ETHIOPIAN-born filmmaker Haile Gerima says he is not a busy man, but with two phone lines ringing and three assistants running in and out of his office by the screening room at Howard University's film department, it is hard to believe.
Gerima, who has made several films--his latest is "Ashes and Embers"--is currently assembling the first collective distribution company in the area to deal solely in African and African-American independent films.
"All independent filmmakers have it in the back of their minds to start their own distribution company. A lot of times it is very difficult to find companies to handle them, since these days most people are interested in commercial films," said Gerima, who formed Mypheduh Films Inc. a year and a half ago, but has only recently begun collective distribution with four other filmmakers: Kathleen Collins, Charles Burnett, Med Hondo and Alonzo Crawford, also a member of the Howard University film department.
Gerima and his colleagues are now in the final stages of developing Mypheduh Films (mypheduh means "sacred shield" in Geze, which is the mother language of Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia).
"We are in the process of mailing out material across the country and to Europe and Africa," Gerima said. "Not only will we distribute these films, but we will also sell and lease independent black films. We won't make much of a profit since most of our income will be used to perpetuate the work of Mypheduh."
"There is a unique problem in the black community now. There is no market for independent black films in the United States, so through this film company we hope to increase the distribution of Afro-American and African films to the black community, nationwide. But we will also be providing these films to Europe, where the market is more profitable for independent black films. Over here, though, our films are relatively unknown."
Gerima believes the weak market in the United States is related to economic factors.
"There aren't many blacks with enough money to invest in independent films, and the major film companies are only interested in the profit-making ventures," said Gerima. "But I think that scene will change, and we want to have as much to do with making that change as possible.
"We want to make our films available to everyone who is interested, but especially to jails, children's centers and universities, places where we have and will continue to build an audience."
Midway through the conversation, an inmate called from the D.C. Detention Center requesting information on independent black films. Gerima got the man's address and promptly dispensed his aide to buy a book--"Black Aestheticism in Film"--for him.
"Our films are in trouble, socially," said Gerima. "Black role models are underplayed in films and television. There are not many film companies willing to invest in independent black films. Most are not really concerned with keeping independent black films alive."
Through greater availability of independent films that present positive black images, Gerima believes that many of the social problems plaguing the black community can be addressed.
"Black-on-black crimes have a cultural impact on our society. We are constantly bombarded with negative black images, and our children take them as role models. Not only do negative images teach black people to violate other black people, but they make a social statement about mankind as a whole.
"When we talk about positive images, we are talking about realistic images, not idealistic images. By seeing ourselves through the eyes of others (a filmmaker's, for instance), we can see our problems more clearly, and having those problems in perspective is half of solving them.
"Every time positive black characters come about, there is no press for them, no theater for documentaries on them, no money to make films or programs about them. But when an exploitable black character surfaces, the films open in major theaters, like the film on Idi Amin of Uganda. But no one would ever think of making a film on Sekou Toure or Julius Nyerere.
"When there is a negative statement to be made, there is always a place for it. We want to create a place for only positive images. It is up to us to create the market for them, the distribution company, the theater-- because if we don't do it, nobody will do it for us."