Interview with Haile Gerima: „Freedom is not some kind of 'UNESCO milk' that can be given to someone. It is something people fight for“
Interview with Haile Gerima, conducted by Nicolai Röschert and Isabelle Scheele (both AfricAvenir), on the occasion of the AfricAvenir screening of the film “Teza” on 3. May 2011 in Berlin. "Teza" will be screened by the Namibian branch of AfricAvenir on September 12, 2012. Click |+| here for more details.
Haile Gerima is an independent filmmaker of distinction and world-wide fame who has served as a distinguished professor of film at Howard University in Washington D.C. since 1975. Born in Ethiopia, Gerima is perhaps best known as the writer, producer, and director of the acclaimed 1993 film “Sankofa”.
Following in the footsteps of his father, a dramatist and playwright, Gerima studied acting in Chicago before entering UCLA film school, where his exposure to Latin American films inspired him to mine his own cultural legacy. After completing his thesis film, “Bush Mama” (1975), Gerima received international acclaim with “Harvest: 3000 Years” (1976), an Ethiopian drama that won the Grand Prize at the Locarno film festival.
After the award-winning “Ashes & Embers” (1982) and the documentaries “Wilmington 10—U.S.A 10,000” (1978) and “After Winter: Sterling Brown” (1985), Gerima filmed his epic “Sankofa” (1993). This ambitious tale of a plantation slave revolt was ignored by U.S. distributors, but Gerima tapped into African American communities, and booked sold-out screenings in independent theaters around the country.
In 1996, Gerima founded the Sankofa Video and Bookstore in Washington, DC., a cultural and intellectual space that offers opportunities for self-expression, interaction, discussion and analysis through community events such as film screenings, book signings, scholar forums and artist showcases. Gerima continues to distribute and promote his own films, including his most recent festival success “Teza” (2008), which won the Jury and Best Screenplay awards at the Venice Film Festival and the Golden Stallion at the PanAfrican Film Festival FESPACO in 2009. He also lectures and conducts workshops in alternative screenwriting and directing both within the U.S. and internationally.
AfricAvenir: I feel that you have a hunger for showing African perspectives and problems. What is your link to African history, is it personal or rather political?
Haile Gerima: It is personal I would say. I was 21 when I left Ethiopia to go to the US. Revisiting one's own past can be therapeutic. Africa does not seem to have a right to memory. I want to remember my own history. If others can identify with it, then that surely is a good thing. I do not want to impose it on others. But I know bureaucratic and international power structures oppose the preservation of historical memory. If you as an individual try to keep this memory alive you automatically antagonize these power structures, the national African middle classes and the international, global middle class. A European is allowed to remember. For an African, remembering is taboo. We are denied continuity. It's like nothing has ever been different from how it is today. Leaders are denied role models from Africa's past. It's like Nkrumah or Lumumba never existed. All begins and ends with Europe, and now we are calling for Europe to recolonize us. Our heroes have been buried in oblivion. No one knows what they have achieved. You see, I am Ethiopian, and my people were the first black people to defeat a colonial power in 1896. Have you seen any movies on that? I made a documentary about it and it was only aired in Germany. My personal journey matters more to me, but people often identify with it so it becomes a collective journey.
AfricAvenir: What you are saying is that, for you, making films is like telling your story but at the same time a way to emancipate the audience?
Gerima: I make films for myself. Making films emancipates me in the first place. Each film helps me to be a better person. It's like an exorcism. If they happen to emancipate other people too, then all the better! I know it sounds crazy, making films is expensive. For me, fascism in art begins when you try to lower the level of your films to meet people's taste. Most European cinema, even German cinema is dying because instead of asserting its identity it tries to adjust to what people like. It's the same reasoning behind the thinking of capitalist box office producers. Most people just want to be entertained after a hard day of work, they do not want to think. So for me films are primarily something I do for myself: “Teza” has helped me more than it could ever help anyone else. If they are good for me, then why not make them. I am not being Louis the XIV, all I am saying is that if the films I make help me get rid of negative thoughts, then I am sure that I will come across like-minded people in cinemas.
AfricAvenir: People call you an independent filmmaker, what does this labeling mean to you, are you proud of that?
Gerima: Who would be proud to be a poor filmmaker? I am happy for money to come in but not for it to control what I do. So I make low-budget films because they enable me to keep control over what I do. Less money can mean more power. Making a low-budget film can take a very long time, sometimes 10 or even 12 years, which makes my filmmaking look quite “rusty” as a result, but I prefer my independence to the risk of losing my creation. Many filmmakers strike compromises with the industry for the sake of money, which they then mostly regret. But I do not regret any of my films: Every film I make is a piece of me.
AfricAvenir: What do you think marks the difference between your films and Hollywood-style films on Africa?
Gerima: I do not want to talk about differences, because claiming to be something different is always a dangerous thing to do. However, the films I make are not so much about a specific story but rather about the way I tell stories. I do not want to tell a story the Hollywood way, but the “Haile way”. This is the big challenge for African cinema: telling its stories its own way. African filmmakers should assert African identity without worrying about what Europeans or Americans will think about their films.
AfricAvenir: What about your target audience, is it rather an African or a global audience? Do these considerations influence your film-making?
Gerima: Saying art is for a specific audience is trying to restrict it. It is a dangerous baggage for art to carry. Art should be free of this cumbersome responsibility. I might say I make art for my people, but my people might not care about my art. What one should do is make a film and then find people who are interested in it. You first create a story, then the audience. That, for me, is democracy. If one makes a film for a specific audience, like the working class or women, the result, in my view, will be a fascist film. I do not control the minds of people. All I know is I tell a story and then find my friends. I ask them what they think about my films and take criticism from them.
AfricAvenir: You live in the United States, but you shot the movie in Ethopia. Is it a choice to live in the US or do you see yourself as an exile?
Gerima: I do not live in the US either, I am suspended in mid-air. It does not matter where I am physically. I wish I knew where my mind is now! I am not exiled by power, but by the awareness of what my rights are. What happens is you are somewhere not because you want to be there but because you are not a threat there. In America, no one cares who I am or what I do. In Ethiopia even my stupidity is a threat. America is not my home. I am still a guest who needs a visa to be there. I am not a citizen of the US nor do I want to be.
AfricAvenir: What are the possibilities for power structure change in Africa? What do you think is the potential of civil society movements? Are they receptive to the themes you discuss in your films and which you see as fundamental to understand African history?
Gerima: The danger of living long is you become more pessimistic. In Ethiopia we had the so called Ethiopian Spring, which was not broadcast in other countries. After the Emperor went down we had a military “junta”. What do you think will happen in Egypt? I am not crazy about people chanting, “facebooking” and “twittering” revolution. I am more aware of the “hidden hands”. The military will not allow a revolution to happen. Neither the US nor Israel would want a revolution to take place there. Egyptians now are becoming more aware of what happens in their country, of where the military come from and how they came to power. No one discusses the history of Egypt, even in Egypt itself. Was Sadat appointed by the CIA? And what about Mubarak? He too was a CIA-appointed leader. We are manipulated by the media.
The minute imperialism calls your struggle revolution there is a problem for me. When the CNN refers to events in Egypt as a revolution people tend to view them with mistrust. Africans do not have the right to make a revolution unless sanctioned by the power that be, Europe, the US and increasingly China. Young people do not realize that the military are not to be trusted because they are an instrument of repression. The Ethiopian military were supposed to be the friends of the people and then they killed millions. In Africa we are not allowed to interpret our own history without the sanction of the imperial powers. Young Africans are not taught to understand history. Understanding circumstances should take precedence over revolutionary euphoria. I wish people in Ethiopia had stayed underground rather than rushing into a revolution which killed them.
Understanding one's history allows one to draw lessons from the past and avoid making the same mistakes. I am a pessimist. My films make me more optimistic. But this optimism is still in the making. In the film “Teza”, the children of the dragon symbolize my hopes. It is important for me to know that things will not always be the same and there will be a generation that will have a broader perspective. Not a “CNN perspective”. Calling the revolution a “facebook revolution” or “twitter revolution” is offensive in the first place because it makes it sound like a US-financed revolution. What are people meant to do, twitter their way to power or what?
AfricAvenir: I would also like to talk about the distribution side. Our organisation AfricAvenir has a section in Windhoek, Namibia. Our colleagues there are mainly working on the distribution of and access to films that portray an African perspective. They seek to emphasize the role of film as a community-shaping factor through their screenings. Do you see initiatives like this one as having a long-term potential to become a platform for independent films?
Gerima: I think people need to do what they need to do to get their films out. My wife and I started our own distribution company. I did not want to put up with the terms defined by distribution companies. But what African film-makers need to understand is that they should become self-reliant: they cannot keep relying on funding from Europe or America. They need to be able to exist without that support, because once Western countries no longer find Africa interesting they will direct funds elsewhere. That is why they should make their films their main source of income for production and distribution. And that is why they should lobby their governments to put national policies in place which protect film-makers without having to compromise their work. The current tax system in Ethiopia is killing film-making and robbing film-makers. The government does not care about cinema. They don't even allow us to advertise our films on television. The proceeds of screenings should go to the producers, not the government.
These are things I have been fighting for in Ethiopia and in America. My wife is editing her third documentary, I am editing documentaries we have been working on for twenty years. We are working. We are not waiting for some benevolent power to save us. You should always base your work on being self-sufficient, on earning enough to enable you to produce your next project independently. Say I wanted to co-produce something with a German filmmaker. I would always need to bring my own capital to the table. If we fell out, he would want to control the whole project and I would be finished. Cooperation with Europe is always temporary, and for as long as the cooperation lasts you need to ensure that your independence is safeguarded. The situation in France is particularly disastrous for African film-makers. Africans should not let their intellectual property be owned by any European. I don't want to mortgage my work. I get less, but I own more. We always raise funds for African filmmakers in the US.
My wife and I, together with some friends were the first to take films to prisons in America. We formed a collective and screened films on streets. We used to call it “vigilant cinema”. Latin Americans have done this before. Even newly independent countries like South Africa and Namibia are doing it: The problem with them is they don't realise they are not the first to be doing it. They don't know about the Algerian experience, Cuban experience, the “cinema novo” in Brasil. They are very arrogant because they neglect previous film revolutions that led to the production of political and independent films elsewhere. Even in Europe there were all kinds of militant distribution companies, in Germany, in France. And they all collapsed. That's why it's important to learn from past experiences. Another important thing is to get people to realise the value of independent cinema. One way for them to realise it is to have them pay for the films they see, just like with mainstream Hollywood films. If they cannot pay, then they should get involved in the production as far as they can. In Washington we have many Black kids coming to learn how to produce a film.
AfricAvenir: What impact did the celebrations of 200 years since the end of slavery have on your work? How was this commemorated in the US, what were people's perceptions?
Gerima: We are now working on a sequel to “Sankofa” which will deal with the so-called “maroons”, Black people who succeeded in freeing themselves from slavery upon their arrival in the Americas and who in some cases created settlements called “maroonages” and fought a guerrilla war against plantations. Sometimes they joined forces with Native Americans. This is a major historical event which has been purged from school curricula. We are still looking for funds but have already filmed several interviews with historians. The point I am trying to make is that slavery was a taboo topic in the USA and could not be discussed, particularly from an African-American perspective. “Sankofa” was a unique film to the extent that it expressed Africans' point of view on slavery and openly dealt with resistance to slavery.
Black kids in America are taught that Lincoln freed them, that nice white people freed them. So were Black people just waiting to be freed? The Black community of course always rejected this narrative, so when “Sankofa” came, its reception was magnified. It is in many respects an imperfect film, but if you go to a Black person and try to criticise it you will be in trouble! When you have an entire population hungry for truth and then a single film comes along which talks about precisely that truth, you will have a reaction which is in many ways out of proportion. Most of my films were praised beyond their original proposition simply because they were the only ones dealing with certain themes. “Teza”, for instance, is the only film that discusses recent events in Ethiopia. But if there were other twenty films dealing with the topic, mine would just be seen as normal. “Sankofa” was the only film to suggest there had been resistance by the enslaved Black community. There is not a single US University who does not have a class on that film. Yet when I had first set out to shoot the film, there was not a single financial institution in the US who would not reject my request for funding. All the support I got was from elsewhere, e.g. Germany, Channel 4 and two African countries.
Now the film stands out in the US as the only film suggesting there was an African-American resistance. There was not a single film in the whole of Hollywood's history that would take a similar perspective. Commemorations of the end of slavery only have this one film to draw back to. And that I do not like. I am not growing as a filmmaker. For that you need debate and criticism. Films made by Hollywood on the topic were always about good die-hard white people helping poor Black victims begging to be freed. And that information is wrong. It kills both white and black kids to see things in that perspective. Freedom is not some kind of “UNESCO milk” that can be given to someone. It is something people fight for.