Ethiopia is a country of studied contrasts. The old and the new. The urban and rural. The modern ways and the ancient perspectives. Asalif, or Abi as his mother calls him, is a ten-year-old boy who lives on the brittle edge of these culture conflicts.

A view of modern Ethiopia, highlighting the inequality in terms of housing

His home is a tool shed perched between an unfinished condominium complex — the biggest in East Africa — and what has been farmland for more than 1,000 years. Asalif and his mother were first displaced by this new condominium a year ago, and live in constant uncertainty of being displaced again.

As they watch the building take shape, they are reminded in small and big ways that their country’s big dream of “progress” may not be for them.

Here is the trailer – lower on this page you can watch the full film

But Asalif wants a slice of modernity, too. This requires courage, so Asalif channels the persona he and the ancients of his culture and country most revere: the lion. In Ethiopia, the lion (or “anbessa” in Amharic) is considered more wily than a hyena, wiser than an elephant, stronger than a gorilla, the premier symbol of dauntlessness in the wild.

As the lion, Asalif believes he can take on the changing world around him, and he weaves stories about his spiritual understanding of animals and good versus evil into his everyday life.
In observational documentary style, ANBESSA follows Asalif through two pivotal years as he struggles to carve out a space to call home.

Asalif’s father, held in low esteem by locals, is gone, and Asalif feels he must protect his mother, navigate her anxieties, and change her life for the better.

Asalif's father doing some work

When not at school, he digs through the condominium refuse to find and create small things for her, from building a flashlight to scavenging airline magazines that show faraway lands. The condominium’s trash becomes Asalif’s treasure, but even this pleasure is threatened when new garbage compactors begin to haul it away.

Asalif is independent but seeks to belong and be accepted. He attempts to forge relationships with the rough country boys from the farmland outside the condo to his east, then with the privileged condo kids to his west. But the failure to fit into either space forces him to realize how these worlds seem to have no place for his determined and fantastical personality.

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Despite the unfortunate conditions though, the innocence and the love between the young lion and his mother are the bright highlights of the film, along with the traditional stories of wisdom that we get to listen firsthand.

Directed by Mo Scarpelli

The poster of the documentary film, highlighting a portrait of the young lion.


  • Jury Special Mention for Best Documentary at  Durban International Film Festival
  • El Mirador Award for Best Documentary Feature at MiradasDoc 
  • Best Cinematography at Sole Luna Doc Fest
  • MountainFilm Telluride
    * Best Director Award
    * Honorable Mention for Best Documentary Feature
  • Nominated for Glashütte Documentary Award Berlin IFF
  • ECFA Award for Best Documentary at Olympia Intl Film Festival for Children & Youth
  • Jury Honorary Mention for Best Documentary Feature at RiverRun Intl Film Festival 
  • SIMA – Social Impact Awards 2020 for the Best Cinematography

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