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(The 2019 Maryland Film Festival ran May 8-12 in Baltimore, Maryland. Lead Critic Chris Reed traveled far to cover the fest for HtN! Like what you see here on Hammer to Nail? Why not pay just $1.00 per month via Patreon to help keep us going?)

Asalif lives with his mother in a mud hut next to a brand new condominium complex outside Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, their poor circumstances in sharp contrast to the middle-class life of their neighbors. Director Mo Scarpelli (Frame by Frame) follows her subject closely, creating a moving observational documentary that delivers an intimate look at the complexity of modern life in the developing world. Entitled Anbessa, which means “lion” in Amharic, the movie is also a testament to the universality of human experience, as Asalif roams the nearby hills, like any boy his age might do, imagining himself the king of the beasts and master of his tiny domain. He may not have much, but what he has is of his own making.

Indeed, Asalif is a kind of innovative genius when it comes to scavenging usable items from the apartment buildings’ trash heaps, bringing them home to assemble makeshift lights and toys. His mother. who weaves baskets for a living, dotes on him as best she can, but with her meager income there is not a lot beyond her love to give. When Asalif’s split from one friend leads him to make another from among the condo’s children, we see the awe in his face as he marvels at that kid’s easy access to gadgets that it would take him prodigious effort to replicate, if that were even possible. At times, he hangs with the men in the area bar, both annoyance and sidekick, his eyes wide with wonder at the tales they tell, happy to be included. What kind of man will he become, eventually? We hope that his sharp intelligence and curiosity will prevail, but worry that his longing for a better life, and envy towards those who have it, might get the better of him.

Scarpelli mostly stays as unobtrusive as possible behind the camera, seemingly allowing her subject to drive the story, until the end, when she finally applies some effective mise-en-scène and editing to create an evocative montage of Asalif in the big city, hinting, perhaps, at a future soon to come. The land on which Asalif and his mom live, after all, is coveted by developers, so the poor, but peaceful, existence we witness cannot last. Given Asalif’s resourcefulness, the lion within him may soon emerge, whether in triumph or in violent rebellion, we cannot tell. For now, however, we have this gentle portrait, where hope and despair intermingle in a profoundly cinematic mix.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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    August 28, 2020
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