post Haile Gerima

February 17th, 2008

Filed under: Who is Who? — Lissan Magazine @ 16:13

Haile Gerima is an independent filmmaker of distinction who has served as a distinguished Professor of film at Howard University in Washington, DC since 1975. Born in Ethiopia, Haile is perhaps best known as the writer, producer and director of the acclaimed 1993 film Sankofa.

Haile Gerima: Writer, Director, Editor

This historically inspired dramatic tale of African resistance to slavery has won international acclaim, awarded first prize at the African Film Festival in Milan, Italy, Best Cinematography at Africa’s premier Festival of Pan African Countries known as FESPACO and nominated for the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film festival where it competed with other Hollywood films. In addition the film captured the imagination of huge audiences across the United States, many who waited in long lines and filled theaters for weeks on end. In so doing, the film defied the notion that signing with mainstream distributors was the only option for filmmakers to have the public see their films. Guided by an independent philosophy, Gerima practiced an innovative strategy in distribution whose success remains unprecedented in African American film history.

What inspires this filmmaker is a tireless devotion to the art of independent cinema and the vision of a uniquely innovative cinematic movement that stresses a symbiotic relationship between African Diasporan artists and community. The success of Sankofa has allowed Gerima to begin to create an infrastructure to pursue this vision. His film center, located in the heart of the African American community at 2714 Georgia Avenue in Washington, DC, represents one of the real manifestations of the dream he has for independent African American cinema.

Sankofa (Klick here to order the DVD.)

While a number of productions are currently in production, two documentary films have been completed since Sankofa’s distribution and the center’s opening in 1996. In 1997 Haile co-produced, with his partner and confidante Shirikiana Aina, Through the Door of No Return. Its focus is the emotional journey Africans in the diaspora make to Ghana to reclaim the lost memories of a distant traumatic past and the experience of a Pan African consciousness inspired by Kwame Nkrumah’s open invitation after that country’s independence. Work on the second in the series with a focus on the history of the Pan African movement is presently in progress.

In 1999, Haile completed the first in a series of documentaries commemorating Ethiopia’s 1897 defeat of Italy at the Battle of Adwa in Adwa: An African Victory. It has had enthusiastic screenings at the Venice Film Festival, the London Film Festival and Sithengi: The South African Film and Television Market. This film has also had screenings in Washington, DC, New York and San Franscisco as well as other cities across the United States. The second film in the series, The Children of Adwa: Forty Years later, presently being edited, recreates the Emperor Haile Selassie’s stoic defense of Ethiopian sovereignty in the face of fascist Benito Mussolini’s brutal attempts to avenge his country’s earlier defeat.

Haile is also at the development stage with a five-part series on Maroons, inspired by audience questions about the role in of these African freedom fighters in American history and as portrayed in Sankofa.. He believes this exciting work will address a glaring omission in the knowledge and thinking of Africa in the Americas and will utilize the expertise of international scholars, thinkers and filmmakers in its presentation.

Gerima’s latest dramatic film is TEZA set in Ethiopia and Germany (2004-05). This film, currently in production, chronicles the return of an African intellectual to his country of birth during the repressive Marxist regime of Haile Mariam Mengistu and the recognition of his own displacement and powerlessness at the dissolution of his people’s humanity and social values.

In addition to his work on films about Africa and the Diaspora, as well as fulfilling his responsibilities as a full Professor of Film at Howard University, Haile Gerima also lectures and conducts workshops in alternative screenwriting and directing both within the United States and internationally. He has also conducted numerous workshops in the new South Africa and in 1995 he was invited to the British Film Institute to serve as a fellow. He is generous, giving his knowledge and expertise to a large population of students and is heavily invested in the notion that the filmmaker must be engaged in a constant process of self-reflexivity and learning along with the community he serves.

Haile Gerima’s training as a filmmaker can be said to have begun in Gondar, Ethiopia, the place of his birth, where he sat around the fire engrossed in the tales told by parents and grandparents. His father, a dramatist and playwright who traveled across the Ethiopian countryside staging local plays, was perhaps his greatest influence, nurturing a love of the art in young Haile. In high school he would himself direct his classmates in end of semester productions before leaving to study at the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago and later at the University of Southern California at Los Angeles (UCLA).

It was at UCLA Haile recognized film as a medium which could help communicate some of the social and political ideas he and his peers were exploring at the time. During the late 1960s, social protests and revolutionary fervor in the developing world and African American struggles for civil rights would challenge young filmmakers and other artists alike to make their education and their works of art take on social relevance, especially in their own community’s struggle for social justice. While the teaching establishment ignored their concerns, their activism, fueled by intense study and critical discussion in study groups would forever shape Haile Gerima’s lifelong vision to create films that raised the social, political and historical consciousness of African people. It was also where he developed a keen interest in experimentation with the formal elements of the art form. His first film Hour Glass (1972) is the story of a young basketball player contemplating his fate as a gladiator. Child of Resistance, completed in the same year, was inspired by a dream he had of Angela Davis’ incarceration and the challenges she posed to African Americans to sustain the historical continuity of resistance against white supremacy.

Community concerns are again the inspiration for another powerful yet intensely poetic film set in urban America. In Bush Mama, completed in 1976, Dorothy, an African American woman living on welfare in Watts, California, struggles to raise her daughter while her partner is unjustly imprisoned. The film’s political aggression provides audiences with a cinematic experience that is hard to ignore prompting The Washington Post to insists “‘Bush Mama’ is a picture that must be seen…This film crackles with energy. Fury shakes every frame.” Twenty years later The Society for Cinema Studies would celebrate this film, convening a special panel to discuss the importance of its cinematic style.

The same year after the completion of his thesis film, marked the release of Harvest: 3000 years, a film that gained the distinction of being selected as a Critic’s Choice for screening at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. Following the festival the film would go on to win the George Sadoul Award. The film’s international reputation was again celebrated when it won the Silver Leopard (Grand Prize) at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland and the Grand Primo Award at the Festival International de Cinema at Figueroa da Foz in Portugal. In the USA it garnered the Oscar Micheaux Award for the best feature film at the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. Variety magazine describes the film simply as “remarkable”. Set in Ethiopia, Harvest is the story of peasants exploited by a wealthy landowner and their dignified struggle resist the feudal overlord. The filmmaker’s experimentation with form is clearly evident for a film that lasts 150 minutes long. The magazine journal Cineaste comments: “Gerima’s camerawork in Harvest is at its most lyrical. The hypnotic images of fields and valleys, and the slow panning shots of the land and sky, evoke a sense of viewing an epic silent documentary”. Yet Gerima’s interest in cinematic form is not restricted to drama. His foray into the documentary in 1978 with the film Wilmington 10, was as intense an exploration of form and content as his treatment of the fiction film. Looking at the ongoing persecution of political prisoners and the American justice system, the filmmaker’s approach views the cases of the accused within the socio-historical and economic disenfranchisement of African American peoples and their relationship to national and international struggles. In a review of the film “The Black Collegian” described Haile Gerima as “…a powerful filmmaker, gifted at inciting emotion and riots in the guts of his viewers.” In dramatic form, this documentary captures the humanity of a people who have been under constant siege for generations and passionately shows how this present generation locates their place in the historical struggle.

Adwa: Documentary

Again the engine of history provides great impetus and becomes a legitimate source of healing for the lead character in Ashes and Embers, a Vietnam veteran who suffers from post war trauma. Of the 1982 film “The News World” in New York described it as “…a soaring film…a harrowing portrayal of one former soldier’s struggle to leave the war behind” and the Village Voice proclaimed Gerima “…as among the most interesting and original narrative filmmakers on the current scene.” He would later be honored two years later with a retrospective of his films at the Festival De La Rochelle in France, alongside older, more seasoned filmmakers.

After Winter: Sterling Brown (1985) is Gerima’s documentary tribute to the famed poet and literary critic. Made in collaboration with students from Howard University who served in major roles, “Gerima’s film lets its illustrious subject take the viewer on a journey laden with literary landmarks and historical anecdotes” says New Directions magazine. More importantly, the poet laureate of Washington D.C. serves as oral historian, and represents an archive for future African American generations much as the filmmaker himself perceives his role.

Throughout his career Haile Gerima has always used his films as critical lessons for his own personal growth and creative development. His concern for people of African descent is evident especially where the representation of their images is concerned. His belief is that his cinematic expression should counter stereotype-laden classical Hollywood films and this guides the evolution of his socially relevant cinema. Many of his films therefore have been made utilizing either community support, institutions supporting independent cinema or sources outside of the United States. This has had a strong effect on both the content and form of his films

Sankofa represents a watershed period in terms of Gerima’s experimentation with form. From its initial screening at the Berlin Film Festival in 1993 to the critical reception of the film’s commercial release in South Africa in 2003, this film has thrilled critics and audiences throughout the world. Yet any assessment of the success of the film Sankofa would be incomplete without considering his previous films, their funding and the strong ties Haile Gerima has developed with the African American community. The latter is responsible for the formidable presence of this community at the box office for the film when every major distributor in the United States ignored it. Soon after the successful independent distribution of Sankofa was completed, Gerima undertook the BBC commissioned film “Imperfect Journey” in 1994, exploring the political and psychic recovery of the Ethiopian people after the atrocities and political repression or “red terror” of the military junta of Haile Mariam Mengistu. The filmmaker questions the direction of the succeeding government and the will of the people in creating institutions guaranteeing their liberation.

This idea of identity and liberation is perhaps the defining goal for Haile Gerima and his vision for an independent cinema. To tell one’s story is to place one’s name on the map of history and to do so while honoring the struggle of ancestors is critical to ensuring future generations have the documentation to create their own blueprint of survival. The history, culture and socio-economic well being of all peoples of African descent is his primary concern but above all the preservation of their humanity is the greatest motivation for this filmmaker. At this point of his career Haile Gerima acknowledges that the goal of reclaiming story in the battle of ideas remains his most enduring passion. That passion and the philosophy that guides it are also articulated in his writings on cinema. He is the published author of numerous essays and articles and is the author of a forthcoming book on the making of Sankofa.



  1. he is from the few to his country

    Comment by tsegaye — 1. September 2008 @ 10:37

  2. Professor Haile Gerima is our role modle.

    He has produced 9 powerful movies:

    1. Hour Glass in 1972,
    2. Child of Resistance in 1972,
    3. Mirt Sost Shi Amit (also known as Harvest: 3,000 Years) in 1975,
    4. Wilmington 10 — U.S.A. 10,000 in 1979,
    5. Bush Mama in 1975,
    6. Ashes and Embers in 1982,
    7. After Winter: Sterling Brown in 1985,
    8. Sankofa, in 1993 and
    9. Adwa in in 1999.

    You can purchase these movies and more from:

    2714 Georgia Ave., NW
    Washington, DC 20001
    PH: 202-234-4755

    Comment by Selam — 4. September 2008 @ 19:27

  3. I saw his current film ‘Teza’ it is incredible , I can’t not explain how I’m feeling it shows Ethiopian Economical, poletical, tradtional affiars beside it express human behavior in detail. I appericate Haile Gerima he is a best movie maker in Africa

    Comment by Tigist A — 21. January 2009 @ 08:05

  4. I watched teza recently and was simply amazed for i am a movie fan but then i thoght if only all mivies in ethiopia are like this !
    any way i love u proff.

    Comment by solomon adane — 18. March 2009 @ 16:07

  5. nice to see you on blog

    Comment by barcrorgo — 4. April 2010 @ 18:03

  6. While amazing & outstanding work of historical and truthful production using the unic code of its own, Prof. H. GERIMA, have gave me the reason & assured me to realize why i still exist on mother earth in between two hypocrite society. For the sake of confirmation, i have what the Prof, & the world need to hear, of course based on true & authentic history. I am a chronic ill person, and considering the fact help me to communicate with Prof. H. GERIMA. looking forward to hear from the group in a possible urgent condion. Regards.

    Comment by Haile.A.BELAY — 13. February 2011 @ 21:21

  7. Sorry I am not deserved to comment about our father Pro, Gerima!

    Comment by Ucie Bekele — 13. October 2011 @ 10:03

  8. rely he is our gold…….Ethiopian proud of him…Africa proud of him…he is belong to us only ! if i find him………. Guss what ? i adore him…no word

    Comment by YIRGU FANTA — 6. March 2012 @ 10:27

  9. in my life i want to act one of his film in the feature if GOD bless him&me.let god bless him

    Comment by YIRGU FANTA — 6. March 2012 @ 10:32

  10. I am proud of you. frankly speaking i am always happy and proud about popular Ethiopians that are world class men in every profession they have.
    AND if you feel worth helping me in learning your craft and art, i am eager and lucky.
    Thank you for making us popular world wide.
    Ali Yimer from Ethiopia Addis ababa.

    Comment by Ali Yimer — 28. January 2013 @ 11:42

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