawn. Maybe it’s better to say that they never end, as they follow each character’s days into their dreams. We land in Gondar in the morning and follow the divergent routines of two families. The first, a unit of five across three generations, starts with a hurried prayer before a day’s work on land they care for but isn’t theirs to claim. The feudal lord walks leisurely from his perched house to church while his barefooted servant follows behind, carrying a large bible and larger faith that one day his master’s old shoes will fall on his feet. Gerima lingers long enough on the juxtapositions to let details sting. The camera holds on to Kentu, a loyal servant to an impenitently cruel master. We see his feet, bare and almost always in motion. His frame, itself bare save for bones and an economy of muscles, is dressed in discarded clothes. His boss, almost always seated in carriages and in chairs, seems to wear every nice thing he owns at once.
Kentu’s achingly sincere reverence for his master is also on display. What are we to do with our discomfort at his subservience? If we pity him, we’ve fooled ourselves into believing we’re morally and intellectually above being limited by the conditions of our lives. How else do we behave under milder tyrannies but adapt and make fragile treaties with our enemies? To pity Kentu might be the first impulse, but Gerima’s camera, his story, doesn’t encourage that. Over the course of Mirt’s chapters, it’d be a surprise if we do not simmer with rage at the oppressive forces that hold Kentu hostage. After all, do the poor impoverish themselves?
Early on in the film, Kentu’s master sends him to ward off Kebebe, a man whose heart’s eye seems wide open to the inequities that organize life in Ethiopia. Kebebe casually leans into the fence marking the feudal lord’s prized land and accuses the seated man of laziness. Kebebe also charged the wealthy man with stealing Kebebe’s land using tricks that the Italians taught him. Kebebe is unsparing in his censure, and soon enough the master commands Kentu to go fight him off. It’s almost too perfect an articulation of war at a personal scale—Kentu is sent off to fight a man closer to his own social condition to protect wealth that eludes him. He is fed the scraps of his own harvest.
Kebebe connects the poles, the elites and the subjugated. But he’s a bridge on fire. We arrive to him a wise man who has irrevocably awakened to the truth and tragedy of life; Kebebe can’t help but tell it to the world. He carries his begena around, a tall lyre, an instrument on which the educated, the religious, and the wealthy philosophize. He dresses his begena in a workman’s shirt. Can the instrument also carry the song of the poor? Those songs I associate more with the washint, a wooden flute, a confession box of sorts. Both instruments sing songs that intertwine between Mirt’s dialogue, but there’s something about the washint that pokes at my heart. It masks the details of our secrets, then it projects their most tender essences. I’m convinced every broken-hearted washint sings the same song.
Ene set behonim, al’leqim.
(Though I’m a girl, I won’t give up.)
Finally, the truly damned, in this film and in Ethiopia, are the women. Beletech is the youngest child of the family who tills and tends the land for the master in Mirt. As the feudal lord cultivates insults and insolence for the folks who work his land, Beletech fetches water, carries fresh milk to his house, makes charcoal out of cow dung, and watches his cattle. She dreams night and day of a different life. Dreams that may be too punishing for her mother and grandmother. They listen to one of her dreams, a parable they interpret in awe as they prepare dinner. Even more than Beletch’s father or Kentu or Kebebe, the women have the least to hold as their own. Not even their bodies. Maybe their dreams offer them respite. Something wholly their own to preside over.
Between Gerima’s creative decisions and my own cautions, I couldn’t name a hero in this film. Mirt focuses in on Kebebe, the town fool whose foolishness is a condition of political minority. He is a moral compass and arguably the protagonist. But I know better than hanging my hopes on men, and I mean men as opposed to other genders, who seem so awake to institutional powers that subjugate those like them while practicing their own version of subjugation at smaller, personal scales. In one scene, Kebebe belittles Beletch’s brother, intolerant of his youth. His grating impatience for the young man serves as a reminder of his own tendencies for hierarchy.
I keep returning to Beletch. Maybe she’s a hero, though her story felt like a tributary to Kebebe’s river in Mirt. But her world, her worries, her dreams, her battles—they are central to whatever hope of freedom exists for Ethiopia.