Above: We spoke with the internationally acclaimed director
Haile Gerima about his latest film Teza. (Gezaw Tesfaye)
Last Updated: Friday, April 2, 2010
New York (Tadias) – For filmmaker Haile Gerima the travails of life are much like moving images – “a constant journey of restlessness and complexity, until the final rest.”
Haile’s latest film, the critically acclaimed Teza, focuses on the tumultuous years of the Mengistu era, as told by an idealistic Ethiopian doctor who recounts dreams and nightmares.
We spoke with Haile at his Sankofa bookstore, conveniently located across from Howard University where he has been teaching film since 1975.
But first, here is a sneak preview of Teza:
Teza’s main character, Anberber, experiences nightmares reflecting back to the chaotic years in Ethiopia following the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie. Do you think this painful memory is also collectively shared by Anberber’s generation in the Diaspora?
HG: Oh, Certainly. In fact, a lot of people would ask me, “Is it biographical?” I say, no it is a collective experience. It’s a stolen story of a whole lot of people. So the generation that this film speaks to is an idealistic generation, who were sent abroad by governments or by personal ambition, to bring the tonic that would transform their society. Therefore, you have a generation that was leaving the country as if they were sent to go and bring the medicine and cross the river and comeback. Yet, the journey is more complex. When you cross the Atlantic and the threshold of the so-called modern society, you enter in to a new orbit and your journey becomes more complicated. For me, and especially my generation of Ethiopians of the 1970’s and late 60’s, this is the dilemma that dramatized even their well-intended political dream into a nightmare. So it is a generational, I would say, biography.
What memories do you have of that time? Are they reflected in your film?
HG: Well I would say, how genuine young Ethiopian men and women were about changing Ethiopia. How much they cared, how much they loved their country was unquestionable, but at the same time you know you can destroy the object of love if it is possessively displaced. In other words, the dogmatic nature of that generation was such that they arrogantly thought they had the formula for transforming Ethiopia. It left them a confused generation.
The film was shot in Ethiopia and Germany but the story was based here in America. It was first written for America. I remember long ago weekend meetings (of Ethiopians) at the international student center near UCLA or at UCLA. We left all the priorities of our personal life to meet on the issue of country. That is the most amazing experience, but at the same time, we were also feeding a very dangerous dogma to each other. A dogma that swallowed the very generation in its prime age. I was in these meetings. Of course, I got out at a certain point because I couldn’t digest my own tendencies of disappearing in this generational political culture. When we shot the film in Germany we shot in the actual place where Ethiopian students were meeting. It doesn’t matter where we were, Ethiopian men and women of my generation in Paris, in Rome, in Cologne or Frankfurt or Seattle, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, or San Francisco. They were doing the same activity and basically reading almost the same books, and these books were taken as Biblical prophecies to transform Ethiopia. And, in the end, we lost so many powerful Ethiopian young men. Brilliant young men and women were lost in this confusion, in this chaotic period. So I know vividly these people that I dedicate the film to. I remember their eyes and how genuine they were. These are not bad people. They were not selfish. They just disappeared in the chaos.
Do you think the current generation is lost in the chaos of individualistic attitude?
HG: Well, you know I think it is a very different generation. Completely different generation. And I don’t know the historical circumstances. I don’t know what would become of them. But it is a generation that is so disillusioned it has no internal strength. Most Ethiopians are not strong inside, that is why they need external jackets and hair-dos, lipsticks, earrings, cars and TV to say “I am somebody.”
Some people would say well it is that political confusion that created this alienated generation, but I always say every generation has a responsibility to be compassionate to be collective-minded and fair and just. You see it in America – young people marching for poor people or against racism etc..so young Ethiopians at this point, they might have personal experiences to use as explanations, but in my view if I have to say it, I find them very confused and very external-oriented, materialistic-oriented. And to me I am not against hair change or lipstick or earrings, but I think inner strength is more important to say “I believe this and I am somebody inside.”
On the other hand you can see a lot of Ethiopians are very successfully involved in the economic foundation of America — they have restaurants. We never thought about restaurants, we never thought about businesses. We all thought we were sent to bring medicine from abroad and cure our people. There was so much trachoma in my village. When you come from those circumstances you don’t have time for personal ambitions. Instead you start thinking “There must be something I could do before I die” or “what is the purpose of living?”
What is purpose of living? Let me put it this way…what is life in the eyes of a cinematographer?
HG: Life is a cinema, constant journey of restlessness complexity, until the final rest. Life for me is constant struggle to have your say in this world to have your story be presented as a valid story.
What is the main message that you want the audience to take away from this film?
HG:The purpose of Teza is really like childhood morning dew. When I was growing up, I would sense the morning from the water caressing my legs while walking through the grass – the morning dew (English for Teza). This type of childhood experience is being lost, and so I am trying to preserve my childhood and I am trying to preserve my generation. And I am trying to remember the mistakes we made especially when we became brutal toward each other – shooting each other, killing each other. I don’t like killing, I never liked killing I don’t know how my generation made its cultural trademark to kill each other because of political differences. These are the reasons I try to work for myself first. People have to take it and see what it does for them, but for me, I am processing the whole confusion that I was part of.
Is Teza historical fiction or is it based on a true story? What in particular inspired you to make the film?
HG: Let me tell you, every time I go to Ethiopia I find mothers asking me to return their sons from the war. A war between two ‘families’ – Eritrea and Ethiopia. A woman who has ‘clogged’ her eyes crying for the past two or three years will lament “bring back my son to me. Can you give me my son? I don’t want your money, I want you to give me my son.” How does one deliver this woman’s request? You are only a filmmaker, you are not an army. How would you fulfill her request? This is the challenge that I face every time I go to Ethiopia. I am faced by the reality of peasants, working people, servants in homes – they all confront me. And so for me the film is like vomiting toxic. In doing so you exorcise your own.
I don’t have the power to make people see my movie, I have no other agenda. If they see it I am grateful. To me, the primary task of this movie is to vomit it, now the inspiration is really my helplessness. Teza’s main character, Amberber, felt completely helpless in one scene when soldiers come to take a son, and the mother was saying give me back my son, he is not armed, he is just confused scholar who got back to his country to his mother, to his umbilical cord in search of his childhood. He is always walking in the landscape because that is where he grew up but the reality kept coming in front of him like a stage play. So, my inspiration is my inability to do something about what the Ethiopian people are going through, then and now. This is what my helplessness is. Other people have a more dramatic source of inspiration. My inspiration is me being helpless, powerless, not having enough resources.
Teza said to have taken 14 years to make, why did it take so long? And what were the challenges in executing it?
HG: Many Ethiopians in my view do not understand the power of culture. When Westerners make film they know it is about their collective culture. We, on the other hand, don’t see how significant it is to preserve our people’s culture, from day one, as it is invoked by descendents. As it resonates through the younger generation. We don’t invest on culture. For instance, Ethiopians in America, if they put twenty dollars a month aside for the transformation of Ethiopian art, for the preservation of Ethiopian culture and tradition, Ethiopia would also have a population that is mentally restructured and confident and capable of making its own history. To create a critically brilliant society you have to have a dramatic cultural transaction.
Can you say a bit more about the leading actors in the film? How you found them and cast them?
HG: None of the characters had acted before. Most of them came to me raw, but they had amazing potential and gift that I was able to say ‘Oh! This person will give me what I want.’ Some of the actors in the village, like the woman who plays Amberber’s mother, has never acted. She doesn’t even know what acting is, but she knocked people out because she was so genuine, truthful, and most of all she understood and felt the story. She lived in the era and I was able to work with her to get what I wanted. So, for me there is what you call ‘gift,’ and in filmmaking half of it is luck. You know, you try and sometimes you mis-cast. I am proud of the cast in Teza, and I didn’t care if they didn’t know acting because I was very confident of making sure that I don’t paralyze them by mystifying acting. I know how to demystify acting, that is part of my education my orientation. I practiced a lot even during Sankofa, Bush Mama, I made movies with non-actors and actors too. The non-actors have done amazing work, so for me when auditioning people I am looking untangle a range of talent, and get the best out of what I want rather than cast corrupted actors who will not be genuine.
Actresses Araba Evelyn Johnston-Arthur, Veronika Avraham, director Haile Gerima
and actors Abeye Tedla and Aaron Arefe attend the ‘Teza’ photocall at the Piazzale
del Casino during the 65th Venice Film Festival on September 2, 2008 in Venice.
(September 2, 2008 – Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images Europe)
What is your favorite film? Why?
HG: The problem with this question is that it is flawed. Favorite film doesn’t exist but what happens is, films inspire me. One of them is ‘The Hour of the Furnaces‘ from Argentina, but the most powerful film that resonates with my childhood experience is a Japanese film called The Island and another Swedish film called My Life as a Dog, and an Italian film called The Bicycle Thief. So it is a range of films – kind of like puzzle work. There are a lot of films that animated my life and resonated with me.
You talk about the influence your parents had on you growing up and how it inspired you to become a storyteller, can you talk about that?
HG: You know, when I was growing up we sat around the fire and my grandmother would always tell a story. And to me that is the foundation of film – storytelling. My father was a playwright and he wrote plays and I participated in different capacities in my father’s plays. And my mother was always full of stories and most nights we had no television, no film to go to. Our TV and TV dinner was fireside chats. Hearing stories from the elders played a major role in my development, as well as kept alive my continued quest to connect to their lifestyle, their aesthetics. I didn’t know it was important to do so then, but now I go out of my way to preserve it. To me, Ethiopia has a lot to offer to an artist. It is a country that has the audacity to invent without imitation. The storytelling is the kind of orientation that I am very blessed and grateful about.
What advice do you have for young aspiring Ethiopian filmmakers? Or anyone that wants to prosper in the artistic world of cinematography?
HG: One is to give your heart fully — to jump and get into it all the way. Not to apologize, not to be inhibited by going to school or not going to school. Or by ‘knowing’ film or not. If you have the urge to tell a story just jump with everything within you. But once you jump in, it is not enough to jump in, now you have to kick if you don’t want to drown, and so the hard work is the process of learning more by yourself through your work.
Every film that I make is my university. I learn so much from my mistakes and I consider my films the most imperfect films because I am always learning to do better from film to film. The kind of filmmakers that young people should aspire to be is to consistently learn from their own films. Watch movies, study paintings and color. Color as simple as it sounds is complex. Understand culture that is fundamental. Film in the end is built in this powerful development of your sensory organs to light, to shadows. This doesn’t come just by wanting to be a filmmaker. You have to go out of your way. Young people should know that one doesn’t become a filmmaker individually but, rather from a collective view. Don’t forget not only to learn what to do but also learn what not to do as well.
Many of your films are financed by independent sources outside the U.S or the community….what makes it easy for you to find funding outside but challenging in the U.S?
HG: I got tired of asking people who don’t value my story to fund my films. In Europe, I found individuals who said ‘Let me join this guy.’ Yes, it takes me years to convince people. that is why it took fourteen years to find the money I needed to start filming in 2004. The first shooting took place in Ethiopia for eight weeks. Then it took me two more years to find the German part – six day shoot. In the end it is luck that I found intellectuals who were predisposed to my right to tell my story and that they want to be part of the storytelling. Mostly because I prefer low budget, I have more freedom to control my film. Even by American standards, I am the freest independent filmmaker who owns his own films. And if I enter into a relationship I never relinquish the power of the filmmaker where other people come to decide for me. I would rather have less money and more freedom.
Where do you find the time and energy to do all this?
HG: From the story, the story keeps me charged.
Is there anything else you would like to share with our audience?
HG: Thank you to Tadias. I know how you guys insist to exist. And I know how difficult it is for magazines to exist. I hope you guys continue to sustain, to struggle to be innovative, to find an alternative way of making sure that you don’t disintegrate and close and collapse. I am impressed that you are at least here in the cyber world – you exist. I am very impressed with that.
Thank you so much Prof. Gerima and we wish you continued success!
HG: Thank you!