‘Finding Sally’: A filmic inquiry into the heart of Ethiopia’s revolutionary upheavals
Finding Sally

The Sixties cliché that “the personal is political” is strikingly true in Tamara Mariam Dawit’s Finding Sally. When the Ethiopian-Canadian director/writer stumbles—at the ripe old age of 30!—upon the fact that her father and his siblings had another sister she’d never even heard of, Tamara sets out to piece together the puzzle to find out why her Aunt Sally had been missing from the picture for decades. The documentarian’s filmic voyage of discovery turns out to be much more than a merely personal journey, as Sally’s disappearance from the scene takes Tamara down the path to the revolutionary politics that engulfed Ethiopia in the 1970s.

As such, Finding Sally provides an invaluable history lesson for those unfamiliar with Ethiopia, Africa’s only nation that wasn’t colonized (at least until Mussolini’s brutal invasion in the 1930s to restore fascist Italy’s version of the Roman Empire when spears famously fought tanks as Europeans horned in on the Horn of Africa). The Dawit family was part of Ethiopia’s (which has also been known as Abyssinia) government élite. Tamara’s grandfather was a renowned diplomat who is depicted as a dedicated public servant representing Emperor Haile Selassie’s government at various posts abroad. He was also a devoted family man who, I believe, had four daughters he raised to be independent-minded women.

One of them was Sally, who was known for her boyfriends, friends, merrymaking, and laughter. But as Tamara learns, Sally—a diminutive of Selamawit—was the life of the “party” in more ways than one. In the 1970s she joined the student movement that opposed the autocratic Emperor, who was deposed in 1974 by the Derg, a committee of low-ranking officers who seized power. A member of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party, Sally became embroiled in a faction fight of Stalin-Trotsky proportions. Mengistu Haile Mariam emerged as the head of this pro-Soviet military junta with leftist trappings and went on to institute the “Red Terror,” a period of harsh repression, purges, and massacres that, among other things, severely persecuted the EPRP, which was, from what I’m able to understand from the documentary, acting as a “Left opposition” against Mengistu’s strongman rule.

Tamara deploys tried and true documentary techniques to put her missing aunt’s story together. She uses archival footage to depict Ethiopia’s bloody history and acts as the narrator, appearing onscreen from time to time as the perplexed director interviews her trio of aunts and Sally’s friends. While they readily knew about Sally’s involvement with the EPRP and even her relationship with one of its leaders, the sisters were uncertain as to what actually happened to their long-lost sibling. Like a cinematic Sherlock Holmes, the dogged documentarian tracks down what befell poor Sally. The tragic trail leads to a remote village in Ethiopia’s hinterlands, where a villager reveals Sally’s fate.

I liked this conventionally-told, heartfelt 75-minute documentary by Tamara Mariam Dawit, who, according to PAFF’s “Director’s Bio,” is “based in Addis Ababa where she runs a production company [and] manages the Creative Producers Training Program… Tamara has produced for CBC News, MTV, Radio-Canada, Discovery, NHK, and Al Jazeera….” The absorbing, informative Finding Sally is Tamara’s first full-length documentary, but hopefully not her last.

On a private note, I was especially interested in Finding Sally because in the 1980s I had a lover in Hawaii who’d had a Black boyfriend (I don’t know if he was African American or from Africa per se) who went to fight in the Ethiopian Revolution and was never heard from again. This traumatized my then-girlfriend and made me want to find out about what had happened in the Horn of Africa, but of course, American news media being as narrow and self-absorbed as it is, information about Ethiopia hasn’t been readily available (unless Western pop stars perform fundraisers for famine relief.)

However, Finding Sally helps fill in the historic blanks. It is a competently made combination of family drama, mystery, romance, history lesson, and communist revolution gone off the tracks. Since the events covered in Finding Sally transpired, the Horn of Africa has been rocked by upheavals in Eritrea and by that region’s indigenous Tigre people. Tamara Mariam Dawit’s highly educational and entertaining chronicle provides invaluable background to help us understand what is happening in this region of the world usually neglected by U.S. corporate media. But as part of its mission, the Pan African Film Festival is bringing American movie lovers voices and visions from afar that we benighted Americans might otherwise never have an opportunity to experience. The recommended Finding Sally is “Exhibit A” of this type of production, essential viewing for anyone interested in the ancient homeland of the Biblical Queen of Sheba and its more recent if cataclysmic, history.

Finding Sally is on the schedule of 2021’s 29th annual Pan African Virtual Film + Arts Festival taking place Feb. 28-March 14.

For more info about Finding Sally see here, where you will also find the movie trailer.

For info about PAFF see here.


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.