Author’s note: Around Easter time 2015, I dropped in on Sankofa Video Books and Cafe in Washington, D.C., with the intention of drinking some fine Ethiopian coffee, and the vague hope of catching up with its co-proprietor, the great director Haile Gerima. As it happened, he strolled in moments after I did, and we got talking. I bought a bunch of his films on DVD (support the artist!), an act which may have persuaded him to accept when I enquired whether I could return the following day for a more formal interview. Gerima was insightful, thoughtful, and extremely generous with his time. The following feature first appeared in the January 2016 print edition of Sight & Sound Magazine, but I’ve added in a couple of links and details here, plus a not-fit-for-the-newsstands picture of me grinning alongside him. Enjoy.
The career of Ethiopian-born, American-based writer-director Haile Gerima is a fascinating case study of the challenges faced by left-leaning, formally experimental black filmmakers who wish for their work to be widely seen. Consider, for example, the fate of his 1993 film Sankofa, a visceral, tonally poetic, and visually seductive study of an American fashion model who is magically transported back in time from Ghana’s Cape Coast Castle to the antebellum American south, and transformed into a house slave. Here, she falls in love with a rebellious field slave who implores her to poison her white owners.
Like a more esoteric forebear of 12 Years a Slave (2013), but with no golden-locked Brad Pitt figure to salvage the day, Sankofa is a stark immersion into the plantation experience for both central character and viewer. While functioning as a resounding endorsement of the liberating power of self-knowledge, Sankofa, through its complex, detailed portrait of intra-slave relations, also offers a sharp comment on the continued sublimation of slave mentality and practice within contemporary American society. As Gerima told journalist Assata Wright, “If you view America as a plantation, then you can codify the different classes and interest groups within the society. You find overseers, head slaves, you find plantation owners in a very advanced, sophisticated way.”
Despite Gerima’s serious pedigree — he came to prominence in the 1970s alongside the likes of Charles Burnett and (not that) Larry Clark as a leading light of UCLA’s feted “LA Rebellion” movement — the fundraising process for Sankofa took nine gruelling years. Despite the film’s evident artistic qualities and positive critical reception at international festivals, major American distributors, skeptical of its earning potential and cowed by its revolutionary thrust, wouldn’t touch it.
Unbowed, Gerima opted for the exhausting self-distribution route. (He wasn’t starting from scratch, though: In 1982, Gerima made Ashes and Embers, an elliptical psychodrama about the spiritual awakening of a troubled black Vietnam vet-turned-actor: its bleak tone is conspicuously antithetical to Hollywood’s Rambo-fication of the war. To enable its release, the director, alongside his filmmaker wife Shirikiana Aina, and sister Selome, set up the company Mypheduh Films in the basement of his home in Washington, DC. Ashes and Embers has recently been restored and released by Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY label.)
So, in the pre-lightweight digital days, Gerima took Sankofa to thirty-five different cities, and it ultimately grossed nearly $3m. It was especially successful with black audiences. As Gerima writes on his website, “I witnessed theaters across America turn into night schools, as intense discourse was sparked among audience members … the black image was re-framed on-screen.”
In 1997, using the Sankofa windfall, Gerima and his family upgraded their operations to a large property unit in Washington, located a stone’s throw from the prestigious Howard University, where Gerima has been a professor of film since 1975. They converted it into Sankofa Video and Books, a venue which, as I discovered on a recent visit, still thrives today. Its walls are lined with DVDs and books about black history, literature, and culture, while Gerima frequently hosts screenings in the spacious parking lot, and schedules open mic nights for poets and musicians.
A cafe was added in 2007, where one can purchase food items named after esteemed African and African-American directors (“a ‘Charles Burnett’, for example, is a panini filled with pesto, smoked mozzarella, dill, tomato, and olives, suggesting that no sheep were killed in its creation.) Of his venue, the stocky, white-bearded, softly-spoken 69-year old tells me, “When the black community meet here they call it ‘liberated territory’, which means a place where folks can come to study and think critically.”
Sankofa Video and Books is also a crucial part of Gerima’s independent filmmaking apparatus, fitted with editing facilities where he and Shirikiana can cut their films, and educate students. Gerima, who was extremely generous with his time, showed me to his downstairs editing suite and ran me a series of a clips from his ongoing project, The Children of Adwa, a documentary about the Second colonial Italo-Abyssinian War, which lasted from October 1935 to May 1936. Gerima inherited the project from his father, playwright and historian Abba Gerima Tafere, the author of books like Gondere Begashaw, a chronicle, written in the Amharic language, of anti-fascist uprisings during the Italian occupation of Ethiopia in World War II. Gerima has been recording the testimony of Ethiopian fighters for around 20 years, and intends to make the entirety of his research available to historians.
The Children of Adwa is a companion piece to both Teza (2008), his award-winning historical epic, and more specifically Adwa (1999), a lyrical documentary about the victory of the Ethiopian patriots over Italian colonial powers in the eponymous concluding 1896 battle of the first colonial war. Gerima screened Adwa at the Venice Film Festival, and its conscious reframing of history through the director’s national lens, plus its unsparing exposure of Italian brutality, offended local sensibilities. “People stormed out,” he recalls. “Here was an Ethiopian history coming, and it ruined their ideas. Italians always say to me, ‘we built roads, we built clinics and hospitals, we weren’t as cruel as other colonialists’, and I would say ‘Oh no, I remember my father’s book!’”
Gerima’s father was his first conduit to a life in art, and a key figure in introducing him to liberationist, anti-colonial politics that would definitively sequester him from the mainstream. When Haile moved from Ethiopia to Chicago in 1967, he attended drama school, studied as a playwright, and would act in his father’s plays. It was at UCLA, however, where he developed his filmmaking chops. After making a pair of ruminative, dreamlike shorts which filtered black liberation struggles through the respective individual consciousness of a college basketball player (Hourglass, 1971) and an imprisoned woman (Child of Resistance, 1972), Gerima made his feature bow with the staggering Bush Mama (1975). Broaching questions of class, race and gender in a manner rarely seen, this riveting blend of vérité-style docudrama and Brechtian agit-prop centres on a black female welfare-recipient (the charismatic Barbara O. Jones) and her broken family surviving in LA’s impoverished Watts district. Its opening authorial credit gives the game away regarding Gerima’s intentions: Rather than “directed by”, a scrawled legend daubed in white reads “Answerable: Haile Gerima, 1975”.
While extraordinarily relevant in a modern climate of #BlackLivesMatter and student protests at the University of Missouri, Bush Mama was the product of a specific political context (the Vietnam war, anti-colonial struggle, institutional racism) which deeply impacted the filmmaking approach of Gerima and his colleagues: “In the early 1970s there was a rainbow of people who had been casualties of racist cinema, who wanted to countermeasure,” he says. He cites filmmakers like Jorge Sanjinés from Bolivia, Glauber Rocha and the Cinema Novo from Brazil, Miguel Littín of Chile, and Fernando Solanas of Argentina as influences. “Their films mediated our ambiguous relationship to cinema; saying ‘Yes, it can be used against itself.’ The fact that cinema was a perpetrator of imperialism created a very ambiguous relationship for me. I wanted to use film against its own established legacy of what it had been doing to non-white people. This came down to the idea of intensely questioning the cinematic grammar itself.”
Another huge influence on Gerima was Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene, widely regarded as the father of African cinema: “When I saw [Sembene’s 1963 debut] Borom Sarret”, he says, “I thought, ‘Oh, I can make an Ethiopian film! It doesn’t need to have an English script.’ English is a very imperial language, and [its prevalence] makes you feel like all your characters have to speak it to be in a movie. I saw Sembene’s film, and that very same night I stopped writing my next movie Harvest: 3000 Years in English and started writing it in Amharic.”
Filmed in Ethiopia in the direct aftermath of the overthrowing of Emperor Haile Selassie, this stunning monochrome drama chronicles a peasant family toiling under the scornful eye of a wealthy landowner. Alongside Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977), Larry Clark’s Passing Through (1977), Julie Dash’s Illusions (1982), and Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1984), it’s one of the indisputable high points of the “LA Rebellion”, a term retroactively coined by African-American historian Clyde Taylor in 1986.
As it happens, Gerima is not overly fond of the moniker: “It’s not truthful,” he says. “The very people who endorse this movement now rejected it when it happened — the establishment negated and undermined every innovative form we stumbled through, like jazz.” Gerima is also skeptical of the notion of the Rebellion as solely a black cinema movement, as it is widely regarded (for example, a recent Tate Modern retrospective was entitled LA Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema). “Initially it had Latin Americans, Asian students, and even some white kids who were into this idea of a cinema of liberation. But then, typical of the black bourgeoisie in America — and the pitfalls of black nationalism — it was excised from its historical context to make it a ‘black’ phenomena because America deals in race relations only.”
He continues, “I had more identification with a Brazilian filmmaker who I did not even like as a person, but he was a proponent of the liberationist cinema we were all thinking of.” (For his part, Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film & Television Archive and mastermind of the ongoing LA Rebellion restoration project, has written: “I believe the name is not only historically justified, but accurate … To ignore the specific cultural and political context of post-Watts Black America would do an injustice to all African and African American filmmakers at UCLA.”)
Gerima is circumspect yet piercingly honest about why the UCLA school of filmmakers have not enjoyed the careers their talents should have ensured: “We could not sustain a communal, collective co-existence beyond our school days, and that has impacted on all of us. Also, we were naive on the business aspect. We were alienated with the ugly culture of capitalism, but we never converted a socialist business idea, to co-produce each other’s movies, to co-exist, in a very formidable way; it’s a shame.” Gerima recently took to website Indiegogo in an attempt to fund a new narrative feature (Yetut Lij), but fell well short of the ambitious $500,000 goal. The process of finding funding may not get easier as the years go by, but Gerima keeps busy, and will remain an inspiration for all advocates of non-mainstream, anti-colonial, liberationist cinema.