Sosena Solomon and the art of turning spaces into characters

Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

The Temple grad will screen four shorts at Scribe Video Center this Friday.

A still from "Merkato"

Sosena Solomon splits her time between Philly and Brooklyn, but to shoot her latest documentary she traveled halfway around the globe to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It was something of a homecoming for the 30-year-old filmmaker.

Though born in Nairobi, Kenya and having immigrated to the U.S. at age 8, Solomon returns to East Africa often to see her father, who now resides in Ethiopia. During her visits, one feature of the capital city that always captured her imagination was the gargantuan open-air marketplace in the northwestern district of Addis Ketema. Known simply as Merkato (from the Italian mercato, for "market"), it's the largest market of its kind in Africa and one of the oldest outdoor markets in the world.

It's also the subject of Solomon's most ambitious project to date. Named for its subject, Merkato will top the bill at a screening of four of Solomon's short films at Scribe Video Center this Friday, June 19.

"I love markets," Solomon says. "Whatever city I go to, I think it's an amazing way to understand the culture." In Addis Ababa, she adds, "everybody knows Merkato. It's a place you can really get lost in."

While showcasing those who make their living at the market, her film also deals with a changing urban landscape in Ethiopia. As the country develops further, Western-style shopping malls have started to appear. For the largely informal merchants at Merkato, modernization looms as a potential threat to their livelihoods.

"As more [modern] buildings were appearing, the market was starting to disappear," Solomon says. "Part of my mission as a documentary filmmaker and artist is to capture spaces that are in transition before something changes. It's really fascinating to capture it in that moment."

Ming, Solomon's six-minute student film from 2009, also deals with people doing business in a public, urban space. Accompanying Merkato at Friday's screening, Ming profiles a Chinese paper cutting artist based in New York's Union Square.

"The space is a character itself," Solomon says. "Merkato and Union Square are film characters that evolve over time. I go in and discover the people that live and work in these spaces."

Solomon raised the money to shoot Merkato via crowdfunding, although she didn't ask for much: With goal of $12,000, she made $14,700. But the Kickstarter she launched two years ago was about raising awareness as much as it was raising dollars.

"All the work that I've done has been experimental via grad school," Solomon says. "Merkato was the first film I was doing that's more public." By turning to Kickstarter, she "created a community around the film."

Friday won't be the first time that Solomon, a Temple University grad, has screened her work in Philly. Merkato appeared at the BlackStar Film Festival in 2013 and, a year later, at the Ethiopian Community Association in West Philly. (Though born in Kenya, Solomon's parents are Ethiopian.)

Rounding out this Friday's screening are Mizan, a short doc about a singer-songwriter trying to break into the music industry, and something a little different: Lost in a Dream, Solomon's most personal and autobiographical film, an impressionistic tribute to her twin sister who died three months after childbirth.

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