- Decolonizing the Filmic Mind:An Interview with Haile Gerima
I received my undergraduate degree from Howard University in the spring of 1993, and I was lucky enough to take one of my final courses, Film Directing, with award-winning filmmaker Haile Gerima. His critically-acclaimed motion picture, Sankofa, was released that same semester, which meant that he gave our class a real-world education in the stresses and strains of independent film distribution. Gerima was an inspirational teacher, someone who convinced us that quality filmmaking took more than simply learning how to spool film magazines in black bags or properly using light meters in the photographing of scenes, all skills he also taught us back in those pre-digital days when filmmaking entailed shooting with actual film stock and when editing was unforgivingly linear.
In the fall of 2008, Gerima released his latest feature-film, Teza, the epic tale of an Ethiopian expatriate who returns from Germany to a homeland torn asunder by ideological extremism. Gerima's film is a meditation on globalization, political corruption, familial longing, and the inescapable force of racism. Teza opens at Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York City on April 2, 2010.
We sat down, briefly, to chat about his new film and his approach to filmmaking.
I want to start in Ethiopia. What I know of your biography, what I remember, is that you came from a very large family in Ethiopia and that you were the son of a playwright. Tell me a few of the ways in which those facts inform your approach to film.
I do come from a large family. Ten kids in all. My mother was a teacher, and my father was also. But he did other things, too. For example, he was a playwright, and he really enjoyed writing stage plays. But before that, before the Italian occupation and the time of Mussolini, he was a priest. And as a consequence of the invasion, he became a Guerilla fighter. So, he did a lot. After the war, he became a schoolteacher and then worked for the Ministry of Education in Ethiopia for a bit. But he spent a lot of time writing and staging plays. And primarily, he put on plays that he wrote, epic plays he wrote in Amharic. Of course, that all had an impact on me.
The scenes and settings in Teza, for instance, are the landscapes of my childhood. The first film I made in Ethiopia, Harvest: 3000 Years, shows you the actual footprints of my youth, of where I grew up with my father and the rest of my family. It's a small town, Gondar, and like most Ethiopian families, we had one foot in town and the other foot in rural, peasant society. And most of my father's brothers and relatives were peasants from the village where I set Teza, a place called Menzero, which is also where my family is from. [End Page 25]
My father was one of the only people who read and wrote, one of the few people who became a writer, a playwright, and a historian. He was one of the people who wrote a book documenting the Ethiopian-Italian War. And so, I come from that kind of background. But in terms of storytelling, my grandmother was also important, as was my mother. Where I grew up, it was around the fire that you were acculturated into storytelling. It was a familial thing. And when my father became a playwright, it really brought things home to me. I was often involved in one way or another in the plays he wrote, from advertising, carrying the advertisement boards, to playing an extra, being part of the chorus, being in the plays.
Have you ever played with the idea of adapting one of his plays for the big screen?
Yes. Even when he was alive, we had planned to co-write something on Emperor Tewodros. He was a very popular emperor in the 1800s. And we were going to collaborate on that project. That was just one idea. But we also collaborated in other ways. He was...