Interview with Ethiopian director Haile Gerima

01 Feb 2009


As Black History Month starts today, Toronto welcomes Ethiopia’s preeminent filmmaker, Haile Gerima, at Bloor Cinema to kick off a special one-week run (Feb. 1-8) of his inspiring film, Teza.

A winner of the Best Screenplay and Special Jury Prize at the 65th Venice Film Festival last year, Teza tells the story of Anberber, an idealistic intellectual, who returns to Ethiopian after living in Germany for years. The country he finds upon his return is a far cry from the one he remembers and longed for while abroad. He is confronted by the harsh realities of corruption and political instability as he tries to contribute to Ethiopia’s welfare with his skills and devotion.

Throughout his career, Haile Gerima has masterfully used the medium of film to tell stories of the African experience from a genuine perspective. His 1993 film Sankofa, which takes a powerful look at slavery from an African/African-American perspective, drew large audiences across the African Diaspora.

Professor Gerima has been teaching film at Howard University in Washington, D.C. since 1975.

AfroToronto.com had a chance to sit down one-on-one with Haile Gerima when he was last in Toronto for the 34th Toronto International Film Festival.


AfroToronto: Congratulations on being recognized at the Venice Film Festival. What did winning the Best  Screenplay award for Teza mean to you?

Haile Gerima: I make films. I dread competitions. The reality of distribution of course is another story. ... It’s very hard to compare films. So for me, the most important part was that the people were very thankful that we did the film and people really embraced the film very well ... So it was a height for me. It was a very important event.

AfroToronto: You spent nine years looking for funding for your film Sankofa. Tell me about that process and how difficult, or easier, it might have been to raise funds after the success of Sankofa?

Haile Gerima: [Sankofa had a successful opening ] but there was nothing to follow it. We don’t have black distribution companies. For Teza, it goes back to 1993 when I first got the seed money to do this film and it took me 14 years to find the rest of the money. It took 14 years to finish the film. ... We shot the Ethiopian part and two years later we found more money and shot German part for a week. For me it’s part of my life. I don’t expect; even after the Venice success. We had about five prizes [but] I’m not going to expect anything. I go back again to foot-walk my fundraising to do my next film. So this is a struggle. I have risen to the challenge.

AfroToronto: Your film Sankofa, which examines the struggle against slavery from a black perspective, was warmly embraced by blacks around the world. The mainstream media only came around after African-Americans lined up around the block to see it. What does that say?

Haile Gerima: Well this is the whole problem. We were in competition at the Berlin Film Festival in 1993 with Sankofa and the press was not interested in it. We were in Toronto and even Hollywood people were shocked at the kind of audience that we got there. ...

I’ve been coming to Canada itself since 1970. The Toronto Film Festival, before it became very Hollywoodish, used to be a small film festival; and then there’s also Montreal. So I’ve been around here but the press is basically Hollywood-mesmerized. They are also white. Most black people have this disillusion that [cinema in North America] is a white experience. And so, they don’t see themselves in the story, in the agony of the story.

The stories that I make initially are my own obsessions; things that I have to do. It so happens that Black people embrace my films ... But, in general, the press in the United-States came around after we began to open it by community power. We distributed our own films. The New York Times, the LA Times, the Washington post, they came after we opened it and created the phenomenon. Not in the festival. They would have helped us in the festival if they even wrote about it.

But even now here [at the Toronto International Film Festival] with my film having come from Venice, it’s a very uncomfortable place to come to.

In fact, I came really because the distributors who [handle sales] felt it was very important place and they had to come. So I’m here to support them. But with my experience, after Sankofa, I never wanted to come to the Toronto International Film Festival. I can’t stand the festival. It’s very racist, it makes you feel like you’re not important in this world and that everything is about them. And that is not the kind of environment I subject myself to.

AfroToronto: It is indeed evident that the Hollywood system promotes films where a mainstream white audience can see itself in.

Haile Gerima: [In Hollywood, black people represent] tokenistic sidekicks created in their own phantom world. Hollywood is white. And I think Canadians more and more are coming out as part and parcel of that white supremacist cultural milieu. ... There’s a certain identification ... it’s a common ground. I can see how much they worship each other. ... I’m better around a community that embraces me, accepts my imperfect films and encourages me to go towards my next project. ... [I create for] people who have the same hunger I have.

AfroToronto: We’ve heard about the institutional obstacles that Danny Glover has been facing in trying to raise funds to make a film about the Haitian revolution and the historical figure of Toussaint L’Ouverture. Hollywood executives have asked him “where are the white heroes?” What do you make of this?

Haile Gerima: Black people are the problem because we are not as greedy about our history as white people. We do not fight to tell our own story. We don’t invest in our own story. So to beg them to reject us ... we don’t seem to learn. We keep going.

For me, Danny Glover, I think it is tragic that he is in that state. To me, Mel Gibson did the same stuff with him [in the Lethal Weapon film series]. You do that many movies, you better have some money of your own to keep going. So I don’t get his problem to tell you the truth. He was a side-kick in Hollywood for those movies and you don’t have wealth to do your own movie. I don’t think we learned anything.

To me, if he was in the same movie as this white boy, Mel Gibson, and this Mel Gibson can even make films intimidating Jewish people in the industry and a black man cannot declare his own thing. Where are the black people we should go to? Where are the black capitalists? All these rich black people that flaunt all over the place their wealth ... who are they? Where are they? What do they do for culture?

We should begin to struggle within ourselves. The elite, the black elite, has failed us again and again and over again. So to me, I really have no sympathy for that class. I do low budget films. I don’t need 30 million dollars. I need small money to tell my story. And I don’t care whether they recognize it or validate it or not. This is a different kind of cinema that I’m interested in.

AfroToronto: Your latest film, Teza, explores the sense of disillusionment of a foreign-trained intellectual coming back to Ethiopia to use his acquired skills to make his country go forward. Does this film reflect your own experience of being away from the homeland?

Haile Gerima: No. I think it’s the experience of many people from Africa and even the Caribbean [but more so in my day. Intellectuals went abroad to acquire needed skills for their country]. There’s a different kind of migration from Africa now. There’s an economic migration. But when we left our country in my age, when I was twenty-one, most of the Ethiopians and most of the Africans that I saw in America, they were going to school to take something back. The idea was to go and get [much] modernization and take it back to your country. To build your country.  ... The film is really about that.

It is not autobiographical although it is shaped by my experience of going home, coming back and the whole community of the exiled. Communities that I associated with in Europe, in America, in Canada even. All these Ethiopians, Africans who stayed behind. What they go through, what it means to go back, how to face the poverty in our country and how do we interact with autocratic regimes in Africa.

How can we instil our ideas of development? How can we become our own history makers? Why is it that our capacity to become history makers is completely omitted in the topography of political and economic reality of Africa? These are things that obsessed me for a long time. So the film feeds out of this frustration of dislocation.

AfroToronto: How do we keep the economic and political elites accountable to the people?

Haile Gerima: “I think for me, it goes back to miseducation. I don’t think we’ve been educated to be history makers. I think Europe and America educated an elite class, including myself, to be the nuts and bolts of this economic global world. And so, it’s very difficult for the elite whose been manufactured to serve a certain historical process to be revolutionaries.

The problem now is how do you break off? How do you demystify false knowledge and miseducation? How do you liberate yourself individually to create a continent of historical-making process? It is very, very difficult.

To me it’s not only the government. The government comes out of the cess pool of the elite in Africa. The cess pool of the elite in Africa is pro West, pro globalization, pro colonialism, pro neo-colonialism. It brings it on itself because it has a common history, a common knowledge, a common fate.  It can’t break away from the missionaries who taught us how to think. It’s not accidental that most of our elites come out of missionary schools. ...

Indigenous questions, the people’s needs, the people’s demands in fact it’s all converted into an industry. If you look at war, it’s an industry in Africa.  Who makes the money? Besides the military-industrial complex, it’s a global elite now running Africa as bureaucrats, technocrats to implement the idea of globalization for IMF, World Bank, etc.

Humanitarianism is now an industry. ... It debilitates young Africans from becoming history makers. We are always the objectified beggars.

We are always the objectified people who need. ... Every white kid grows up to help some black poor people. Some AIDS black people. So this, in itself, creates a complex on our children; an inferiority complex of enormous consequences where the history-making nerve ends have been decapitated. This is not a joke.


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