This week filmmaker Melissa Donovan ’81 returned to campus to show her documentary Zemene to a packed Hubbard Performance Hall. All of the freshman were there as part of their Common Good seminar, as were a large number of other students, faculty, and friends.
The film tells the story of a young Ethiopian girl, Zemene. She had contracted tuberculosis as an infant, which in turn left her with severe curvature of the spine that would have eventually killed her. In one of those wonderfully serendipitous moments, Zemene meets an American doctor living in Ethiopia who happens to be a spine doctor. Melissa Donovan just happened to also be there with her camera. The delightful result of all this happenstance is this wonderful film. The doctor, Rick Hodes, takes Zemene in and eventually takes her to Ghana for the operation she needs to save her life. Dr. Hodes has lived in Ethiopia for over 20 years and is the medical director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Ethiopia, an NGO that provides humanitarian relief to thousands of people around the world.
Zemene is a heartwarming story of how extraordinarily people all over the world selflessly transform the lives of others, which, of course, is why we wanted our students to see it. Dr. Hodes is a special person and surely demonstrates how one person can make a positive difference in the world. Kudos, too, to Loomis graduate Melissa Donovan who spent five years making this film and made multiple trips to Ethiopia to follow Zemene and Dr. Hodes. We were very proud to have her show her movie at the school, and students especially enjoyed her visits to classes the next day.
I was surprised by the lush, green, beautiful farmland and hills because for me Ethiopia still conjured up images of famine. The country is beautiful. The film moves from Zemene’s tiny rural village of Belessa to the capital Addis Ababa, including trips to Ghana and the United States. My colleague Woody Hess noted that Ethiopia itself becomes a character in the story.
Still another theme that runs through the film is the importance of spirituality. Dr. Hodes is Jewish; most of the children he treats are either Orthodox Christians or Muslims. Regardless of their religion, he embraces them all. He is not shy about practicing his religion, including praying in a baggage claim area of an airport. One of the most humorous parts of the film comes when Dr. Hodes blesses the children who have, in the Jewish tradition, covered their heads—but because this is Dr. Hodes, their hats are wild and crazy. Despite the seriousness of the medical issues the children face and the poverty from which most of them come, the film is a joyous celebration of life and the importance of giving back.