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Haile Gerima

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Ethiopian film director and playwright

Haile Gerima (born March 4, 1946) is an Ethiopian filmmaker who lives and works in the United States. He is a leading member of the L.A. Rebellion film movement, also known as the Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers. His films have received wide international acclaim. Since 1975, Gerima has also been an influential film professor at Howard University in Washington, DC. He is best known for Sankofa (1993), which won numerous international awards.

Haile Gerima was born and raised in Gondar, Ethiopia. His father was a dramatist and playwright, who traveled across the Ethiopian countryside staging local plays. He was an important early influence.

Gerima emigrated to the United States in 1968 to study theatre. He enrolled in acting classes at the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago. "When I was growing up," he told the Los Angeles Times, "I wanted to work in theater—it never occurred to me I could be a filmmaker because I was raised on Hollywood movies that pacified me to be subservient. Film making isn't encouraged or supported by the Ethiopian government." He felt limited by theater and was resigned, notes Francoise Pfaff, to "subservient roles in Western plays."

In 1970 he moved to California to attend the University of California, where he earned Bachelor's and Master's of Fine Arts degrees in film. He was part of a generation of new black filmmakers who became known as the Los Angeles School of Black filmmakers, along with Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep), Jamaa Fanaka (Penitentiary), Ben Caldwell (I and I), Larry Clark and Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust).

Gerima has noted the influence of Vittorio de Sica, Fernando Solanas, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, and Med Hondo.

Early films

By the time Gerima graduated in 1976, he had completed four films: Hour Glass (1972); Child of Resistance (1972); Bush Mama (1976); and Mirt Sost Shi Amit (also known as Harvest: 3,000 Years; 1976)

Gerima's 1976 Bush Mama portrays the travails of Black life and culture, far removed from the drug deals and revenge killings of the contemporary films, Super Fly (1972) and Foxy Brown (1976). The film is the story of Dorothy and her husband T.C., a discharged Vietnam veteran who anticipated a hero's welcome on his return. He is arrested and imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. Theirs is a world of welfare, perennial unemployment, and despair. The film has stark black-and-white photography, but its message is moving and distinct. It addresses issues of institutionalized racism, police brutality, and poverty; these remain pertinent.

For the production of Mirt Sost Shi Amit (Harvest: 3,000 Years) Gerima returned to his native Ethiopia. It is an account of a poor peasant family who eke out an existence within a brutal, exploitative, and feudal system of labor.

His Wilmington 10—USA 10,000 (1978) explores racism and the shortcomings of the criminal justice system in the United States by examining the history of the nine Black men and one white woman who became known as the Wilmington Ten.

1980s

The travails of Black urban life in the United States are explored in the two-hour Ashes and Embers (1982), the story of a moody and disillusioned Black veteran of the Vietnam War.

After Winter: Sterling Brown (1985) is a documentary about the notable Black American poet.

1990s

Gerima is perhaps best known as the writer, producer, and director of Sankofa (1993). This historically inspired dramatic tale of African resistance to slavery won international acclaim: awarded first prize at the African Film Festival in Milan, Italy; Best Cinematography at Africa's premier Festival of Pan African Countries (FESPACO); and nominated for the Golden Bear at the 43rd Berlin International Film Festival, where it competed with Hollywood films. The film attracted huge audiences across the United States, many of whom waited in long lines and filled theaters for weeks on end. The film defied the notion that only mainstream distributors could attract audiences for filmmakers. Guided by an independent philosophy, Gerima practiced an innovative strategy in distribution whose success remains unprecedented in African-American film history.

The film opens with the statement: "Spirit of the dead, rise up and claim your story!" It presents a brutally realistic portrayal of African slavery. The story is revealed through the eyes of Mona, a modern-day woman who is possessed by spirits and transported to the past as 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 critics panned Gerima for excess brutality, but the Black community responded positively and enthusiastically. The film was well received and played to full houses for many weeks in major cities.

Imperfect Journey (1994), commissioned by the BBC, explores the political and psychic recovery of the Ethiopian people after the political repression or "red terror" of the military junta of Mengistu Haile Mariam. The filmmaker suggests questions about the direction of the succeeding government and the will of the people in creating institutions guaranteeing their liberation.

Adwa: An African Victory (1999) is a documentary drama of the history of the 1896 battle, which concluded the war in which the Ethiopian people united to defeat the Italian army. Gerima used images of paintings and rare historical photographs, sound, music, and interviews of elders, who recall the details of the story of the battle. It concludes with a dramatic recreation of the final battle.

Teza

Gerima's most recent film is Teza (2008). Set in Ethiopia and Germany, the film chronicles the return of an Ethiopian intellectual to his country of birth during the repressive Marxist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam and the recognition of his own displacement and powerlessness at the dissolution of his people's humanity and social values. After several years spent studying medicine in Germany, Anberber returns to Ethiopia only to find the country of his youth replaced by turmoil. His dream of using his craft to improve the health of Ethiopians is squashed by a military junta that uses scientists for their own political ends. Seeking the comfort of his countryside home, Anberber finds no refuge from violence. The solace that the memories of his youth provide is quickly replaced by the competing forces of military and rebelling factions. Anberber needs to decide whether he wants to bear the strain or piece together a life from the fragments that lie around him.

Independent distribution and Mypheduh Films Inc.

To gain more independence, Gerima and his wife Sirikiana Aina (who is also a filmmaker) in 1984 established a distribution company: Mypheduh Films Inc., for low-budget, independent films. They relied on this for his film Sankofa (1993).

Though well-established, Gerima, like many independent filmmakers, regrets failing to attract a mainstream audience. "I was never enamored of the film industry," he said to 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."

Sankofa bookstore

He founded a bookstore/cafe/film center, located in the heart of the African-American community at 2714 Georgia Avenue, NW, in Washington, DC, named for his film and lead character.

Selected Works
Film and Television
Adwa: An African Victory [Documentary, 2000]
Sankofa [Fiction, 1993]
After Winter: Sterling Brown [1985]
Ashes and Embers [Fiction, 1981]
Wilmington 10 - USA 10,000 [1981]
Bush Mama [Fiction, 1976]
Mirt sost shi amet (Harvest 3,000 Years) [1975]
Hour glass [Short film, 1971]