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Hot Docs At Home Review: Finding Sally

April 30, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

With this year’s edition of Hot Docs cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a selection of festival films are being given broadcast premieres every Thursday night from April 16th to May 28th on CBC, documentary Channel, and the CBC Gem streaming app, as part of the Hot Docs At Home series.

The starting point of director Tamara Mariam Dawit’s documentary Finding Sally is a beautiful black and white portrait of a woman on her grandmother’s mantle that the filmmaker didn’t recognize as part of her extended family. The woman is named Selamawit, Sally for short, a fifth aunt that, until she was an adult, Dawit never even knew existed.

Armed with a camera, the filmmaker leaves her home in Canada and returns to her family’s roots in Ethiopia to uncover the life of this aunt that she never knew she had, and the resulting documentary explores how her personal family history played out within a much larger sociopolitical context. Dawit reunites with her other four aunts to piece together the story of Sally, a woman whose father – Dawit’s grandfather – was a high-ranking official in the government of Emperor Haile Selassie.

Dawit discovers that, despite her father’s placement in the country, Sally was an active part of the student-led protests against Selassie, seeking to topple the monarchy. The country’s famine in 1973 led to a revolution that forced the downfall of Selassie and the installation of a military dictatorship in his place, putting Ethiopia under the authoritarian leadership of Mengistu Haile Mariam. Sally’s close ties to the communist Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) forced her to go into hiding, alienating her from her family.

Dawit structures the film as a bit of a mystery, uncovering new bits of information about her aunt and figuring out how they piece into the tense political happenings in the country at the time. Dawit not only tells this story from a personal perspective, but also from a female one. The filmmaker’s aunts are the driving force of the film, and they are all engaging storytellers as they recount memories of their lost sister. Archival footage and old family photos help their interviews come alive on screen, and we follow them as Dawit helps them find some closure.

While watching Finding Sally, I was reminded of the old feminist saying popularized in the 1960s that the personal is political. Dawit’s own family story is interesting on its own, and she is able to weave it into the compelling history of uprising and political unrest in Ethiopia over the past half-century, as she uncovers her family’s close ties to the country’s former leaders. It’s an interesting exploration of personal and political histories colliding, told from the perspectives of women, whose voices all too often get left out of historical narratives.

Finding Sally premieres tonight at 8 PM EDT on CBC TV and on the CBC Gem app, and at 9 PM EDT on documentary Channel. The next Hot Docs At Home screening is Meat the Future, premiering on May 7th.

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