For Filmmaker, Ethiopia’s Struggle Is His Own
By LARRY ROHTER | The New York Times
WASHINGTON — Among the courses Haile Gerima teaches at Howard University is one called “Film and Social Change.” But for Mr. Gerima, an Ethiopian director and screenwriter who has lived here since the 1970s in what he calls self-exile, that subject is not just an academic concern: it is also what motivates him to make films with African and African-American themes.
“Teza,” which opens Friday at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in Manhattan and means “Morning Dew” in the director’s native Amharic, may be Mr. Gerima’s most autobiographical movie yet. It traces the anguished course of an idealistic young intellectual named Anberber from his origins in a small village through his years as a medical student in Europe; his return to Ethiopia, where he ends up a casualty of the Marxist military revolution that overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974; and his exile to West Germany, where he becomes a victim of racism.
“I am from a generation that genuinely wanted a better society and to do something for poor and oppressed people, but which got blinded and lost and turned against its own humanity to become the opposite of what we wanted to be,” Mr. Gerima, 64, said in an interview at Sankofa, a Pan-African bookstore, cultural center and cafe that is across from the Howard campus and also houses his film company’s production offices. “For me, this film is really about displacement, which is a theme that really resonates within me.”
Sometimes that sense of dislocation is literal in his movies, and sometimes it is metaphorical. In “Sankofa” (1993) a black American fashion model on a shoot in Africa is transported back to the 18th century and slavery on a West Indian plantation, while in “Ashes and Embers” (1982) Mr. Gerima explored the disillusionment of African-American veterans returning from the Vietnam War to urban poverty and hopelessness.
Mr. Gerima first arrived in the United States in 1967 to study theater at the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago; his Peace Corps teachers in Ethiopia, impressed by his talent, had arranged for his admission there. But he was not prepared for the politics of race in America, and initially felt estranged not just from the whites whose lawns and gardens he tended to support himself, but also from African-Americans.
“I had never been challenged the way African-Americans are in America, and encountering racism shocked me to the point that I had nosebleeds,” he said. “But I didn’t want to be black American, I didn’t want to identify with their situation — I felt they were slaves and I was not. I didn’t believe they came from Africa; I felt they were a different species sprouted from the plantation. The intellectual distance was too great.”
Unhappy with the acting roles he was offered — all the blacks “were just park benches and lamp posts” — Mr. Gerima transferred to the University of California, Los Angeles, where he quickly won an acting award and developed ties to the Pan-African black-power movement. He switched to film after the shock of being exposed to Latin American directors like Glauber Rocha, Fernando Solanas and Miguel Littín made him realize, he said, that his story was “equally as important and valid” as those he was accustomed to seeing in Hollywood productions.
The filmmaker Charles Burnett, a classmate who went on to direct “Killer of Sheep” and “To Sleep With Anger” and remains a friend, recalls: “Even then he knew what he wanted to do and was very outspoken and engaged, with strong opinions and a deep identification with people of color and their struggle. He has his own code, he’s very energetic and kinetic, and you can feel his films the same way.”
Mr. Gerima first drew attention in the mid-1970s with “Harvest: 3000 Years,” about an Ethiopian peasant family struggling to survive under feudalism; it was filmed as Haile Selassie’s imperial rule was collapsing. “In a way,” Mr. Burnett said, “you can see the roots of ‘Teza’ there, the focus on village life and the concern with Ethiopian history.”
But that film also led to the start of Mr. Gerima’s troubles with the Derg, the Communist military junta that replaced Haile Selassie. The new regime declared his film “the property of the Ethiopian people” and would only allow him to make another movie in his homeland if he agreed to accept what they called their “jurisdiction” over his work.
“When they said that, I couldn’t wait to take the plane out, because I knew my freedom was gone,” Mr. Gerima said. “I would have died. I don’t fit well in dogma of any kind, even the dogma I create myself, because the next day I get up betraying it.”
Mr. Gerima describes “Teza,” which includes an evocative jazz-based soundtrack by Vijay Iyer and Jorga Mesfin, as an impassioned but “imperfect” film. Because financing was difficult to obtain, it took him more than a decade to complete, and the scenes shot in rural Ethiopia, many of them with illiterate peasants in the cast, with a mainly Western crew, posed one logistical challenge after another.
“Even to bring equipment to the locations was difficult and unforgettable,” said Mr. Gerima’s sister Salome, who helps produce his films. “The electricity came from the village generator, which sometimes would be turned off as we were filming, and so we had to negotiate. More than money, patience was required.”
Aaron Arefe, a 29-year-old Ethiopian-American who plays Anberber, described the shoot as “a rite of passage and a life-changing experience.” Born in Los Angeles, Mr. Arefe moved to Addis Ababa as a child and returned to California for college. But nothing prepared him for scenes shot in an area of caves in northwest Ethiopia.
“The people in the surrounding community came to watch us and asked what we were doing,” Mr. Arefe recalled. “When we said, ‘Making a movie,’ they asked, ‘What is a movie?’ When we said, ‘Like the stories you see on television,’ they asked, ‘What is television?’ Only when we said, ‘The visual version of what you hear on a radio,’ were some of them able to understand.”
Over the last year or so, “Teza” has been plying the festival circuit in Europe and Africa, winning awards in places like Rotterdam, the Netherlands; Venice; Carthage, Tunisia; and Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.
Françoise Pfaff, a Howard University colleague and the author of the book “Twenty-Five Black African Filmmakers” (1988), noted that Mr. Gerima was the first Ethiopian director to win the top prize at the Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou, a considerable achievement, she explained, given that “Teza” was filmed in neither English nor French, the two dominant languages in African cinema.
“He’s very much respected both for his militancy, the honesty of his political involvement, and his talent and body of work,” she said of Mr. Gerima. “In ‘Teza,’ he really was able to capture light and shade, the full majesty of the African landscape, which gives the film a tremendous strength and beauty.”
“It’s no longer starving Ethiopia,” she added. “It’s a story of displacement and loss that resonates universally, and that also is a relief.”
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