Haile Gerima is having a Hollywood moment. It left him in conflict.


Haile Gerima doesn’t hold back when it comes to her thoughts on Hollywood. The power games of film producers and distributors are “anti-cinema,” he said recently. The three-act structure is akin to “fascism” – it “numbs, makes stories toothless.” And Hollywood cinema is like the “hydrogen bomb”.

For decades, Gerima, the 75-year-old Ethiopian filmmaker, has led the way outside the Hollywood system, building a legacy that hangs over American and African independent cinema.

But while speaking with me on a video call from his studio in Washington, DC, Gerima found himself at an unexpected moment: he was about to travel to Los Angeles, where he would receive the first Vantage. Award at the opening gala of the Academy. Museum of Motion Pictures, which is also showing a retrospective of his work this month. A new 4K restoration of his 1993 classic, “Sankofa,” debuted on Netflix last month.

After 50 years, Hollywood has finally come calling. “I’m going with a lump in my throat,” said Gerima with typical candor. “It’s an industry that I have no relationship with, no trust, no desire to be a part of.”

Gerima has a tendency to speak directly and without euphemism, her words driven by the strength of her conviction. The filmmaker has been at odds with the American film industry since the 1970s, when he was a student at the University of California, Los Angeles. There he was part of what would come to be known as LA Rebellion – a loose collective of African and African American filmmakers, including Charles Burnett (“Killer of Sheep”), Julie Dash (“Daughters of the Dust”). , Larry Clark (“Tamu”) and others, who have challenged the traditional cinematic idiom.

Gerima’s first film school project was a short commercial called “Death of Tarzan”. An exorcism of Hollywood colonial fantasies, it elicited a response from a classmate Gerima still remembers fondly: “Thank you, Gerima, for killing this imperialist in childbirth!”

The eight feature films he has since made bristle with the same liberating momentum, using non-linear narratives and jagged audiovisual experiences to paint catchy portraits of black and Pan-African resistance. In a phone interview, Burnett described Gerima’s work as an emotional race: “People have plots and things, but he has energy, real energy. This is what characterizes his films.

The stark black and white “Bush Mama” (1975) traces the radicalization of a woman in Los Angeles as she navigates poverty and the Kafkaesque welfare bureaucracy. “Ashes and Embers” (1982) – which opens with the protagonist driving to Los Angeles with dreams of Hollywood before being abruptly arrested by the police – traces the progressive disillusion of a Vietnam Black War veteran . In “Sankofa,” one of Gerima’s most acclaimed films, an African-American model is transported back in time to a plantation, where she is caught up in a slave rebellion. Other films, such as “Harvest: 3000 Years” (1976) and “Teza” (2008), explore the political history of the Ethiopia where Gerima was born.

For the filmmaker and his wife and production partner, Shirikiana Aina, these visions of fierce black independence are as much a matter of life as of art. Most of Gerima’s films have been produced and distributed by the couple’s company, Mypheduh Films, which takes its name from an ancient Ethiopian word meaning ‘protector of culture’. Mypheduh’s offices are located at Sankofa, a Pan African Bookstore and Cultural Center across from Howard University, where Gerima taught cinema for over 40 years. This little pocket of Washington is Gerima’s empire – or its “liberated territory,” as he likes to call it.

“When I think of Haile’s cinema, I think of chestnut cinema,” said Aboubakar Sanogo, a friend of Gerima’s and African cinema specialist at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, in an interview, citing a term for the runaway slaves. who formed their own independent colonies. “It’s really a cinema of freedom. Hollywood is the plantation he escaped from.

If Gerima is now ready to dance with the academy (which incidentally has never awarded an Oscar for best director to a black filmmaker), it is thanks to the involvement of a soul mate: Ava DuVernay.

Filmmaker “Selma”, who co-chaired the Academy Museum’s opening gala, was the driving force behind the 2021 Haile-ssance. Array, DuVernay’s distribution and advocacy collective, spearheaded of the restoration of “Sankofa”. The company also re-released “Ashes and Embers” on Netflix in 2016, in addition to distributing “Residue,” the feature debut by Gerima’s son, Merawi, last year.

Speaking by phone, DuVernay said that by working with Gerima, she felt like she had come full circle: Years ago, she modeled Array on the lead set by grassroots distribution initiatives. by Gerima and Aina.

“I was very influenced by this idea that your movie is an extension of you and that it doesn’t need to be given to someone else to share it with the world,” said DuVernay. “Self-determination of self-distribution was a radical idea for me. I didn’t have to beg the studios – I could make my film and be in conversation with an audience independently.

It was a strategy that Gerima and Aina forged during the initial release of “Sankofa”. The film gives a galvanizing form to an idea that runs through all of Gerima’s work: that Africans are not the victims of history, but its heroes. “I always thought slavery wasn’t about brutal whites,” he said. “Slavery is black Africans who refuse to be slaves. The consequences of this cannot be the dominant aspect of a film; if not, you are participating in the creation of Hollywood victims.

But getting this film – born of unprecedented co-productions with Ghana, Burkina Faso, and other African countries – seen by black audiences in America to see it required its own kind of intrepid independence. When a well-received premiere at the 1993 Berlin International Film Festival resulted in no US distribution deal, Gerima and Aina did what they knew best: they reached out to their community.

They rented a local theater in Washington and organized screenings and meetings to spread the word. The response was overwhelming: the theater was packed for 11 weeks, and soon they were raising money for a second copy to show in Baltimore, where it lasted 21 weeks. As community and cultural groups began to spread from Illinois, Kansas, Arkansas, California and elsewhere, Gerima and Aina slowly established what they call the “Sankofa family.”

“They were our airport in every state,” Gerima said. “Underprivileged black people put this film on the world map.”

Now, almost 30 years later, an impeccable restoration of “Sankofa” is airing on Netflix in several countries. There is something poetic about the film that introduces a new audience to Gerima’s legacy: its title derives from a Ghanaian term that loosely translates to “recovering the past while moving towards the future”.

The phrase was on my mind as I spoke with Gerima. He was in his mounting “cave”, as he described it, and a picture of his father was on the computer screen behind him, the image zooming into the man’s ear, as if he was listening. . A writer of political plays, Gerima’s The Father features prominently in “Black Lions, Roman Wolves,” a documentary about the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 that the filmmaker edited throughout the pandemic. Gerima said she was stuck in post-production due to “surreal” negotiations with the Istituto Luce Cinecittà, the Italian state-owned film company, over news footage from the war.

He recalled that during the premiere of “Adwa” – his documentary on the 1896 victory of the Ethiopian forces against the Italian invaders – at the Venice Film Festival in 1999, the press had criticized the Istituto Luce for not having participated. to production. “So they wrote me a letter saying, ‘In your next film, we will participate. But every time a bureaucrat changes, politics changes. And I have to start the ABCD of everything again.

It is experiences like these that make him wary of institutional support. “I don’t trust the eruptive social discourse,” he said. “The well-meaning folks at the Academy Museum – what happens when they’re not around?” Who enters ? And what then happens to the idea of ​​inclusion? It’s the anxiety that I have.

Aina, who joined us for the end of our interview, seemed more optimistic when she spoke about the museum’s Vantage Award. “I hope that means our job can get a little easier,” she said simply. “We just want to be able to have the ability to make our films and leave something in place that future filmmakers can incorporate into their new visions.”

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