Profile of Local Filmmaker Haile Gerima

By Ruth McCann
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 21, 2009

When Haile Gerima was a young boy in Ethiopia, he sat with his family -- his father the playwright, his mother the teacher, his grandmother the storyteller -- and announced that when he grew up, he wanted to be a human being without bones so he could put himself in his own pocket. His grandmother, shocked, prayed for him for days.

As an esteemed teacher and filmmaker in the District's Ethiopian community, Gerima, now 63, seems to have metaphorically achieved that childhood desire. As an artist, he transports himself in his own pocket: He has spent his entire career resolutely avoiding the deep pockets that dominate commercial Hollywood moviemaking. He lives near Howard University, where he teaches graduate film courses, and edits his own films at Sankofa, the bookstore-cafe on Georgia Avenue that he and his wife helped establish 10 years ago.

Gerima's fiercely independent approach meant that it took him about 15 years to finish "Teza," which had its American premiere Thursday at the Avalon Theatre. The movie, Gerima's 11th, received the award for best screenplay and the Special Jury Prize at last year's Venice Film Festival and the highest honor in March at the FESPACO awards (popularly known as Africa's Oscars).

Gerima had to secure funding for "Teza," scout locations, get more funding, rewrite the screenplay so it could be partially set in Germany (the film has German backers), recruit non-actors to play principal roles (as he is wont to do), and edit the whole thing in his offices at the cafe, where all the sandwiches are named after African and African American film directors (Spike Lee is roast beef and watercress on a panini).

After "Teza" finishes its run in D.C., Gerima plans on bringing it to theaters in Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, Germany and France. Working this independently means escorting the film from postproduction to festivals (where jury awards often come with cash prizes that bolster the budget for his next film), and then from theater to theater.

Gerima views "Teza's" path to production, rocky as it was, as a triumph, especially when contrasted with the door-to-door distribution work he did for "Sankofa," his acclaimed 1993 film on slavery.

"It was very rough for ['Sankofa'] to stay in theaters. We were being evicted all the time," he recalls, citing the limited time frame that many smaller movie houses give to independent films. But now distributors are buying "Teza" as a "normal film," Gerima says.

"I've always said, 'Why won't our films just open? Just open in a theater and show?' And that's what we're doing now."

His gray hair and beard cropped close, Gerima commanded a table at the cafe on a recent afternoon to talk about his work just before taking off with his wife, Shirikiana Aina (one of his former students), and six children for Italy, where he was to head a jury at the Venice Film Festival. A magnet for the Ethiopian diaspora, the cafe is just a few blocks from the Shaw neighborhood, home to the majority of D.C.'s large Ethiopian population (which now numbers tens of thousands). Ethiopian expats began settling in the United States after Marxist leaders deposed Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, and one imagines that Sankofa's regulars may have lived through some of the turmoil and history depicted in the new film.

Gerima says that his filmmaking colleagues call Sankofa "liberated territory." When dancers, musicians, writers and filmmakers appear at the cafe, the crowd often numbers in the hundreds. Gerima screens films (with popcorn) in the parking lot, schedules open-mike nights every Friday, and collaborates with his wife to choose the books they'll stock -- mainly volumes on African and African American history, literature, culture and film.

"Teza," Gerima explains, means both "childhood" and "morning dew" in Amharic. The film spins the multi-decade fictional history of Anberber, a young Ethiopian medical researcher who travels to Germany for training and returns home, first to an Ethiopia struggling under a Marxist regime in the 1980s, and later to an Ethiopia in which young men in Anberber's home town are being violently press-ganged in the early 1990s.

"What I do is I really look at that generation, the idealism that we felt," Gerima says. "It was very easy: We're going to go abroad, we're going to reclaim and come back."

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