“I, myself, will never finish learning.”
By Mbye Cham
…I think that what I have done is that I have carried on this way of telling stories around the fire, with the soundtrack of the crackling fire and the crickets—this notion of how memory is transmitted from one generation to another in our culture.
If you really knew my childhood, you would think that the idea of me as a custodian of memory was a laughing matter. As a child I was restless, and I was always in trouble. I was a menace to the town of Gondar [in Ethiopia]. Today, when I visit, I cannot leave Ethiopia without going to two burial places—my mother’s and my father’s. They mean a lot to me. When I go there, before I go to my father’s graveyard, there’s a priest who waits for me as if we have an appointment. He has a big cross and he has to wipe me with the cross, always. I’m not a religious person, but I don’t look down upon this barefoot priest, landing with this cross and wiping the evil out of me. I don’t look down upon it as something superstitious—I go and I honestly want to feel it. You know, I am very glad I grew up in Gondar.
All of this inspires me to continue to come back and ask, why did I leave, why did I come to America? What did I learn and was it the right journey? What has that journey done to me? To me, it’s really a reflection of how strongly the culture we come from dominates the rest of our lives. We African filmmakers really underestimate the cultural input of our backgrounds. We always think we just graduated from a film school somewhere in Russia, Paris, or America, and we became filmmakers. But we don’t really know how much power our environment has had over us, and how it influences our personal lives.
Mbye: Your new film, Teza, has done phenomenally well in 2009. It seems like it is, by all counts, the film of the year, and some people would probably also argue that it could be the film of the decade, in terms of African cinema. How satisfied are you with the progress that you have made so far, in terms of distribution and exhibition?
Haile: Well, thank you. I would say that even before distribution, for me as a filmmaker, it is a turning point. When you struggle to make a personal film and then see the results—when a great deal of people in Africa, in Ethiopia especially, and even in Europe, begin to claim it as a film that expresses a slice of their own personal life—that can transform you. I am inspired to trust and believe in something that I have fought for: to remain independent, to not let producers or the market dominate me, to not accept all the theories of audiences’ likes and dislikes.
Teza’s distribution in Europe is going very, very well. In Ethiopia, it’s still being shown. It’s been running for a year in Addis Ababa alone. From what I hear, it’s a full house all the time, and the discussion is very interesting and educational. But when it came to the United States, distribution was the biggest challenge. Lack of cash flow and marketing hampered the opportunities Teza could have ventured into. In New York, we now have the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, which was created by Dan Talbot, who has for a long time been supporting African films (you know, his company [New Yorker Films] actually distributed Ousmane Sembene’s films). I was lucky to be able to score his theater for Teza. New York is so strategically important for reaching the remaining cities in America.
Mbye: You premiered the film in Ethiopia. How was that experience?
Haile: Well, I’ll tell you, it was very interesting. It was in a theater that holds over a thousand people. My coproducers from Europe were there, and the actors were there. During the premier, the electricity went out three times—once for forty minutes! I was about to throw a tantrum [laughs]. And then I realized: my people live like this, and in worse situations. I told myself not to get upset or angry; I would just accept the reality of the country.
A journalist said to me, “Nobody will wait for a film like this.” But the audience sat throughout. I was amazed—three times, and they stayed! I was very grateful. It showed me how absorbed people were by the story, to be interrupted right in the middle of the drama, and wait in a dark hall. It showed me that there was strength in the film.
Mbye: Were you able to gauge the overall reaction to the film in Ethiopia, especially by officials?
Haile: Well, you have to consider Ethiopians’ opinions of my film in the context of the political turmoil in Ethiopia. I think this is where filmmakers make a mistake: there is no independent viewing. I have learned, thanks to other filmmakers before me, that one’s own country is not where one is going to be fully appreciated. There has been some criticism among Ethiopians, who feel that I should not have made such a film about the Derg period. I insist it’s not about the Derg period. I always say it’s about a political structure. It’s really about African intellectuals, their journey, and the turbulence of this memory. Still, some people insisted that the film is about criticizing the Derg in order to endorse the current government. It’s a stupid logic but it’s a historical logic. I accept that. But the response of young Ethiopians is the one that surprises me. They are grateful for the historical perspective.
Now, the government looked at the film, and at me, as though I was against them. But my premise was that no filmmaker should be part of any government. Your political belief is one thing, and your philosophical belief is going to be part of your work, but as a filmmaker, you should not take part in political tribalism. If you do so, you prevent people from watching the film independently, and from appraising you independently.
I have always felt that this is something people don’t know about me. They always think that I am imposing my politics on my work. I never do. From the first film I made, I’ve always separated my films from my own politics, because politics are momentary. Still, people think I’m forcefully political. That’s why they call me a revolutionary filmmaker, which is a stupid thing to say. I am a storyteller. If you make a film, you’re making a film. There’s no revolutionary cinema. Cinema is about saying, “I want to tell you a story”—that’s not revolutionary. What is revolutionary is picking up a struggle wherever it’s been left off and going with it.
Mbye: And the title of political filmmaker?
Haile: No, no! At one point I did believe that the world of cinema was divided between political and apolitical filmmakers. Then I got caught in this formula that I created, which inhibited me from going forward. Labels like this prevent relationships with the public from forming, and that’s the worst thing you can do. Now, it’s something I’ve outgrown. I also hate this idea of elite art, the art cinema. I don’t want to be a filmmaker for filmgoers only.
What I do believe in is African theater. I believe that Africans have to make their own story. The world of cinema is missing the voice of the unheard people—not only for the content of what we would say, because I’m not sure we are going to say anything new about love, betrayal, or whatever else. It’s that Africans have a lot to contribute to the language of cinema itself. I think that if African filmmakers honestly come from where they have grown up, regardless of whether it is a town, a city, or a rural area, and if they can honestly tap into the temperament and accent of their culture, then they can contribute something to cinema that is lacking. I do believe that cinema needs the blood transfusion of black people for it to really be revitalized. I think some people even alluded to this in Europe, the way that Teza contributed to cinema in general.
Mbye: Can you tell us something about how Teza unfolded as a project?
Haile: The structure of Teza still amazes me. Most of it unfolded during the process of shooting, and also in the process of looking for the location, because the location informs your story. For example, I knew that during the war, Ethiopians were hiding their children in mountains and caves. But to go into the cave and actually find the names of people who had signed the walls before they disappeared was an amazing education for me. In fact, at one point, these grown-up children came up to us when we were shooting and told us their stories. They were giving us more of the backstory to my film. The very location teaches you, you know.
I think Teza humanized me, in the same way my children humanized me. Teza challenged me more than any other film, because I was fooling around with explosive things, and I didn’t know where they came from. For example, the scene where the woman throws the child—I was completely shocked the night I wrote it. I was like, am I this kind of person? I have kids now! If I didn’t have kids, maybe I would not pay attention to this sort of material that was coming out of me, but I was shocked at my writing and I wanted to know why it came to me.
When we opened Adwa in Ethiopia, I didn’t want to see the ministers so I stayed with my aunt, who is about one hundred years old. I stayed with her that evening until the film ended. We were talking and she brought up an old family story, which took me back to a time when I was eight or nine, when my mother and my aunt were concerned about a family member whose wife had been ostracized for a similar kind of act. How the information penetrated into my brain as a child and came out in my old age, through scriptwriting, was unbelievable.
Mbye: It’s amazing how a memory works.
Haile: Yeah, it is amazing. So I said, my goodness, when we write, it is not just writing. Apparently, something is trying to work itself out inside us.
Mbye: What would you say Teza brings to the table that is different from what you have done in your previous work?
Haile: For me, Teza is deeply rooted in my background. If you look at it from a Western point of view, it seems like a primitive language that I am bringing to cinema. For example, the way that I organize the film audiovisually is really where the crux is. You know, people have always said, “Haile has been creating his own English.” It’s as though the way I put the logic of what I want to say is kind of topsy-turvy. When I first came to America, I attributed this to my poor English skills. For example, when I would hear a lecturer speak, I always listened in English, translated in Amharic, and then wrote my notes in English. Initially, this was a means of survival, to get things done; over time it became a faster and more natural process. Still today, I hear you in English, I translate in my head, and I come to an English answer. But the transaction, in the center of my head, is an Amharic logic.
Now, how does this relate to film? It’s in the way I structure narrative. I had this problem in film school, fighting with teachers, arguing with students, and most of it in discombobulated English, much of it lost in translation. I felt as though there was a “primitive” Haile that every teacher wanted to mold into the “civilized” Haile. But in the “primitive” lay my culture and my artistic temperament, my accent, and the actual animal, which they really were not used to. I was defending that, the thing they called “primitive” in the way I wrote my scripts and organized them visually, the rhythm, the pace. It was primitive to them, but logical to me…
About the director
Haile Gerima is an award-winning and critically acclaimed independent filmmaker. Born in Ethiopia, he is perhaps best known as the writer, producer, and director of the 1993 film Sankofa. What inspires this filmmaker is a tireless devotion to the art of independent cinema and the vision of a uniquely innovative cinematic movement that stresses a symbiotic relationship between African Diasporan artists and the larger community. Over thirty-five years, Gerima has made eleven films, including four documentaries and seven dramas.
About the interviewer
Mbye Cham, PhD, is chairman of the Department of African Studies at Howard University Graduate School. He also is a professor of Modern African Literature in English and French (West Africa and South Africa); African and Third World Cinema; and Film and African Development. Dr. Cham has spoken at a number of lectures, seminars, juries, and conferences throughout the world, and he has written numerous essays and chapters in books on African and Caribbean literature and film.