By Gezahegn M. Demissie, director, Tizita
“Only in the agony of parting do we look into the depths of love.” — George Eliot
It was only after I unwillingly departed the country I love and grew up in that I began immersing myself in the tizita of the past.
A tizita is a traditional Ethiopian ballad built around memories. It’s a vehicle that takes me back and forth in time, something that is true for most Ethiopian refugees — men and women, young and old. If you ask any Ethiopian on the street to sing a tizita, she or he will automatically hum it.
For people who are very attached to the culture, history and imagery of our homeland, it is only through tizita that we expose our deepest inner feelings. And being in exile can make our feelings sink even deeper. When I left my country in 2015, I knew that I was leaving my life and all my belongings behind. Tizita became the sound of my inner self.
My short documentary, Tizita, is about exiled Ethiopian artists who are trying to establish themselves in Canada. The film follows three musicians who gather in a little café to play a tizita together. They are each surviving as refugees in Canada. Along the way, we gain insight into both this growing Canadian immigrant community and the broader meaning of art.
Living in exile, it is not easy to maintain who you are and what you have accomplished in the past, both as a person and an artist. Life puts you in a position that tears you apart: the question of survival on one hand and the artistic call on the other. I think that is the dilemma facing most exiled artists of Ethiopian descent. My purpose as a director and writer of the documentary is to demonstrate these challenges in the day-to-day life of my musician subjects.
In Ethiopia, it is said that “an artist in exile is like a fish out of water.” Despite knowing this, a growing number of Ethiopian artists, musicians, writers, actors and journalists are fleeing the violence and repression that is spreading in their country.
Many Ethiopians have come to Toronto, thanks to Canada’s welcoming refugee policy. Safe from physical persecution, they are now beginning the emotional and spiritual struggle that comes from being cut off from not only the community and people they love most but the elements of life that gave them purpose. Famous at home, they are almost nobodies in exile.
Tizita is a documentary short in which musicians reflect on what they have left behind, how they made it to Canada and how they are trying to rebuild their identities — to become new fish in new water.
The film also follows the musicians gathering together to play a song drawn from the traditional Ethiopian pentatonic musical scales.The two singers, Netsanet and Genene, perform two types of scale — Genene plays major and Netsanet minor.
This story and its characters have many layers. My hope is that Tizita offers a glimpse into the ancient and rich culture of Ethiopia.