Gerima, Haile 1946–
Haile Gerima 1946–
Filmmaker Haile Gerima’s 1993 film Sankofa follows a modern African woman as she is transported back in time to become a slave. The word sankofa means to go back to the past in order to move forward. It is an apt summation of the filmmaker’s life. When he began making films, Gerima went back to mine the richness of his Ethiopian culture as well as the horrors of African slavery. In doing so he created a new form of African cinema with blacks as heroes and the Diaspora (the dispersion via slavery of African peoples throughout the New World) as the landscape. He weaves together history and traditional storytelling to create a provocative filmmaking style. Along the way he has become one of the most highly regarded independent filmmakers in the world.
However Gerima takes little pleasure in his renown. “My name is more known than my work,” he told www.addistewlid.com, a website about Ethiopia. “In Africa, you just make four, five, or six films and you are renowned. That is like a mockery [of] our talent.” Throughout his career Gerima has struggled for funding and been ignored by Hollywood, yet he has not stopped filming. When he found he could not get his films distributed, he founded a distribution company. When video rental chains refused to stock his films, he opened a video shop. When no theaters would carry his films, he rented out theaters across the country and presented the films himself. “We feel we are making our last stand in the cultural struggle—that is the struggle to make our own image,” he told www.seeing-black.com. By reclaiming his past with film, Gerima is doing just that and creating a future for African and African American cinema in the process.
The fourth of ten children, Haile Gerima was born in Gondor, Ethiopia, on March 4, 1946. His parents were both teachers, his mother at a primary school and his father for the Ministry of Education. His father, Tafeka Gerima, was also a playwright and founded a theater troupe that the young Gerima often performed with. According to the Sankofa website, his father “presented original and often historical drama, always submersed in the genuine culture of Ethiopia.” It was a culture in direct opposition to the one Gerima studied in school.
“My sister and I were the first [in our family] to go to a so-called modern school,” Gerima told www.rastafari-today.com. There he was taught by well-meaning U.S. Peace Corps volunteers to spell Connecticut while his own culture and country were expelled from the curriculum. “… I [learned to look down] on everything I [had] as primitive and savage, backward,” Gerima recalled in an interview with the Africana website. Movies reinforced this idea. At his local theater nothing but American movies played. “I felt we [Africans] were savages,” he told the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service. “I learned from Tarzan that everybody has to go to America to become human.” After a brief stint at the Creative Art Center at Haile Selassie I University, Gerima did just that, emigrating to the United States to study drama.
At a Glance…
Career: Filmmaker. Works include: Hour Glass, Child of Resistance, Bushmama, 1975, Harvest: 3000 Years, 1976, Wilmington 10-USA 10,000, 1977, Ashes and Embers, 1982, After Winter: Sterling Brown, 1985, Sankofa, 1993, Adwa: An African Victory, 2000. Professor, Howard University, 1976–. Business owner; Mypheduh Films (film distribution), Sankofa Video and Bookstore, and Negodgwad Productions (film production).
Memberships: Pan-African Federation of Filmmakers; African Committee of Filmmakers.
Awards: Oscar Micheaux Award for Best Feature Film, Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame for Harvest: 3000 Years, 1976; Best Cinematography Award, Pan African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO), Burkina Faso, Africa for Sankofa; First Prize, African Film Festival for Sankofa; Oscar Micheaux Award for Best Feature Film, Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame for Sankofa; Mayor’s Arts Award for Excellence in an Artistic Discipline, Washington DC, 1993.
Address: Office —Mypheduh Films, Inc., 2714 Georgia Avenue, NW, Washington DC, 20002. Phone: (800) 524-3895.
Gerima arrived at the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago in 1967 and soon discovered that the American culture he had grown up admiring was not ready to accept him. At Goodman he was relegated to minor roles as servants and crooks. Gerima recalled the frustration during a speech at Mount Holyoke University, “I was writing plays at home … I was in my father’s plays and here I am now [in the] background.” Distanced from his own culture and rejected by Chicago’s theater scene, Gerima found refuge in the Black Power Movement that was gaining momentum throughout the country.
In 1969 he moved to California and, according to www.africana.com, “grew the biggest Afro he could.” However it was not only his hairstyle that changed during that time—his focus also shifted. He continued in the interview with www.africana.com, “a whole lot of rebellion [was] going on across the United States. [It was] a very turbulent time, but for me it was my rehabilitation. It gave me a time to breathe, to think and to reassess my life as well.” Gerima soon turned to film. “I went to UCLA to start all over and made the transition to film by accident,” he told the Addis Tewlid website. “I stumbled into the motion pictures department and I thought it was an interesting power of expression. I felt it was a very important medium to express myself.”
He also began to turn a critical eye to the American movies he had devoured as a child. “At UCLA, I was intermingling with students from Brazil and Mexico. We shared a collective rage,” he told the Knight Rid-der/Tribune News Service. “We realized we had been betrayed by the movies.” Hollywood had misrepresented his culture and that of countless others, including that of African Americans. “Once you see all these Hollywood movies you have two demonized populations of America, black people and Native Americans, and you’re scared of them,” he told www.africana.com. “Blacks were criminal, always, constantly, and violent, and will kill you to rob you. If you saw those movies when you were a kid it aggravates your consciousness.” He decided to make movies that told the truth.
While in graduate school, Gerima made the short film Bushmama about the political awakening of a young black mother on welfare. “When I made the movie … Black people were so hungry,” he recalled in his speech at Mount Holyoke. “In Oakland they saw my movie and they thought it was a miracle movie and hugged me and cried and wrote poems about me.” It was a very important experience for Gerima and validated for him the need for his work. His first feature film followed. Released in 1976, the same year he earned his MFA in film, Harvest: 3000 Years “was a sophisticated examination, through the story of a village that finally overthrows its feudal landlord, of the centuries-old oppression of the Ethiopian peasantry,” wrote the Africana website. It drew international acclaim and earned Gerima the Oscar Micheaux Award for Best Feature Film from the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. Micheaux was an important African American filmmaker from the twenties and an inspiration to Gerima.
In the filmmaking industry a graduate degree from UCLA’s famed film school is considering a launching board for a career in Hollywood. However, Gerima had other ideas. He moved to Washington D.C. and took a teaching position at Howard University, where he continues to this day as a professor in the radio, television, and film department. “[Hollywood] doesn’t have an appeal to me because it only inducts or recruits people to serve its interest,” Gerima told www.addistewlid.com. “That is why I even came to Howard to teach and be a part-time filmmaker. Because I didn’t want to be subservient to the white Euro-centric cultural power in Hollywood.” He concluded, “They wouldn’t want me, nor do I want them.”
Gerima’s next few films documented the struggles of the African-American community. His 1977 documentary Wilmington 10-USA 10,000 told the story of ten African Americans, including former NAACP leader Benjamin Chavez, who were jailed on questionable charges for the fire-bombing of a white-owned grocery during riots in Wilmington, North Carolina. The convictions were overturned after Amnesty International intervened. In 1982 Gerima released the powerful Ashes and Embers. Described by The Nation as “honest and brave,” the film documents a black American soldier’s return from Vietnam and the realization that he doesn’t have a place in his country—neither within the white power structure, nor with black activists.
Though both these films were well received, neither of them drew the attention of Hollywood, and Gerima found trouble getting them distributed. So in 1982 he founded Mypheduh Films which became one of the leading distributors of films by people of African descent. Mypheduh, from the Ethiopian Geze language, was a name given Gerima by his father and means “sacred shield of culture”—a very fitting description of the goal of the company.
It was about this time that Gerima first conceived the idea for Sankofa. He wanted to tell the story of slavery from a slave’s point of view and honor the forgotten history of the many slaves who escaped to freedom on their own. “Hollywood makes stories like Cry Freedom and Mississippi Burning where blacks are either spectators or victims to be freed by whites,” he told the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service. “This cripples the African American viewer’s self-esteem.” Upon completing the screenplay Gerima encountered massive hurdles in securing funding. “The moment I wanted to make Sankofa my credentials in the USA vanished, because I was venturing into forbidden territory,” he told the One World website. “The resource centers were closed to me; I couldn’t get funding.”
It was not until 1991 that Gerima had enough money to begin filming. Two years later Sankofa premiered at the Berlin Film Festival. It won international critical acclaim and several awards, including first prize in the African Film Festival. However, distributors did not want to touch it. “One distributor said it was too black,” Gerima recalled to the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service. “Then another said they couldn’t market this movie. Yet another said the black audience would not go see ‘serious’ films.” In response, Gerima rented out theaters across the country and marketed the film directly to African American activists and leaders. Buzz about the film soon filled the black press, and in each city where Sankofa played, it played to full houses. “In city after city, audiences weep at Gerima’s saga of Shola, an African woman who is shackled, then sent across the sea to toil on a sugar plantation in the Americas before rebelling against her slave-owners,” wrote the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service. Both blacks and whites flocked to see the film and it became clear that not only was there an audience for the film, but that audiences felt a need to see it.
In 1996, with some of the proceeds from Sankofa, Gerima opened Sankofa Video and Bookstore in Washington, partly in response to the refusal of video rental chains to stock his and other African filmmak-ers’s work. The store also housed Mypheduh Films and Gerima’s film production company, Negodgwad Productions. Gerima’s wife, Shirikiana Aina, with whom he has five children, is his business partner in these ventures. Though the store stocks mainstream black films, according to www.seeingblack.com, the couple hoped to “make it normal” for African Americans to rent and watch independent and foreign films about the Diaspora.
Gerima’s next major film documented the 1896 defeat of invading Italian armies by the Ethiopian people wielding little more than spears and an incredible conviction to defend their land. “It is a major event, but very underplayed not only to other people, but even to myself,” Gerima told The Washington Times. Part documentary, part historical drama, Adwa: An African Victory released in 2000, required Gerima to travel back to his homeland and interview elders who knew first-hand accounts of the battle and could pinpoint the areas where fighting took place. Again, Gerima distributed the film himself, booking theaters across the nation and marketing it straight to the black community through the black media.
At the close of 2002 Gerima had two projects in the works: The Children of Adwa chronicling the return of Italy to Ethiopia in 1935 and a film about the Maroons—freed or escaped slaves that created their own communities during slavery. Both stories are examples of Gerima’s driving motivation—sankofa, reclaiming the past in order to move forward. By rescuing these histories, Gerima is hoping to undue some of the damage that generations of white Hollywood heroes have unleashed on the minds of countless children of African descent. “How can black people be anything if they are not culturally anchored?” Gerima asked during his speech at Mount Holyoke. “If one doesn’t have cultural peace with ones self, does not respect one’s origin, one’s soul, one’s spirit, one’s physical appearance, how can they succeed in anything?” His solution is to turn to the past. “Many of us have disconnected our antennae,” Gerima told the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service. “But those people in shackles who crossed the ocean are trying to speak to us.” Through his films, Gerima is giving them a voice.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, August 31, 1994.
Nation, January 20, 1992, p. 64.
Washington Times, November 20, 1999, p. 4.
Addis Tewlid, http://www.addistewlid.com/indexnew2.html
Rastafari Today, http://www.rastafaritoday.com/sitefiles/hgerima.html
Nationality: Ethiopian. Born: Gondor, Ethiopia, 4 March 1946. Education: Studied acting at the Goodman School of Drama, Chicago, Illinois; University of California at Los Angeles, B.A., 1972, M.F.A., 1976. Family: Married Shirikiana Aina, 1983; five children. Career: Professor of Film, Howard University, Washington, D.C., 1975—; with wife, created film production and distribution enterprise consisting of Negodgwad Productions, Mypheduh Films (distributor), Sankofa Books and Video (sales and rental), and Positive Productions (community development). Awards: Grand Prix Award, Lisbon International Film Festival, Silver Leopard Award, Lorcarno International Film Festival, and Prix de la Ville de Alger, for Mirt Sost Shi Amit, 1975; FIPRESCI Award, Berlin International Film Festival, London Film Festival Outstanding Production, and International Film Critics Award, for Ashes and Embers, 1983; Best Cinematography Award, FEPACO Film Festival (Burkina Faso), Oscar Micheaux Award, and First Prize, African Film Festival (Milan), for Sankofa, 1993. Address: Mypheduh Films, Inc., P.O. Box 10035, Washington, D.C. 20018–0035, U.S.A. Contact: Ada Babino, Nommo Speakers Bureau, 2714 Georgia Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. 20001.
Films as Director:
Child of Resistance
Mirt Sost Shi Amit (Harvest: 3000 Years) (+sc, pr)
Bush Mama (+sc, ed, pr)
Wilmington 10—USA 10,000 (doc) (+sc, pr)
Ashes and Ambers (for TV)
After Winter: Sterling Brown (doc)
Sankofa (+sc, ed, pr)
Imperfect Journey (doc-for TV)
Adwa: An African Victory (+sc, pr, ed)
By GERIMA: articles—
Daney, Serge, "Rencontre avec Haile Gerima (une Moisson de 3,0000 ans)," interview in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris) September-October 1976.
Pfaff, François, "De Quelle Moisson s'agit-il (dialogue avec Haile Gerima, auteur du film "la Récolte de 3,000 ans)" interview in Positif (Paris), no. 198, October 1977.
Safford, Tony, and William Triplett, "Haile Gerima: Radical Departure to a New Black Cinema," interview in The Journal of theUniversity Film and Video Association, vol. 35, no. 2, Spring 1983.
Edelman, Rob, "Storyteller of Struggles: An Interview with Haile Gerima," in The Independent (New York), October 1985.
"Visual Footprint—The Battle for the Film Frame," in JourneyAcross Three Continents, edited by Renee Tajima, New York, 1985
"Triangular Cinema, Breaking Toys, and Dinknesh vs. Lucy," in Questions of Third Cinema, edited by Jim Pines and Paul Wileman, London, 1989.
On GERIMA: books—
Pfaff, Françoise, Twenty-five Black African Filmmakers: A CriticalStudy, with Bibliography and Bio-Bibliography, Westport, Connecticut, 1988.
Gray, John, Blacks in Film and Television: A Pan-African Bibliography of Films, Filmmakers, and Performers, Westport, Connecticut, 1990.
Diawara, Manthia, African Cinema, Bloomington, Indiana, 1992.
Yearwood, Gladstone, editor, Black Cinema Aesthetics: Issues inIndependent Black Filmmaking, Athens, Ohio, 1982.
On GERIMA: articles—
Fieschi, Jacques, "Harvest: 3,000 Years de Haile Gerima (Ethiopia)," in Cinématographe (Paris), no. 19, June 1976.
"Ethiopian Directs," in Amsterdam News (New York), November 1976.
Fullman, E., "Wilmington 10—USA 10,000 Makes Its World Premiere," in The Hilltop (Washington, D.C.), 17 November 1978.
Maslin, Janet, "Film: 'Bush Mama' Tells the Story of a Coast Ghetto," in New York Times, 25 September 1979.
Quam, Michael D., "Harvest: 3,000 Years. Sowers of Maize and Bullets," in Jump Cut (Berkeley), March 1981.
Hoberman, J., "Ashes and Embers," in Village Voice (New York), 23 November 1982.
Derobert, E., "Bush Mama," in Positif (Paris), October 1984.
Howard, Steve, "A Cinema of Transformation: The Films of Haile Gerima," in Cineaste (Berkeley), vol. 14, no. 1, 1985.
Tassy, Elaine, "'Sankofa' Takes a Different Route to Theatres," in Los Angeles Times, 25 January 1994.
Porter, Evette, "Black Marketeering," in Village Voice, 13 September 1994.
Millar, Jeff, "'Sankofa': Flourishes Undercut Powerful Saga," in Houston Chronicle, 18 November 1994.
Thomas, Kevin, "'Sankofa' Delivers Powerful Indictment of Evil of Slavery," in Los Angeles Times, 12 May 1995.
McKenna, Christine, "A Saga of Slavery Reaches the Big Screen" in Los Angeles Times, 29 May 1995.
Hartl, John, "Film on Slavery Fights for Screenings," in SeattleTimes, 22 September 1995.
Kernan, Michael, "'Bush Momma' (sic): Realities," in WashingtonPost, 27 January 1997.
Howe, Desson, "'Adwa' Overcomes All Obstacles," in WashingtonPost, 19 November 1999.
Reaves, Michele, "Filmmaker Wins Fight for 'Adwa', in WashingtonTimes (Washington, D.C.), 20 November 1999.
Stack, Peter, "Ethiopian Victory Retold with Pride: Documentary Looks at 1896 fight with Italy," in San Francisco Chronicle, 15 May 2000.
* * *
"I'm a Third World, independent filmmaker," declared Haile Gerima in a 1983 interview. He now resides in the United States "for many historical reasons." Gerima—professor of film, philosopher, writer, producer, and director of a singular stature—has earned a unique place in film history as one of a handful of African filmmakers to earn international notoriety.
Gerima arrived in the United States as a youngster of twenty-one with an interest in theatre and enrolled in acting classes at the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago, Illinois. "When I was growing up," he reveals in the Los Angeles Times, "I wanted to work in theatre—it never occurred to me I could be a filmmaker because I was raised on Hollywood movies that pacified me to be subservient. Filmmaking isn't encouraged or supported by the Ethiopian government." He felt limited by theatre and was resigned, notes Francoise Pfaff, to "subservient roles in Western plays." By 1970 he had discovered "the power of cinema." He migrated to California to attend the University of California, where he earned Bachelor's and Master of Fine Arts degrees in film.
Influenced in part by the pioneering work of film luminaries Vittorio de Sica, Fernando Solanas, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, and Med Hondo, Gerima makes films that tell of the human condition. He exploits the medium as a political weapon and as a catalyst for understanding and social change at the same time, consciously eschewing what he describes as the "narrative dictatorship" of Hollywood pictures.
Gerima's 1976 Bush Mama provides a striking example of this mission. The film presents a poignant contrast, produced as it was during the period of film history known as the "Blaxploitation" era. Gerima's depiction of the travails of black life and culture are farremoved from that of the drug deals and revenge killings of Superfly (1972) and Foxy Brown (1976). Bush Mama is the story of Dorothy and her husband T.C., a discharged Vietnam veteran who thought he would return home to a "hero's welcome." Instead he is falsely arrested and imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit. Theirs is a world of welfare, perennial unemployment, and despair. To some, the film may appear bleak and nihilistic with its stark black-and-white photography, but its message is moving and distinct. Issues of institutionalized racism, police brutality, and poverty remain sadly pertinent and the film, nearly twenty-five years old, retains its potency.
For the production of Mirt Sost Shi Amit (Harvest: 3,000 Years) Gerima returned to his native Ethiopia to produce the tale of a poor peasant family who eke out an existence within a brutal, exploitative, and feudal system of labor. In 1985 he again focused his camera upon the travails of black urban life in the two-hour film, Ashes and Embers, the story of a moody and disillusioned black veteran of the Vietnam War. The film's characters, notes Shepard in the New York Times, "are human rather than cardboard types." Wilmington 10—USA 10,000 exposed the impact of racism and the short-comings of the criminal justice system by examining the infamous history of the nine black men and one white woman who became known as the "Wilmington 10."
Though now well established and respected as a filmmaker, Gerima's path has not always been paved with gold. His name is not likely to be bandied about in the boardrooms of Hollywood studios, a reality he finds bittersweet. "I was never enamored of the film industry," he reveals in the San Francisco Chronicle. "Every Hollywood story is Eurocentric and if it isn't, then it will simply be disregarded. So I never wanted to be part of an industry that fails to represent the world as it really exists."
"Money is an incessant worry for independent filmmakers and Haile Gerima is no exception," notes Pfaff. Indeed, Gerima has endured his share of the indignities of being an independent filmmaker of color, including elusive funding, closed doors, and distributors refusing to show his film. "[S]ome indie black filmmakers," notes Porter in The Village Voice, "are reluctantly becoming do-it-yourself distributors." Gerima began his self-distribution by booking his films at "art" theatres—only to find they were not reaching the black community for which they were created. Now he distributes his films and that of other low-budget, independent filmmakers through Mypheduh Films, a distribution company that he and his filmmaker wife Sirikiana Aina established in 1984. He speaks with rancor of the "incestuous relationship" between Hollywood, theatre owners, and video stores. "We've been evicted from several theatres when Hollywood wanted use of the theatre," he complained in the Los Angeles Times. "Why? Because if theatres don't take whatever junk comes from the industry pipe, they won't get movies they want in the future. . . Hollywood is incapable of allowing African Americans to make the films they want to make, what they want from us is hooligan movies."
"Spirit of the dead, rise up and claim your story!" is the haunting opening of what is probably Gerima's most successful production, the 1993 film, Sankofa. It presents with brutal realism the horrors of African slavery. The story is revealed through the eyes of Mona, a modern-day woman who is "possessed by spirits" and transported back in time as the Shola, a house slave on the Lafayette plantation in Louisiana. The savagery and violence of the evil institution are clearly disturbing and go far beyond the safe and conventional images of slavery presented by Hollywood. In Sankofa, we hear the chilling sound of human flesh as it is seared with a hot branding iron and see the barren faces of the human cargo; women are stripped of all dignity and subject to the continual sexual exploitation of their owners; human necks are enclosed in iron shackles and rape is used as a tool of terror and domination. Some panned Gerima for his stylistic flourishes but the response by the black community was positive and enthusiastic. The film was well received and played to full houses for many weeks in major cities.
Adwa: An African Victory is a compelling documentary drama of the largely forgotten history of the 1896 battle of resistance in which the Ethiopian people arose and united to defeat the Italian army. The film is skillfully interlaced with paintings, sound, music, rare historical photographs, and interviews of "elders" who recall the details of the story of Adwa. It concludes with a dramatic recreation of the final battle.
In spite of numerous limitations and against all odds, writerproducer-director Haile Gerima has succeeded in a tough industry for nearly thirty years and has emerged as one of the more potent "outsider" voices in the history of filmmaking.
—Pamala S. Deane