“It’s a bit much, but it’s good to do it,” says Yeshi Kassa, reassuring herself during a break in filming “Grandpa Was an Emperor,” though of course the camera is still rolling. In a way, it’s always been rolling on Kassa’s family, relatives of deposed Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, who depending on who you talk to was either a forward-thinking leader who helped bring Ethiopia into the modern world or someone who presided over mass starvation with little regard for his citizenry and overthrown in 1974 by the military. Yeshi, his great-granddaughter on her mother’s side is uncomfortable making any such judgments when she wasn’t yet a teen when the coup occurred and was sent off to boarding school in England with her sister Jote well before, largely disconnected from what was unfolding, yet she’s had to contend with her family’s legacy nonetheless.
Given that distance, Yeshi is either the best or the worst person to recount this turning point in Ethiopian history, with director Constance Marks following her as she attempts to reconstruct the reasons behind Selassie’s fall and how her family suffered the consequences even when many were far removed, but “Grandpa Was an Emperor” is undeniably compelling as it explores a birthright backfiring, with Yeshi clearly brought up with privilege at first as the descendant of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba and spending her life now living down her name, having had no part in either the good or the bad. Now an office manager in New York, Yeshi may have created the space away from Ethiopia to not let any of the controversy interfere with her life, but still you can see how it gnaws at her. Although Yeshi doesn’t describe herself as being close to Selassie, her father Kessa, who wasn’t part of the royal bloodline but still benefitted from his proximity to become the president of the state university, was an integral figure in his government, becoming minister of agriculture just in time to seek out help from around the world as the country plunged into a devastating drought that led to nationwide famine.
Whether Selassie or his government did all they could on the issue is not something for the film to know, though the filmmaker Jonathan Dimblesby provocatively attests that one of his documentary made about the emperor was recut to suggest as much by the Derg, the military junta that eventually overthrew the monarchy and put Mengistu Haile Mariam into power. However, “Grandpa Was an Emperor” does feverishly account for brutally anyone even remotely related to Selassie was treated, with anyone in Ethiopia arrested and imprisoned and fracturing a family that deals with a feeling that’s something’s missing to this day. Of all people, Yeshi had to learn from Bob Marley more about where she came from when Selassie was a hero to Jamaicans and believed to be a prophet and when recalling how she was summoned backstage for an audience with Marley, it crystallizes the central question of “Grandpa Was an Emperor” when Yeshi’s brushes with greatness and with tragedy are all tied to an identity she had no role in creating for herself. Answers may be difficult to come by, but in the search, “Grandpa Was an Emperor” illuminates the ways in which people are defined by a past they didn’t necessarily participate in and the unexpected implications that can extend into the future.
“Grandpa Was an Emperor” will screen at DOC NYC at the Cinepolis Chelsea on November 16th at 1:45 pm and November 17th at 9:20 pm and available virtually through the DOC NYC online platform through November 28th.