Set in drought-stricken present-day Ethiopia, nine-year-old Ephraim (Rediat Amare) has already lost his mother to famine. His father leaves him with distant rural relatives while he searches for work in Addis Ababa. Ephraim’s only connection to his past life is a baby lamb his mother cherished, and now he’s determined to keep it alive against all odds. The lamb represents many things to everyone involved. To the boy, he is the only connection to his mother and a simpler, more loving lifestyle. The male elders want to slaughter the lamb to be the centerpiece of an upcoming feast. To the adopted mother, he is a short-term solution to a child’s illness due to chronic malnutrition. And for the greater impoverished community, he is a memory of better times.
The lamb and the boy are only a jumping-off point for an insightful story that examines many aspects of life in the village and modern Ethiopian culture in general. In addition to avoiding the daily threats to the life of his only real friend, Ephraim scraps to earn enough money to join his father in the big city. He has an ally in his teenage cousin Tsion (Kidist Siyum), who flouts convention with her intelligence, literacy, and refusal to be married off. She sees her restricted future in the village, and takes what might appear to be a questionable risk to seek a better life.
Both of their stories stir powerful emotions in the viewer, and the narrative is beautifully documented by the miraculous photography of Josée Deshaies, in which the stunning vistas of the mountainside and the meditative stretches of greenery contrast with the sharp tension of day-to-day struggles.This lovingly crafted tale is the first feature by writer/director Yared Zeleke, and could only have been made by a filmmaker with intimate knowledge of the delicate checks and balances of modern Ethiopian norms and society. Lamb is the first Ethiopian film ever selected for inclusion in the Cannes Film Festival (2015), went on to screen at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival (2015), and was Ethiopia’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards. (Eric Cotten)