The story of independent filmmaker Haile Gerima
Haile Gerima is an Ethiopian independent filmmaker based in the United States. He went to the US in 1968 to study acting and directing at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, Illinois. He was later transferred to the Theatre Department at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) where he completed the Masters Program in Film.
He then relocated to Washington, D.C. to teach at the Howard University’s Department of Radio, Television and Film where he influenced young filmmakers for over twenty-five years. Inspired by UCLA classmate and filmmaker Charles Burnett and by the celebrated African-American poet and educator Sterling Brown, Haile’s films are noted for their exploration of the issues and history pertinent to the African Diaspora. Often corrective of Hollywood versions of slave stories, his films comment on the physical, cultural and psychological dislocation of black peoples during and after slavery.
Haile’s narratives are told from the perspective of an African and of the African Diaspora, rather than being sanitized and misinterpreted by more commercially oriented filmmakers. His unique film-making style is coupled with a personal mission to correct long-held misconceptions about black peoples’ varied histories throughout the world. For this reason, colleagues and students alike regard him to be a master teacher in the classroom and behind the camera.
Haile Gerima directed, produced, wrote and edited a total of eleven films including his 1972 Child of Resistance, his 1976 Bush Mama and his 1994 Imperfect Journey. But Haile’s best-known film, many say, is Sankofa – which is about slavery and was produced in 1993. Released in 1999, another one of Haile’s breakthrough films is Adwa – a documentary about the Battle of Adwa in which Ethiopians defeated the Italian colonial force.
In March 2009, Haile Gerima’s film, Teza, about Ethiopia’s former dictatorial regime won the Golden Stallion of Yennenga – Africa’s equivalent of the Oscars – at the continent’s main movie awards ceremony in Burkina Faso.
Teza portrays the story of a German educated Ethiopian scientist who goes back to his homeland under the regime of Mengistu Hailemariam. It was made to show what life was like under Mengistu, who ruled the country from 1974 to 91. The film discusses the issues of dictatorship, emigration, war and the position of women in the Ethiopian society during the Mengistu regime. It premiered on the big-screen in Ethiopia on 3 January 2009 and is reported to have been a great success in terms of audience numbers.
Haile’s films are more about education than entertainment, and substance than style. He is perhaps one of very few Ethiopians to have made it to the international film-making industry as a director, producer, writer and editor.
The Ethiopian film industry is in its very infancy, but it has grown so much in a very short period of time – and the pace of its growth is simply remarkable. There can be little doubt that many of the big players who are driving the Ethiopian film industry currently have drawn inspiration from the works of Haile Gerima and have followed his lead to tell the many aspects of Ethiopian stories using the medium of film.