YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon –  Ethiopia – From Every Clan is a documentary about Abba (Father) Goesh, a Catholic priest braving the odds of a hostile climate and hostile people to bring the Gospel to the Dassanech people on Ethiopia’s Omo River.

The movie got the top spot at the 23rd Religion Today Film Festival in Trento (Italy), which took place September 23-30, 2020. The film was produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in collaboration with the charity, Aid to the Church in Need.

Crux spoke to Magdalena Wolnik, who directed the film.

Crux: How did you react to your film being nominated in the best documentary category for the 23rd Religion Today Film Festival in Trento, Italy?

Wolnik: I was obviously very happy that our film – because a documentary is always a fruit of the work of a whole team of people: including the cinematographer, sound designers, editor and, of course, the director – was noticed and nominated for an award at this prestigious festival. I’m not exactly the “festival type,” but I was glad that the film’s producers, Mark von Riedemann and Jonas Soto from Catholic Radio and Television Network decided to show this film to a wider audience, including the festival one.

How were you able to find the story for the film?

The first visit to Omorate led to the most terrible hours spent in Ethiopia. We went there with Bishop Tsegaye Keneni Derara from Soddo and Father Andrzej Halemba, who was then responsible for Aid to the Church in Need projects, supporting Church activities throughout the country. Getting to the Omo River valley, along the Kenya and South Sudan border, is not easy. A truly decent road was only recently built, but two years ago. We arrived at our destination in the evening, after many hours, and were put up in a small guesthouse, built by zealous young priests who had forgotten about ventilation, window netting or mosquito nets. Of course, we did not expect electricity. Outside, apart from the mosquitoes, one would trample scorpions on one’s way to bed; meet a few poisonous snakes, as well as hyenas keenly taking advantage of the lack of any fence. Forty degrees centigrade – even at night – no air, means no sleep. Hell on earth. Abba Goesh seemed to be profoundly convinced that God had sent him to this place and to the people inhabiting this land. It seemed impossible to live here without such a belief. After those first hours and conversations with him, I knew for certain that we would be back with a camera.

How easy was it to film a story in an environment of hostile people and a hostile natural environment like Ethiopia’s Omo River?

Once we began filming, things only got worse. If it wasn’t the heat, it would be a powerful downpour and sticky mud, with a multitude of scorpions emerging. If not a plague of insects – preventing you from opening your mouth – then a sandstorm, that instantly blanketed the entire landscape in brown dust. Our brand-new sound recorder failed on the second day.

The villagers were initially not very friendly. There, strangers are not allowed to enter your enclosure, much less your hut. We gained their trust in the end, but more on the back of that earned by Father Goesh. He was our pass into this fascinating world of the Dassanech tribe. We felt privileged and grateful to be allowed insight with our camera, behind these people’s veil of inaccessibility, of an individuality and uniqueness they had a right to protect. More and more tourists have in recent years been coming to the Omo Valley, rich in “exotic tribes.” This meeting of two worlds is sometimes violent and destructive. So, we tried to be wholly respectful, humble and gentle.

What really is the story about?

This film, on the one hand, aims to show a unique ethnic group, that while still living a very traditional lifestyle, and fighting bloody battles with local tribes, finds itself, very suddenly, on a collision course with change, including climate change with the inevitable drought and hunger that follows and needs a guide, capable of helping this group to confront and deal with this reality. Not only in material terms, including education, agriculture and the knowledge needed to survive in a changing world, but also in spiritual terms. How to stop waging destructive wars? Whom to entrust one’s life to? One of the village chiefs spontaneously introduced Father Goesh, explaining who he is for them: “He told us how we can live with other neighbouring people. He taught us what peace means.”

Whilst another added, “Father Goesh is our brother. He is a man of God. He taught us how to worship God.”

The Dassanech people on whom the story is based tend to be very warlike, something clearly that is not God’s will for man. At the end of the filming, do you have the impression that these people hunger for Christ?

The Dassanech people are a beautiful, unspoiled in a sense and fascinating tribe. However, this is not an anthropological film. It is also Father Goesh Abraha’s story: An Ethiopian, from the mountainous north, who decides to live among these people. To live with them, share their concerns and convey to them a deeply held belief, that God is more than my and your culture and tradition, indeed than any great culture. That He can give freedom and peace to each one of us. That He is from every culture, from every clan.

Father Goesh builds a chapel in the wilderness, believing that with time, the feuding clans and tribes will end up praying together. That it will become their church, with which they will identify themselves – a sign of peace, reconciliation, and hope. He is also a happy man who says, that you can learn to love a culture that is not yours, embrace and accept the unknown: smells, tastes, even the challenges of living in this seemingly unliveable place. And it changes you and step by step changes the people around you.

What perception do you have of Father Goesh?

Omorate is the Acts of the Apostles lived today. Paul dreamed of a Macedonian man who asked: Cross over to us and help us. That is how the evangelization of Europe began. Father Goesh travelled through these lands, from Kenya to Adigrad, and met the Dassanech tribe, still battling with local tribes, with whom no one had dared enter into a dialogue.

He felt that he should try to live in this difficult land. Both were convinced that God was sending them to unknown lands and peoples, with whom they had to find a common language, in order to bring them the good news that also brings peace. Such places and such people beg us to ask ourselves: do we also have this ardour, anxiety, for those beyond the reach of the Gospel? And do we, who live in peace and comfort, care for people who continue to experience such great marginalization and poverty? Omorate provokes both delight and reflection. I hope that our film also.