[INTREVIEW] Eritrean actor Natnael Selemon ‘Tenno’

Natnael Selemon, one of the youngest and popular actors of Eritrea, says that there is no “innovation” in acting; the noble act of acting is impersonation.

According to him, acting is a never-ending journey of observing and learning. Natnael Selemon has been acting since a young age enjoying a variety of its forms. He has acted in plays, films and a bit of comedy. His latest act of comedy, which he played alongside the well-known Eritrean comedian, Minus, was so well received that his character’s name, ‘Tenno’, became his nickname replacing his real name. Young, vibrant and passionate, Natnael is a member of the Eritrean Defence Force’s cultural troupe and also works behind the camera as an assistant director. What is it actually like to be an actor in Eritrea? Natnael Selemon gives answers.

Thank you for your time. You’re known as Tenno, the comic character you played some four years ago but in reality you have played other memorable roles, both on the stage and in films.

I have. I enjoy acting and the pleasure and thrill it gives me is beyond explanation, which is why I constantly and relentlessly take up on new roles. I started acting when I was young which gave me time to grow professionally. Tenno is a comic character that I played some four years ago in a series called ‘Wedi Shuk’. The title, Wedi Shuk, literally means street smart. Our comedy puts in light this trait giving it an ironic touch. ‘Wedi Shuk’ was loved very much by the public, both here and the Diaspora. Likewise, the role I played in the series, Tenno, received a lot of attention. That is how that name took over my real name. I have worked on several feature films afterwards. There is a film series in which I play a role is being aired on ERITV. Nevertheless, Tenno dominates almost every other character that I have played so far.

Do you think you’re better off acting in comedy than in other feature films or plays?

I’d rather not confine my potential to one genre. I started off as an actor and comedy was something that I happened to do on the way. I like the fact that I can widen my experience, without having to limit myself to one form. At the end of the day, comedy or not, it is all acting. Of course, people loved my act as Tenno and with that I simply want to believe that I played the character successfully.

What roles did you enjoy playing outside comedy?

The role I played in the film series ‘Giorgio’, currently being aired on ERITV, is one of my favorites. My character in the film ‘Metaabiyti’ is also one that I played with great pleasure. ‘Metkel’ is a crime story. It is about the cross border crimes of smuggling people. My role there as a Sudanese smuggler is one of the most memorable acts I have performed. And the list can go on but let’s just say that I have so much respect for every character I play. There is one common belief amongst actors; actors create characters. I disagree. As an actor, I simply imitate people that already exist. I don’t create characters. I just strive to imitate them through my own interpretation of their existence, which is why I say that I respect my characters. Not only do I enjoy playing my roles and successfully deliver them to the public but it actually gives me pleasure to transform myself into the characters while acting. To answer your question, I enjoy my profession as an actor.

Let’s go back to the beginning. How did you start acting?

I am glad you asked me that because the foyer to my acting profession is especially different and a story that I want to share.

Please do.

I was born in 1988 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. All of my family was over there. I went to school there and spent my earliest childhood there. I had turned eight years old when the war broke out and the Ethiopian government started tormenting Eritreans who lived in Ethiopia. Families were separated, and so was mine. Soldiers came to our house one day and found my mother and me. They took me away from my mother and put me in a car. All I remember afterwards was being put in a big warehouse alongside other Eritreans and we were brutally kicked out of there and were made to walk back to Eritrea, a country I had little knowledge about. Once we reached Eritrea I remember being warmly welcomed by people that looked like me but spoke in a language I didn’t understand well. They were nice to me, and so even if I was confused and perplexed I felt safe. Bit by bit I realized I was being left alone. People came to pick their family members up and take them home. I had no one. So my stay in the Dembesko boarding school, our temporary shelter, was long. I was stressed. When the rest of my family was deported, they heard about me and I finally was able to join them. I was put to school and my Tigrigna teacher suggested I take part in the extracurricular activities in order for me to socialize and learn to speak Tigrigna. I joined the acting group and I loved it there because it was the only way for the young me to understand what was going on.

What do you mean by “the only way for the young me to understand what was going on”?

At school we learned ordinary things but in the acting group we were doing art with our rather infant imagination. And art normally reflects time. Our time was the time of war. Therefore, most of the small performance we did reflected our ideas, fears and, generally, what was going on in our surrounding. At that point, my very first steps in to acting were an attempt not only to make friends but to understand the situation.

That is interesting. And what happened afterwards?

From then onwards acting became my number one tool of research, understanding and expression. As I kept getting involved with more groups I grew as an actor. From school groups I advanced to the National Youth Union’s clubs, and once I became popular other artists wanted to work with me. The network grew and so did my passion. And here I am.

What is it like to be an actor in Eritrea?

Difficult. The whole film industry is difficult. We, as a people, have a longstanding culture of cinema. Eritrea has marvelous theaters and people know the beauty of theater and cinema. But for a couple of decades cinema has been interrupted for reasons that are pretty much obvious. Our seniors have passed down the legacy to us but the overall situation was not favorable for the growth of cinema and other aspects of art. When we finally started, after a long break, we realized the world had already introduced technologies that accelerated the pace of cinema everywhere else. So now we’re required to work harder, learn faster and put bigger investments if we are ever to catch up with the rest of the world. That being said, the passion of actors, filmmakers and writers here is great. Since we come and grew up in a society that appreciates the beauty of cinema, our passion and devotion towards it is immense. Which is why we keep on going making films despite shortages we encounter; it is easy to give up but we don’t. We are convinced that one day our stories will turn the tables.

On what notes would you like to conclude the interview?

I want to express my gratitude to the Eritrean community worldwide. Thank you for supporting our work; it really does encourage us to work twice as harder and do better. Also, much love to my wife and my baby son.