‘Finding Sally’ and a Family’s Search for Answers

The personal is political in Tamara Dawit’s family narrative that intersects with Ethiopia’s history

9 mins read

Finding Sally
(Canada, 73 min.)
Dir. Tamara Dawit

Tamara Dawit offers a touching exploration of personal and collective history in Finding Sally. Subdued and thoughtful, the doc takes a restrained approach to procedural investigations. Finding Sally premieres this Thursday in the Hot Docs at Home series on CBC Gem and shares similar traditional aesthetics as the series’ first installments, Made You Look and 9/11 Kids, which will help transition the festival to the small screen. Driven by talking heads and archival still photos, Finding Sally similarly emphasises story and character while using a non-threatening accessible style. Unlike the other two docs in the series, though, this film is tangibly personal. Dawit is an active and constant presence in her investigation. She joins her four aunts and paternal grandmother on the search for a fifth aunt she only recently discovered in the family tree.

The quest in Finding Sally is Dawit’s search for Selamawit Dawit, aka Sally, the elusive fifth sister in her family, all born and raised in Ethiopia while moving around the world. In addition to Dawit’s sombre reflections in voiceover, the doc largely draws from Sally’s four sisters. Brutawit, the eldest, is a retired banker and TV personality. Menbie, a teacher and philanthropist, is the starting point for the investigation—but is very guarded. Tsion, a former teacher and the current caretaker of their mother, Tsehai, is direct and stubborn. Kibre, an artist who dated Leonard Cohen (!) when the family lived in Montreal, gives the story its emotional punch. (Dawit’s father, the only son among the family’s six kids, died several years ago.) Together, the family creates a clear portrait of Sally’s upbringing as a spirited youngster raised by their diplomat father and mother, who reared her with a strong sense of political convictions.

Dawit, her aunties, and some of Sally’s friends contextualize the larger backdrop for her disappearance. They portray Sally’s youth as a period in which an aristocratic socialite could undergo a political awakening. Dawit learns of Sally’s participation in the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party and of her marriage to Tselote Hizkias, who would eventually become a rebel leader of the faction. Offering insights into the complicated history of Ethiopia’s monarchy, class inequalities, rampant famine, and the military junta that ousted Emperor Haile Selassie after a 30-year reign, Finding Sally situates Sally’s radicalism within the larger social movement demanding change and ensuing Red Terror) period. Her participation is notable given the family’s status, as well as the close friendship of their father to Selassie. 40 years after the tumultuous events, the family members shudder at Selassie’s fall while acknowledging many of the circumstances that motivated Sally, and others like her, to bring change by force.

As the aunties evoke Sally’s rebellious spirit within the larger context of Ethiopia’s revolution, the doc assumes an ominous tone while their words portray the missing figure as the sort of individual who was targeted by the violent regime. It soon becomes clear that Finding Sally isn’t heading towards a Searching for Sugar Man style reunion. The investigation nevertheless yields its own catharsis.

As is often the case when filmmakers have such close proximity with their subjects, Finding Sally demonstrates both the strengths and drawbacks of tackling a story so close to home. The doc benefits from the intimacy that Dawit creates with her aunties. They’re willing to be vulnerable and the documentary process is obviously therapeutic. The ease with which they speak of their sister ensures that the doc weaves the personal and the political into a greater story.

At the same time, though, the respectful candour of the conversations sometimes feels unsatisfying. One riddle worth scratching is Dawit’s professed ignorance of her aunt. In her introductory comments in the doc, the director notes that she was in her thirties when she first heard of Sally. Her director’s statement also explains, “As a child, I grew up hearing elaborate stories about their childhoods from my vibrant Ethiopian aunts – tales about their grandmother helping the war effort against the Italians, meetings with fortune tellers, hitching in Europe, lavish cocktail parties, or sneaking out to go to the beach… Lost in all their stories was Sally, a family member that no one ever mentioned to me.”

However, When Dawit later asks Menbie why the family never talks about Sally, her aunt politely rejects the suggestion. Menbie says they discussed Sally all the time and attributes Dawit’s obliviousness to a matter of timing, suggesting that she simply wasn’t around when they remembered their missing sister. There are also photos of Sally on many walls in the homes Dawit visits, which support Menbie’s suggestion that nobody tried to hide her memory. For this reviewer, though, something doesn’t add up and Menbie’s reply merits at least a pressing follow-up question.

Either the mysteriously unspoken nature of Sally’s existence is exaggerated or under-explored, or Dawit’s ignorance of Sally within her seemingly close-knit family is heightened for dramatic effect. Perhaps this reviewer assumes too much, but it seems farfetched to accept the premise that a curious, inquisitive, and relatively politically engaged person would have no knowledge until her adult years of a family member who mysteriously disappeared following her actions as a radical during a military coup and cultural revolution—especially if the family made no efforts to hide her, as they claim. The doc therefore dances around the subject with an awkward tension. If one can forgive the logical gap at the heart of Finding Sally’s inquiry, it’s likely to prove rewarding.

On the other hand, Sally’s absence from the family speaks to the larger act of erasure that arises in times of personal and political awakening. The search for Sally affords the Dawits answers about their own family in addition to the larger acts of cultural and political erasure of which her disappearance is a part. Talking about it, and bringing history into the open, ensures that Sally’s actions were not in vain. Dawit’s detective work brings the family some much-needed closure as the film climaxes with some long overdue tears.

Finding Sally streams as part of the Hot Docs at Home series on CBC Gem beginning Thursday, April 30 at 8:00 pm.

Finding Sally screens at Hot Docs’ online festival beginning May 28.

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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