"I'm a Third World, independent filmmaker," declared Haile Gerima in a 1983 interview. He now resides in the United States "for many historical reasons." Gerima—professor of film, philosopher, writer, producer, and director of a singular stature—has earned a unique place in film history as one of a handful of African filmmakers to earn international notoriety. Gerima arrived in the United States as a youngster of twenty-one with an interest in theatre and enrolled in acting classes at the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago, Illinois. "When I was growing up," he reveals in the Los Angeles Times, "I wanted to work in theatre—it never occurred to me I could be a filmmaker because I was raised on Hollywood movies that pacified me to be subservient. Filmmaking isn't encouraged or supported by the Ethiopian government." He felt limited by theatre and was resigned, notes Francoise Pfaff, to "subservient roles in Western plays." By 1970 he had discovered "the power of cinema." He migrated to California to attend the University of California, where he earned Bachelor's and Master of Fine Arts degrees in film.
Influenced in part by the pioneering work of film luminaries Vittorio de Sica, Fernando Solanas, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, and Med Hondo, Gerima makes films that tell of the human condition. He exploits the medium as a political weapon and as a catalyst for understanding and social change at the same time, consciously eschewing what he describes as the "narrative dictatorship" of Hollywood pictures.
Gerima's 1976 "Bush Mama" provides a striking example of this mission. The film presents a poignant contrast, produced as it was during the period of film history known as the "Blaxploitation" era. Gerima's depiction of the travails of black life and culture are farremoved from that of the drug deals and revenge killings of Superfly (1972) and Foxy Brown (1976). Bush Mama is the story of Dorothy and her husband T.C., a discharged Vietnam veteran who thought he would return home to a "hero's welcome." Instead he is falsely arrested and imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit. Theirs is a world of welfare, perennial unemployment, and despair. To some, the film may appear bleak and nihilistic with its stark black-and-white photography, but its message is moving and distinct. Issues of institutionalized racism, police brutality, and poverty remain sadly pertinent and the film, nearly twenty-five years old, retains its potency.
For the production of Mirt Sost Shi Amit (Harvest: 3,000 Years) Gerima returned to his native Ethiopia to produce the tale of a poor peasant family who eke out an existence within a brutal, exploitative, and feudal system of labor. In 1985 he again focused his camera upon the travails of black urban life in the two-hour film, Ashes and Embers, the story of a moody and disillusioned black veteran of the Vietnam War. The film's characters, notes Shepard in the New York Times, "are human rather than cardboard types." Wilmington 10—USA 10,000 exposed the impact of racism and the short-comings of the criminal justice system by examining the infamous history of the nine black men and one white woman who became known as the "Wilmington 10."
Though now well established and respected as a filmmaker, Gerima's path has not always been paved with gold. His name is not likely to be bandied about in the boardrooms of Hollywood studios, a reality he finds bittersweet. "I was never enamored of the film industry," he reveals in the San Francisco Chronicle. "Every Hollywood story is Eurocentric and if it isn't, then it will simply be disregarded. So I never wanted to be part of an industry that fails to represent the world as it really exists."
"Money is an incessant worry for independent filmmakers and Haile Gerima is no exception," notes Pfaff. Indeed, Gerima has endured his share of the indignities of being an independent filmmaker of color, including elusive funding, closed doors, and distributors refusing to show his film. "[S]ome indie black filmmakers," notes Porter in The Village Voice, "are reluctantly becoming do-it-yourself distributors." Gerima began his self-distribution by booking his films at "art" theatres—only to find they were not reaching the black community for which they were created. Now he distributes his films and that of other low-budget, independent filmmakers through Mypheduh Films, a distribution company that he and his filmmaker wife Sirikiana Aina established in 1984. He speaks with rancor of the "incestuous relationship" between Hollywood, theatre owners, and video stores. "We've been evicted from several theatres when Hollywood wanted use of the theatre," he complained in the Los Angeles Times. "Why? Because if theatres don't take whatever junk comes from the industry pipe, they won't get movies they want in the future. . . Hollywood is incapable of allowing African Americans to make the films they want to make, what they want from us is hooligan movies."
"Spirit of the dead, rise up and claim your story!" is the haunting opening of what is probably Gerima's most successful production, the 1993 film, Sankofa. It presents with brutal realism the horrors of African slavery. The story is revealed through the eyes of Mona, a modern-day woman who is "possessed by spirits" and transported back in time as the Shola, a house slave on the Lafayette plantation in Louisiana. The savagery and violence of the evil institution are clearly disturbing and go far beyond the safe and conventional images of slavery presented by Hollywood. In Sankofa, we hear the chilling sound of human flesh as it is seared with a hot branding iron and see the barren faces of the human cargo; women are stripped of all dignity and subject to the continual sexual exploitation of their owners; human necks are enclosed in iron shackles and rape is used as a tool of terror and domination. Some panned Gerima for his stylistic flourishes but the response by the black community was positive and enthusiastic. The film was well received and played to full houses for many weeks in major cities.
Adwa: An African Victory is a compelling documentary drama of the largely forgotten history of the 1896 battle of resistance in which the Ethiopian people arose and united to defeat the Italian army. The film is skillfully interlaced with paintings, sound, music, rare historical photographs, and interviews of "elders" who recall the details of the story of Adwa. It concludes with a dramatic recreation of the final battle.
In spite of numerous limitations and against all odds, writerproducer-director Haile Gerima has succeeded in a tough industry for nearly thirty years and has emerged as one of the more potent "outsider" voices in the history of filmmaking.
Teza: Teza is a new Film by Haile Gerima and it has won OSELLA for Best Screenplay and Special Jury Prize at the 65th Venice Film Festival, which concluded September 6th at an awards ceremony hosted by Ksenia Rappoport.
The film is about the return of the African intellectual Anberber to his native country during the repressive Marxist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam and the recognition of his own displacement and powerlessness at the dissolution of his people's humanity and social values. After several years spent studying medicine in Germany, Anberber returns to Ethiopia only to find the country of his youth replaced by turmoil. His dream of using his craft to improve the health of Ethiopians is squashed by a military junta that uses scientists for their own political ends. Seeking the comfort of his countryside home, Anberber finds no refuge from violence. The solace that the memories of his youth provide is quickly replaced by the competing forces of military and rebelling factions. Anberber needs to decide whether he wants to bear the strain or piece together a life from the fragments that lay around him.