IT'S FILLED with stirring battles -- at least, photographs, paintings and photographs of such. But the real power in "Adwa: An African Victory" comes from the mouths of the oldsters and the youngsters who have learned about Ethiopia's military triumph through 100 years of oral tradition.
Filmmaker Haile Gerima, a soft-spoken, gray-haired director of Ethiopian origin, spent months in his homeland gathering verbal testimony for this story of the Adwa skirmish of March 1896.
In that battle, 50,000 Ethiopian warriors, women and children (by this movie's account) rose up against 18,000 Italian soldiers in the town of Adwa, preventing the Europeans from conquering their land.
Mainstream history books, even the ones that inform most Ethiopians, don't exactly revel in the glory of this campaign -- which is seen as an unfortunate Italian loss rather than an African triumph. But Ethiopia's victory -- led by Negus Menelik and his wife, the Empress Taitu -- sent nervous reverberations around the globe. It also encouraged such pan-African movements as those led by Marcus Garvey and Nelson Mandela.
In the prime time of colonial expansion, here was a spontaneously assembled coalition of tribal kings, warriors, even women and children, who withstood superior forces. The implications for the prospective empires of Great Britain, France, Portugal and Germany were obvious.
Gerima revels in this glory. The movie, which was shown at the recent Venice Film Festival, is unabashedly partisan. There isn't so much as a European fingerprint on this movie. What we have is an emotional outpouring of African conviction and sublime tradition. There are impassioned anecdotes from farmers, whose grandparents and great-grandparents heard about, or participated in the military campaign; and Gerima himself fills the movie with his own emotional narration. This is a documentary of the soul and the heart, an explicit antidote to Eurocentric records of those times -- or lack thereof.
Without the benefit of movie footage from Adwa, Gerima is clearly restricted for something visual to show. But he does a commendable job with available pictures, paintings, murals -- pumped up with sounds of battle and songs on the soundtrack. After a while, Gerima's point seems to be overly repeated; but it's no less compelling for that.
This is a great story, after all, with fanciful heroes spurring their countrymen to unprecedented glory. The Italians had guns and organization. The Ethiopians were armed with spears, horses and desperate patriotism. This is the stuff of legend, of the movies, and it works well here. And it anticipates Gerima's next project, a follow-up film which deals with the legacy of Adwa. It is called, quite simply, "The Children of Adwa."
ADWA: AN AFRICAN VICTORY (Unrated, 95 minutes) -- Contains descriptions and images of battle carnage. Saturday through Nov. 26 (but not playing Monday). At the Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U St. NW. Call 202/234-4755 for showtimes or more information.