You Can Take the Auteur Out of Ethiopia, But . . .

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."

Though it's not specifically his story, Gerima says "Teza" was a response to his feelings about leaving Ethiopia for university studies in drama and film in America (his family had thought he'd become a doctor or an agriculturalist) and making visits home.

Describing a heart-wrenching situation he encountered on a trip to Ethiopia, Gerima recalls: "So I'm in a dilemma saying, I studied film, and this woman just is asking me to bring her a son that the military junta took to war. She just wants me to deliver him. If I have gone abroad, I must be powerful coming back."

He says, "There are some things I can escape, but this is the reality. Should I just leave, and live and die with it? Or should I now express it?"

The fourth of 10 children, Gerima grew up in the city of Gondar, acting in his father's plays and writing his own scripts at elementary school, where he was taught by members of the Peace Corps. At 21 he enrolled at Chicago's Goodman School of Drama (now the Theatre School at DePaul University). "I came from Ethiopia, and the first thing I see is the Chicago riot," Gerima says, referring to the citywide violence in which young protesters faced off against the police during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

"My Peace Corps teachers were fighting in the streets with the police. So whatever notion I had about Hollywood and cinema, it just disintegrated because I saw more complicated things to face," he says.

Gerima transferred to UCLA in 1970 and began studying film production in the socially charged cauldron that was then the university's film school. He worked alongside such students as Julie Dash, Larry Clark and Charles Burnett, all of whom have built careers as independent filmmakers. The atmosphere at UCLA emphasized student-teacher collaboration and fierce debate.

"We were certainly trying to find out what represented black narrative, how to tell our stories. We talked about that and debated that almost every day," recalls Burnett, whose 1977 film, "Killers of Sheep," remains an underground classic.

"We came up during the civil rights movement, so that's what we were about. That was part of our consciousness -- film and social change," Burnett adds. He is currently working on a documentary about Barack Obama's mother, Stanley Ann Dunham.

All of Gerima's films explore African or African American narratives, and many, he says, were inspired by dreams or visions. Gerima made a film about incarcerated civil rights activist Angela Davis after she appeared in one of his dreams, handcuffed, asking, "What are you going to do about it, Mr. Black Man?" And after he hallucinated in a Jamaican field at 4 a.m. and saw eyes watching him from the leaves of the sugar cane, Gerima added scenes to "Sankofa" in which field slaves stare silently from between leaves.

Peggy Parsons, the film program curator at the National Gallery of Art, likens Gerima's approach, with its focus on "ideas and philosophy" and its frequent resemblance to documentary filmmaking, to that of Eastern bloc filmmakers and French director Jean Rouch. Parsons describes Gerima's films as "difficult," though ultimately engrossing.

"The idea is essential -- and trying to figure out a way to express his idea in the best way possible. And that means that his style is not always easy to take, but he finds that that's better suited to what he has to say," Parsons says. "If he wants to use actors who aren't professionals . . . that's what he'll do."

Gerima says he regrets the fact that most peer discussion about African cinema focuses on content rather than presentation. He describes his own films as "imperfect" and says he wishes like-minded filmmakers would be more willing to discuss the ways in which certain cinematic techniques might be improved in service of African and African American narratives.

"I try to tell them: Listen, my film is imperfect. Give me feedback, and you make me a better filmmaker," Gerima says. "At UCLA, in the group I belonged to, feedback was the biggest part of our evolution. Without that, no one grows. But in a community with all kinds of problems, critical feedback that transforms a filmmaker becomes very minimal."

But Gerima doesn't regret a single one of his films.

"I know filmmaker friends who will tell me, 'Oh, you know, I outgrew my movie.' But I can't. I have too much at stake in each story," he says. "I've turned so many corners to make it happen."

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