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The Ethiopian Natalie Portman

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Two years ago, at the Toronto International Film Festival, I stood up and asked a daring question to actress Natalie Portman.

I was covering the event for a local Ethiopian-Canadian newspaper and knew she had recently visited the country. I asked her about Ethiopian film making and if she had any future plans to take some of her work there for a public showing.

While the whole room eyed me with confusion, Ms. Portman answered how much she liked being involved in charity work in Ethiopia and how much she was struck by the beauty and humility of the Ethiopians she had met on her brief visit. For her, Ethiopia meant charity.

My question not being answered, I sat down and heard more mainstream news outlets ask such friendly questions as the name of her hair stylists, if she had a boyfriend and many similar inquiries.

The experience left me determined to expose myself to Ethiopian film making on a visit to my home country. While there, I visited many cinemas and theatres and was pleasantly surprised to discover that most were always sold out with local Ethiopian-made movies.

The movies are of good quality with strong performances. Surprisingly, movie-making has become a mainstream business in Ethiopia and there are many talented actors and actresses being afforded opportunities to showcase top-notch talents. Young actress, Meseret Mebrate, made famous by the local soap Gemena and dozens of films, is one of the emerging stars.

I first met Ms. Mebrate at a screening in Addis for Hiroshima, a movie about leading Ethiopian business-people attempting to smuggle hazardous waste by exploiting many people and families along the way.

Though she is a supporting character, in every scene, she is the star. Tall, elegant and beautiful to watch, she makes every part come to life. The following day, I booked a date to speak with her in person.

The beautiful exclusive Bole neighborhood is where I met the stunning actress. She arrived in a brand-new made-in-Ethiopia car -- Lifan -- provided to her by the company, for whom she is a celebrity spokesperson.

Many fans approached her instantly as she neared her destination. "She is more beautiful in person," a young girl shouted, struggling to get an autograph from the star. "I cannot wait to put our picture on my Facebook," shouted another lucky fan as her friends snapped pictures with her.

Seated elegantly in front of me, she reflected on her journey so far. Her movie career began near her neighborhood of Gebe Gabriel, where she was a member of the St. Gabriel Church choir.

"I really liked the experience of being born from that surrounding and it gave me a rare fulfilled life that I still carry with me", she told me.

In time, she was discovered and was recruited to do a starring role in the TV series, Tears of a Candle. The series exposed the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS in Ethiopia. Her brilliant performance as a rape victim made her a household name in the minds and hearts of many people.

At the conclusion of the series, she moved on to star in many movies and TV shows. One notable performance was in the movie Gudefecha, where she was a love interest. During filming she gained the trust and mentorship of Director Tatek Tadesse, whom she describes as her greatest mentor.

She also credits directors such as Asheber Kabetamu of Gemena for paving the way for many actresses. For the Gemena series, she won the first Ethiopian TV and Radio Drama award worth 50,000 Birr (about US$3,000.)

A graduate of the photography program from the Master Photography and Videography Vocational Center in Addis Ababa, Mebrate wants to follow in the footsteps of Ethiopian directors Tatek and Asheber.
With a reputation for advising directors on movie sets, it seems she is destined to direct in the future. Her favorite actors are international superstar Julia Roberts and Ethiopian actor Fikadu Teklemariam.

Since she had a huge diamond on her finger, I asked the question that was on the minds of millions of her fans. She laughed and told me that she has a steady partner and the ring was indeed a promise ring.

For a minute, I reflected on the kinds of questions I often heard at the Toronto International Film Festival a year ago, and asked her who her stylist is. She spent about five minutes telling me the story of her stylist, the young and talented Mahlet Afework, a.k.a. Mafi. Instantly, I am introduced to Mafi's inspirational work and I become a fan. Then again, how can I not, when the compliments and words are coming from the most talented and convincing actor in Ethiopia?

Meseret Mebrate is indeed a true international superstar in the making.