Interview with Haile Gerima – Director, screenwriter, writer, producer, and philosopher

Posted on 04 April,2017

It took Haile Gerima fourteen years to produce his latest work, Teza.  A film about the life of a German-educated intellectual, Anberber (played by Aaron Arefe), Teza narrates the story of his return to Ethiopia during the peak years of Mengistu Hailemariam’s regime.

I interviewed Haile at his Sankofa Bookstore, named after a film he produced nearly sixteen years ago. A film professor at Howard University, Haile moved to the United States in 1968. He is part of a generation of students that left Ethiopia in the 1960’s and 70’s, and through their political activities, radically altered the course of Ethiopian history. In a sense, Teza is a memoir of their experiences.  It is a story about what Haile terms “the incomplete intellectuals”; their dislocation and eventual return to a homeland they barely knew. The script runs the gamut between redemption and racism; hope and love; war, terror and hurt. It is a story that has affected everyone who lives in the Diaspora, personally or indirectly.  A few weeks prior to its September 18 opening in Washington DC at the Avalon Theater, Haile and I chatted about his experience making the film.

After fourteen years of labor, Teza has been so warmly received all over the world. What does this mean to you?  
Well for me it’s not over. The struggle is to wage the next phase of making the film, and that’s distribution. For a lot of people it could be that the film comes out and that’s all they see. So, I’m as active as the time I was working on the movie to get distribution, get the theater, and get the film out. It doesn’t end. 

What are the specific challenges? 
African films don’t have the same rights in the global arrangement of how culture is transactioned economically. African films are usually seen as something exotic—they are just meant to be viewed. Everybody says, “Oh, we’re trying to show your country,” like they’re doing you a favor.  But as a filmmaker, you want a different kind of arrangement. You want an economic arrangement where you are reimbursed for your work, so you can continue to sustain it. Rather than take 14 years to make a movie, it could be 5 or 6 years, if distribution is adequately and fairly transactioned between African filmmakers and the world. 

But after you’ve won all these awards? Do you mean it’s still very difficult to acquire distribution?
Very. Awards mean nothing.  I’m not even infatuated because I knew it from the jump. My struggle is to have the right to distribute my film. With awards I’ve been lucky. There’s not a film I didn’t get some awards for, and this one more so, but it doesn’t make a difference. 

Surely distributors have approached you? 
If they did, it’s those who exploit African cinema; those who literally rob you by taking it for less than its value.  African filmmakers are desperate to get their film out.  They sign all kinds of exploitative contracts with distributors who prey for films like this, and aren’t interested in putting back the resources for the future perpetuation of African cinema. So, the big distributors who could do fantastic work with it by opening it across many states, they don’t easily come.  With Teza, the distribution in Europe is taking off okay, but the U.S. is a difficult place.  Although there is an African American community and a crossover white community that could see the films, the distributors are fundamentally white–oriented and uninterested in the stories of other people, and they are the ones
that choose the cultural diet Americans consume. 

Haile Gerima spent his childhood between his parents’ home in Gondar and his aunt’s village close to Lake Tana. In the evenings, he remembers sitting by the fireside, engrossed in the stories his grandmother, parents, and aunt told. His father, a playwright, was one of his greatest artistic influences.  Haile actively incorporates their narrative traditions into his.  He speaks proudly of Ethiopian folkloric ideas:  “The idea of the Enkokikish, the kid’s game in the beginning of the movie, Teza itself, is very contextual in how you unravel the wax and gold of a story,” he said. “It’s very Ethiopian.” Sprawling in its reach, Teza’s narrative spans from Anberber’s childhood in his mother’s village, to his student days in Germany, as well as his work as a scientist in Addis Abeba under the Dergue. The film begins with a series of flashbacks that show Anberber bleeding in a German hospital emergency room, and, like the game of Enkokilish, the audience has to ask, how did he get there? Along the way to answering this question, Haile explores numerous themes and ideas. Primary among these is his depiction of those Ethiopians who live abroad: the emotional ambivalence they feel towards their adopted country; the bi-cultural families they start (and sometimes abandon); the racism they face, and the ideologies they adopt.

Do you remember the moment you conceived your idea for Teza? What inspired it, and how did you manage to hold on to the conviction that this was a story worth telling?
There is this phantom story for Africans; that they go abroad, study, and become “somebody”. My generation was the most hit by this mythology. But it also has to do with a story I heard as a kid. There was an Ethiopian who went abroad from Gondar and was thrown off a building by racists in America.  He came back in a casket.  I can’t tell you that this was its inception, since its fuzzy in my head, but basically it was this idea of dislocation. That from the countryside to the city, from the city to Europe or America, you are in search of this ideal that is imposed on you: to look as good as those who come from abroad, because you think they are happy.  But happiness is relative. Those who came from abroad, are they happy? The impression you get is, “I want to be like them.” The end is this communal, collective, global imposition of the idea of going across the ocean, but it’s all mythological. And then the return – those who come back have to readjust upon returning. So really, it’s about the dislocation of the Ethiopian intellectual, but a lot of Africans, I’m sure, can identify, if they are from the same generation, with the basic premise of this film. 

Did the displacement of African intellectuals surprise you when you encountered it? 
It’s not something you encounter at 9:30, it doesn’t have a time. It’s a gradual process.  You are a culprit in your own journey of being grinded by these daily-ravaging things. Initially it was easy.  It was like you were sent to get water. But then you cross the ocean, and the return is not that easy. So it becomes a generational experience, a process. You always question, why am I not home? What the hell am I doing here? This goddamn snow… this snowy place that I was not born in? It’s not my weather; it’s not my climate. You always wonder why do I live here whenever you encounter the ills of that society.  But then, why aren’t you going? What are you doing here still if you feel this way? So I wanted to dramatically explore these contrary emotions that nobody wants to validate, because its either you’re happy or you’re against it. Do you leave or don’t you? It’s complicated. 

You once described Anberber as an incomplete intellectual, what does that mean? 
Well, you know he’s incomplete in many ways.  He doesn’t know his country, or his people. Most Ethiopians, we were enshrined by not knowing Ethiopia because our standard of success was knowing Europe, knowing America, knowing Magna Carta, knowing Napoleon. You wouldn’t even get a girlfriend, if you were a boy and you didn’t know these things. 

Knowing your country was a very dwarfed idea.  It didn’t bring you luck or happiness. After this whole demented period, where you were shortchanged your history, you were sent abroad. Then you grabbed any weapon, thinking this is going to cure your country. The political dogma you pick up becomes the most poisonous thing because the one who doesn’t know his country, cannot cure it.  One only creates chaos, which happened in Ethiopia. 

So for me, an incomplete elite position is when you don’t know your history, your own people.  You don’t even know how to talk to them. You end up lecturing about class struggle and the different variations of the left wing camp to peasants, who just want to farm.  They just want to have food for their children, and their kids to go to school. But farmers were being lectured across Ethiopia by all kinds of leftist movements as if they attended elite schools. In the film, Anberber recognizes his own displacement when he witnesses what he saw in Germany—the elite discussing the different variations of leftism—being discussed in the peasant village to his mother. His mother is being schooled in Marxism. That’s the turnabout of the most upside down thing to happen, and this is usually the result of unripe and uncooked intellectuals. 

There’s a scene in Teza where Anberber, forced to act against his principles, physically reacts to his circumstance by wretching as he tries rid himself of his trauma.  In a sense, Teza is also Haile’s attempt to purge his system.  “Exorcism,” he explains.  “Exorcising is really the process of getting rid of the inner poison you feel. If you lost a person and you’re pained by it, it’s a poison in your system that you can exorcise.” It’s undeniable that there are painful scenes in Teza.  One cannot easily forget the image of a woman as she throws her newborn to the ground, or the figure of a child as he falls, gunned down by soldiers.   These images have been burned into the psyche of those who’ve lived through them, or have heard stories of them. Yet there are other forms of trauma, too.  In the movie, a villager confronts Anberber, asking him to help his daughter, who needs medical attention.  Anberber lifts his hands helplessly, knowing he is unable to be of any practical help, since he isn’t a medical doctor.  It is this impotence, this sense of utter helplessness in those who return that Haile attempts to address. He explains:

I unfortunately went into film instead of being a medical doctor or an agriculturalist. So what happens to my peasant relatives when governments take their children to war? Because I come from abroad, they come and say, “Get me my son,” as if I can go, “Hey powerful–military–politics, give my uncle his son.”  So my inability to quench the needs of my own peasant family was an agonizing thing. I don’t want to abstract it by saying “Ethiopians”.  I just talk about my family—my inability to give them, not material things, but sparing them these painful experiences of losing your son to a war you don’t even know, and you don’t know if he is dead or alive or she is dead or alive. So I’m exorcising these toxic things, these painful things. 

Now that there’s a film people can move on. 
Hopefully. It has to be like stories, poetry, plays, and movies. We Ethiopians often watch movies of other people. We watch soap operas and hide in other things, but deep down we crave our own story being told. Literature and culture enables you to exorcise.  So does religion. It could be the fact that I made the movie with my own people, speaking in my own terms, with my own imperfections. How many people get a chance to tell their story? That is a very exorcising experience, and I hope Ethiopians who immediately experience those aspects, however imperfect my film is, take this film to exorcise their demons by stepping into it and transcending. Once the movie opens, we plan to have meetings to really discuss and exorcise one to one. I’d like to invite the Ethiopian community to a town meeting where we sit down and talk after they see the movie. I want this because I saw what happened in other countries. One night in Canada we stayed until 2am talking, you know, in a gathering place in a bar. And I said oh this is serious. I mean when I was making the film I didn’t anticipate or predict it. But once the movie came out, I learned that debriefing is very important.

You’ve said that you’d like to be remembered as a symbol of resistance. How much of Anberber do you see in yourself? 
Anberber is like a mosaic of many people, he’s not biographical. Anberber is the guy who I transplanted all the different characters I wanted to have in one character, and that for me is his integrity, or the principles he stood for.  [When forced to act against his principles], he has to vomit and that’s all he could do. He capitulated but at least he tried to vomit – to vomit it out literally.  

My resistance is that. I think I’d like young people to know I stood my ground, however wrong or right I was in my life. But the fact that I stood my ground and did what I felt honestly was right. And that I think African people shouldn’t compromise their history, their humanity, because if that is compromised they have nothing left. And so my life is always trying to imperfectly go into that kind of fulfillment. It’s not a perfect harmony, it’s a constant struggle. I would say the idea of struggle is normal and we should be about it with pleasure. Even however long it takes me to make a film, the fact that I don’t have the resources all the time, I’m not bluesy about it. I just want young people to know my time passes struggling and, therefore, there is not a second I waste. 

Where does Teza fit in the overall narrative you have created with your films?
It’s where I am. For me, every movie was a series of staircases: sometimes you leap many stairs; sometimes, it’s step by step. Sankofa was a major turning point. I am now leveling off in a very interesting way in terms of my struggle with film language, and so my new scripts have benefited a great deal from the mistakes I made in the earlier films, including Teza. So, for me, each movie is the imperfect attempt to get into this harmonic structure of story telling in film, and it’s a lifetime engagement.

Source: Abesha