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All contents © 2009
by Mark Jenkins,
unless otherwise noted.

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SEPT. 18, 2009

The Man in the Middle

Ethiopian native and longtime Washingtonian HAILE GERIMA discusses Teza, his new film about the plight of Ethiopian emigr´s, and the state of mainstream American cinema.

By Mark Jenkins

Also opening in D.C. this week, a film I reviewed for NPR: LOVE HAPPENS.

ETHIOPIAN-BRED DIRECTOR HAILE GERIMA, whose Teza makes its U.S. theatrical debut today, has taught film at Howard University since 1975. His features address such subjects as the struggles of an African-American Vietnam vet (Ashes and Embers), the primal connection between Africa and slaves in the American south (Sankofa), and his homeland's battle against Italian invaders (Adwa: An African Victory). Alternating between Ethiopia and Germany, Teza is about the 63-year-old director's own generation of emigrés, who felt alienated in Europe and the U.S., but were no more at home when they returned to a 1980s Ethiopia ruled by a savage Marxist regime. The film has already won numerous awards in Europe and Africa, including the Special Jury Prize at the 2008 Venice Film Festival. Discussing Teza at Gerima's Sankofa bookstore, across Georgia Avenue from the Howard campus, we began with the fact that it's the director's first film since 1999's Adwa.

It's very, very frustrating. In fact, Adwa started after Teza. The script started in 1993. It's been a 14-year journey since it was optioned by German television.

How did you get Euroepan financing?

It has a lot to do with earlier films I made. I sold Ashes and Embers to German television, and then Bush Mama and Harvest: 3,000 Years. Apparently there are some intellectuals who are commissioning editors at two television networks, WDR/Arte and ZDF/Arte. So I would keep sending them my next film.

Was Teza inspired by a single person's story, or is it a composite?

It's a composite of my generation. We were going to midwife modernization in Ethiopia. We went abroad to get knowledge for the service of the people. This idealistic generation of the 1970s was almost universal. I think that's what echoed for people when they were giving it the prize.

This youth culture was universal, even in the U.S. That's where the story was written to be shot. Then I was able to get money from Germany and the European Union, and so it was staged there. I cannot imagine now in America an African project taking off the way this one took off in Europe's friendly environment.

Just because there isn't the financing here, or because of the level of interest?

Since the late 1960s, American filmmakers and audiences were predisposed toward Latin American, African, and Cuban cinema, which influenced a lot of film schools. The interest of the people is ever-growing. Even my support is ever-growing. Most of my films have been watched by crossover audiences. But the interest of the film-financing people is zero.

Would Teza have been much different if you had set it partially in the United States?

There are some scenes [of racist violence] that are easy to attribute to Germans, stereotypically. Americans would have been shocked to know that it happened to foreign students here, too. The scenes don't get questioned, because almost everyone can see Germans as racist. But that's not the intention. These incidents could have happened anywhere. In Poland, in China, Russia, the U.S.

But if I had shot in America, I would have a greater command of my story. In Germany, I had to do so much research. It would have been much easier to write about Ethiopian students in America, because I was there.

And you shot the German scenes very quickly.

Yes, in six days. We finished the Ethiopian part, which was eight weeks, and the bulk of the money went there. I had scheduled nine to 12 days in Germany. But I only had money for six.

Would you say that the central character, Anberber, has aspects of your character?

I would say he has my, and my generation's, dilemma. When we first left our country, it was like "go fetch water at the river." But then you cross the Atlantic, which is a more complicated journey. At the time I migrated, economic migration was the last thing on the mind of African students going to America. It was that our parents, and even Emperor Haile Selassie, said, "Go and get science and technology." As if you, like Prometheus, could bring fire and transform your society. But then you meet people, fall in love, have children — these kinds of human relationships were never anticipated. Do you abandon your children? Some did. Some couldn't.

Most of the story is stolen from the lives of other Ethiopians. During the military junta, I was not in Ethiopia. Except briefly, twice. When they came to power, I was there shooting a movie. But for the bulk of the brutal period of that regime, I was actually hiding in America.

In Teza, the students who were leftists in Germany clash with the Marxist government when they return to Ethiopia.

These intellectuals who have been in the West are not easy mules to ride. They're not usually [compatible with] autocratic visionaries who want to take you to civilization by beating and killing you.

Those are among the complex effects of this journey, which looks so easy when you start. When I left, I had my whole life completely plotted. Young Ethiopians who come to America for economic reasons cannot understand this. More Europeans understood the movie. The film did very well in Italy. It was one of the first African films to open dubbed in Italian. People can go see it in 32 theaters. It has a lot to do with the country's disillusioned elite, who also had this generation's dilemma.

What are your hopes for the film in the U.S.?

When we did Sankofa, I didn't anticipate 100 people would see it. I'm more about making the movie. If I've finished it, I really don't have any power over the rest. I don't own a theater. Although my wife [director Sirikiana Aina] and I distribute our own films, I'm powerless in terms of distribution.

Now, in Ethiopia, it's been running since December. That's the first time I've experienced [such success] in my own country.

Is the film controversial in Ethiopia?

Well, the government has been reacting funny. There are left-wingers who feel I'm compromising that generation's intent. In general, the film is helping a lot of Ethiopians exorcise [the period].

I make imperfect films, and I'm the first to admit it. I'm still looking for many things about my own method of expression, my own culture, my own folkloric background. These are my preoccupations. It's not just telling the story mechanically. I'm more interested in how my grandmother or my father once tell a story. The film is imperfect, but people bring so much of their own pain and hunger — not having seen this story on television or in film, they hunger for it. You make a film, a little water in the midst of this thirst, and they think it's a masterpiece.

The same thing happened to Sankofa in the black American context. People thought it was a definitive film on slavery. It's not. It had so many problems.

Do you feel an obligation to be a political filmmaker?

I think I was political when I was an angry student at UCLA. But I've seen so much in my life, that my politics are my biggest problem — if I have politics. They're so elusive and ever-changing. I think what makes my films political is my outsider-ness. That I don't abide by the industry formula. That I don't submit to exploitation in any form, even by distributors.

But I'm the last person who would go to war for my politics. My politics wouldn't even fill a leaflet. It's just my way of making a film, my insistence on my right to tell my story. When an outsider fights to tell his story, the establishment politicizes you. I'm only claiming the right of the storyteller, not a territory, not a country, not an army, not a war.

The literary side of me would not let me accept any politics. I've read too much. I've seen many well-meaning people become victims of their own political idea. I am a student of what happened to them. They cared, but the politics swallowed them. I'm a critical scrutinizer of any idea, any religion, and dogma.

You're known for being critical of mainstream Hollywood movies. Are you hopeful about alternatives?

America is the country of Tom Paine. What fascinates me is the independent-thinking Americans. These are the kind of Americans who are my teachers. The Berrigans, the Howard Zinns, the Paul Robesons.

Sooner or later, Americans break out. Otherwise you would never have heard about Abu Ghraib. The stories come out because of people like [Daniel] Ellsberg. So I know there will be filmmakers, because there have been powerful innovators like Coppola.

The industry now is oppressive; it doesn't allow difference. What I dislike in term of race cinema is that diversity does not exist. I think the stupid films have to exist, but you should also have brilliant films. America needs all kinds of representations of black people and Hispanics and women.

Every black person who wants to go to a theater has only one choice: Barbershop, or Barbershop 20. Or Booty Call 20. That's were I'm critical. Including of the black participants. I'm saying we should diversify the content and cinematic approach of black cinema. In so doing, you humanize the story of black people. But if you continue to make it a story of buffoons, they you reap what you sow.

When I left UCLA, I could have gone into pornographic film, and would have gotten rich. I made a choice. Everybody has the right to choose. This is the way of America. I grew up nurtured by Hollywood cinema, but the cinema that liberated me was Latin American films, Cuban films, [Senegal's] Ousmane Sembene. They said that their people's stories are also credible.

When I was in film school, the first script I was writing was in English. You don't know how hard it is to make Ethiopian characters, who never spoke English, speak English. Because I felt movies all have to be in English. When I saw Ousmane Sembene's films, with Africans talking their own language, I almost had a heart attack. And so my Ethiopian culture was liberated. I came to appreciate many things that I first encountered in America; these choices happened here.

TEZA — 2008, 140 min; at Avalon Theater.