Day 6

New doc Finding Sally uncovers how a Canadian university grad became a Marxist fugitive in Ethiopia

Filmmaker Tamara Mariam Dawit traces the story of her aunt Sally, who was the daughter of the first Ethiopian ambassador in Canada, in her new documentary Finding Sally.

Ethiopian-Canadian filmmaker Tamara Mariam Dawit traces the story of her mysterious aunt Sally

Selamawit (Sally) Dawit was a student in Ottawa before she joined a counter-revolutionary party in Ethiopia. (Submitted by Tamara Mariam Dawit)

Ethiopian-Canadian filmmaker Tamara Mariam Dawit was 30 years old when she came upon a photo of a young woman in her grandmother's house. 

She'd soon discover the beautiful, smiling woman in the photo was her late aunt, Selamawit — a.k.a. Sally. 

"I was really puzzled about how there could be a member of my family that, at the age of 30, I had not had any knowledge of," said Dawit.

"I also wanted to really unpack why it was that the family had perhaps not hidden her on purpose, but because of the pain attached to remembering her, sort of suppressed talking about her."

Dawit's new documentary, Finding Sally, follows Sally's story and in the process uncovers Ethiopia's complicated political past.

The film is part of the Hot Docs Festival online, which starts on May 28. It's also streaming now on CBC Gem.

The Dawit moved to Canada in the late 1960s to open the first Ethiopian embassy in Ottawa. Sally, bottom left, moved back to Addis Ababa. (Submitted by Tamara Mariam Dawit)

In the early 1970s, Sally was a student at Carleton University in Ottawa. The daughter of the first Ethiopian ambassador to Canada, she was equally interested in college parties and the politics of the day. 

She and her siblings studied while their parents brushed shoulders with Canada's political elite. 

In Finding Sally, one of Sally's sisters, Menbie, recalls a party her parents attended with then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau.

"Trudeau ... who was dancing with my mom was saying [to my father], 'I've heard about all your beautiful daughters. You have a beautiful daughter," Menie said. 

"And he was referring to my mother. My father was not impressed, and he very quickly said, 'That's my wife.'"

Sally returns to Ethiopia 

In the summer of 1973, Sally and her siblings went on vacation to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital. 

But Sally never returned. She decided to stay and become involved in political change in the country.

"I think a real driving force is the fact that my grandfather raised all of his children, including my father, with this idea that you are Ethiopians and you must go back to your country and contribute," Dawit said. 

At the time, Ethiopia was on the cusp of a revolution that would soon overthrow Emperor Haile Selassie. Large student protests demanded an end to the monarchy and sought to usher in a new democratic rule.

In 1974, the emperor was instead ousted by a military dictatorship that ruled the country for 17 years.

In the early 1970s, a growing student movement sought to overthrow the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie and usher in democratic rule. The emperor was instead replaced by a military dictatorship. (Submitted by Tamara Mariam Dawit)

Sally joined a counter-revolutionary political group, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party, and married one of its leaders. 

Her work with the group would send her underground, and put her on a brutal dictator's most wanted list. 

"She wasn't just involved in political ideology.… She wasn't just doing nursing activities," said Dawit.

"She was actually involved in what the government of that time saw as terrorism in terms of, you know, planning assassinations, trying to bomb buildings."

The revolution from women's point of view 

Finding Sally is told entirely from the perspective of women, whether they are members of Dawit's family or Sally's former comrades. Dawit says the casting was very much intentional. 

"When I started this project, I spent a lot of time researching about the Ethiopian revolution and about the Red Terror, which was this period of sustained state violence," she said. 

"And I realized that most of those stories were told either from the perspective of men or about men and women's roles really weren't highlighted."

Once Sally went underground, her family didn't hear from her for many years. Her silence was her attempt to protect her family because knowledge of her activities could have put them in danger, Dawit said.

Five years after Sally's death, the family would learn she had succumbed to an illness in a town in northern Ethiopia, where she had lived in hiding. 

Despite the trauma of revisiting their sister's story, being involved in the documentary was therapeutic for her aunts, Dawit said.

"It provided an opportunity for them for the first time in over 35 years to sit together and remember their sister. And that was something that they hadn't done," Dawit said.

"I really understood from doing my research that nearly every family in Ethiopia or Eritrea at that time lost someone. This may be just the story of my family, but it's so similar to what other families experienced."

Written and produced by Yamri Taddese.

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