The Hyenas Of Harar - Eastern Ethiopia

Before heading to Omo Valley in southern Ethiopia to commence hiking and filming Walking With The Mursi  I ventured to the ancient city of Harar near the Somali boarder.  Here's a short piece and video about a unique and exciting travel experience there...

Daylight is fading fast as I stumble lost through the streets of Harar, Ethiopia’s easternmost city.  The historic walled town is a maze of a few hundred tight streets, narrow alleyways and brick paths crammed into one square kilometre.  During the day the crowded streets are lined with spice merchants, tailors, farmers and nomads selling camels but now they are deserted.  

I pull up short at yet another dead end.  I fear I am going to miss the main attraction I’ve hitchhiked two days to witness. 

A strange howl cuts through the now dark skies. I turn and run in its direction. 

Harar has six large gates but I reach one of several shortcut holes that have been chipped out of the walls and crouch to pass through.  

I look up and see the silhouette of a man who arches his back, looks to the sky and lets out the same strange howl.  Moments later from the surrounding desert a pack of hyenas emerge and skulk towards myself and a handful of Ethiopian tourists.  It’s a spine-tingling moment.  I’m struck by their size, far from the usual depiction of scrawny scavengers, they are large and broad, roughly the size of a male German Shepherd. 

The animals pace and dart nervously.  The Hyena Man commands them to settle in a strange dialect, a skill passed down through generations of men in his family.  He reaches into a basket, pulls out a lump of camel meat and throws it to the marauding pack.  Initially they eat in an orderly fashion then descend into growling, shrieking and pouncing as if deciding fighting is a better show for the audience.  

The Hyena Man gestures with the basket, inviting us to feed the pack.  Horrified at the idea, the Ethiopians, perhaps wisely, refuse.  I risk it and grab a slimy strip of meat then quick as a flash it’s snatched from my hand.  Surprised by the speed with which the hyena moved it dawns on me I am now surrounded by them. 

My concern grows as I am beckoned to kneel on a mat.  

I oblige and a two inch stick is skewed into my mouth then meat is draped around it. This time it’s like slow motion as a huge mouth, sporting sharp teeth dripping with saliva, glides up to me.  I fear it will swallow my entire head but its huge tongue slurps the meat from the stick and scurries away.  

I’m beginning to relax when suddenly I’m knocked from behind onto all fours as a large male climbs onto my back.  The Hyena Man, ever the entertainer, is dangling a piece of meat tantalisingly above me.  The hyena’s claws dig into my shoulders and I buckle under its weight as it stretches its neck to snatch the meat then jumps off.  Several more climb over me then I am passed the meat basket to continue feeding.  

The Hyena Man rolls around playing with them, his affection and understanding of the wild beasts is fascinating to witness.  When the basket is empty we hand over cash for the spectacle then hyenas and humans alike disappear into the night.  

It’s believed feeding the hyenas began over a century ago to stop them entering Harar thereby protecting livestock and children from attacks. 

As I drift off to sleep I hear a now familiar howling in the street just outside my guest house.  I am tempted to venture out to feed or even pat the hyenas but I decide not to push my luck.

The Escape Hatch - Melbourne Queer Film Festival - MQFF

After 3 sold out screenings in London and other film festivals in Europe and the US, The Escape Hatch had it's first official screening in Melbourne.

On Saturday 2 April it played as part of MQFF's Girl On Girl programme (I was really surprised there weren't more straight men in the audience, seriously).  An enthusiastic audience of 300 people descended on the ACMI cinema to watch 6 short films.

Storytelling should be promiscuous and one of the things I love about making films is project by project you never know what subject matter you will be dealing with.  I've never had a film screen at a queer festival before and being exposed to a whole new audience was an honour and it was great to meet and mingle with those who support MQFF so passionately.

We were asked to introduce the film, now directors like to talk, a lot and as possible the only hetro male in the cinema, rather than me talk, Writer/Producer Gina Lambropolous did the talking and I was that person who stands behind a politician at a press conference and periodically nods. Her intro was funny and impassioned as she recalled a year ago she was sitting in the same cinema at MQFF as the retiring festival director reflected,

"Special mention here to lesbian films. In my 16 years in the job the themes have changed little–lesbians still die often, break up more and cry pretty much all the time.”

It was this sentiment that inspired her to make an entertaining, funny and sweet lesbian film.  A year later she is now onstage introducing her first short film, what an achievement.  

Watching a comedy with an audience is always a roller coaster ride. The reaction is so palatable and you hang on every moment, the audience either laugh at a joke, worryingly don't laugh, or the pleasant surprise, laugh in a place you didn't expect.  The film got plenty of laughs, mostly where we had hoped, particularly in the back half where Gina had written some gems and I'd found visual ways to make them work.  

It was also great to see a graded version of the film on a huge screen.  Cinematographer Darrell Martin did a great job capturing what I wanted visually and building on those ideas.  Production Designer Naomi Michaels, on her first film, picked a collection of beautiful and colourful costumes for all characters and dressed the location with flare.  The colours looked amazing, the warmth and tone of the images really popped out.

It was interesting to see The Escape Hatch meshed in with the other 5 short films that screened, the contrast was obvious. It's colourful visuals and upbeat tone were in stark contrast and really stood out from the pack. I enjoyed the other films mostly, some really talented film makers to look out for but ironically, perhaps predictably, they were all visually dark (which I normally do) with depressing content with down endings.  

It seems the retiring festival director was spot on the money and Gina's motivation seemed more important than ever. I'd like to thank MQFF for taking a punt on a different type of film.  Gina's vision and script are truly original and I am so happy she asked me to direct her baby.


PS stay tuned, we can't announce them all yet but The Escape Hatch has been accepted into another 10 festivals across Europe, America, South America. That's 16 in total for the first 3 months of marketing.  More info to come.