Talking with filmmaker Haile Gerima inevitably brings to mind James Baldwin’s idea that “the price one pays for pursuing any calling is an intimate knowledge of its ugly side.”
To be sure, the renowned Ethiopian-born filmmaker and pioneer of the LA Rebellion film movement has been widely celebrated throughout his four-decade-long career, most notably for his 1993 film Sankofa. But his success has also meant an ever-increasing exposure to the challenges and flaws of the film industry, especially as he’s chosen to consistently work outside the studio system.
Fortunately for us, he was willing to share his insights with S&A, from his past and current projects to his perspective on the current state of black cinema. It was a bubbling conversation filled with “my sister’s” and wise revelations, and perhaps most striking was the passion he continues to carry for telling the stories of black people, and his readiness to offer a guide map to those who wish to do the same.
In his company, you can’t help but be schooled.
S&A: Tell me about your journey with your latest film Teza, from creating it to releasing it theatrically, to recently coming to home video in the U.S.
HG: This is a film I started writing when I was a student at UCLA, about an African student going to school and longing for home, and dealing with some uniquely silent racist situations. So it’s really about the generation I belonged to and our intellectual displacement – leaving your home for knowledge, but then [being] unable to return or suspended in the air for political and social and cultural reasons.
It’s very difficult to do such a film in America, so I went and proposed it to some German co-producers that I’ve worked with in the past and we decided to stage the story in Germany. It took at least another eight or nine years to find the actual money to do the film, and we shot it in Germany and Ethiopia. And the film was out in 2008 in Venice. It was received very well and continued to have good reception, and we did the theatrical distribution in 2009, but now we just released the DVD in the U.S.
S&A: What has the response to the film been like as you’ve traveled with it over the past few years?
HG: The press did receive the film very nicely. But distribution is the problem, because when we self-distribute it is very costly. You have to have a very strong cash flow for a film to really stay in theaters. You have to have the advertising capacity to sustain and follow the kind of press coverage we got. So basically after Sankofa, I only just introduce [films] in the theater before I get them out on DVD because it’s too costly. It undermines your future plans for other films.
S&A: Tell me more about the financing process. Do you feel there are more funding opportunities for independent filmmakers overseas?
HG: I think once you have films in certain festivals you begin to have name recognition, and there are possibilities. Especially for independent filmmakers, it’s always good to try the international market because it doesn’t have the same kind of baggage. It’s not always expected of filmmakers to do stereotyped stories. But one has to be willing to travel to festivals and hook up with people, engage people intellectually about your passion and the kinds of films that interest you, and sooner or later you find people that have the same affinity that you have.
S&A: How do you maintain your independence as a filmmaker? What’s the model, if there is one?
HG: You have to be very passionate about it and be willing to put everything you’ve got towards the project. That to me is very important. And it may not be part of the fad, being the clichéd kind of film that’s going to be successful. But there are filmmakers like me in different parts of the world that have a story they want to tell, and it’s a story that comes out of a certain historical reality within their own life. Then you get committed all the way and however long it takes, stay very committed. Even now, I’m organizing documentary films, and whenever scriptwriting gets too tedious I go to my editing room and start to edit the documentary, even if I don’t have the full funding yet. So you have to keep yourself busy, you have to like the subject matter. If you do it for other causes, other reasons, it doesn’t hold you for a long time. There’s no other way but struggling, forging ahead to do the film.
S&A: As an independent, do you ever look at the other side and feel any urge to go there? Do you feel the industry has changed at all, to make you consider it?
HG: To me the industry has always said that the lovers and haters and principal characters will always be white in Hollywood, and black people will always be appendages of those kinds of dramas, or they will be comedic outlets. It will never change. And for me it is not only wanting to tell your story, but to also tell it your way that’s part of the struggle. I am not interested only in telling a story, but I want to tell it my way. I don’t want my accent, my temperament, my narrative style to be compromised to fit into a mold of the Hollywood type.
I also think not many young people are willing to pay the price of telling their own story. A lot of young black people in America, and even in Africa and Brazil, would say to you that they are telling their story, but most of the films are like application forms with the formulaic ideas of Hollywood. For any movement to emerge, it has to be innovatively independent from the mainstream cinema, and I don’t see that much. Most young people make films to be accepted, to be discovered, when in fact that was the last idea with the group I went to film school with. To be discovered was not our intention. Our intention was to tell our story our way, and make our own mistakes and learn from film to film. These days, I don’t see a visible independent movement that is by content and form.
S&A: If not a movement, are there any specific filmmakers that you find are doing interesting work?
HG: Well you know, they start and they disappear, and the reason is because they don’t enter into joint relationships. Most, especially the young filmmakers, do not see strength in communal or collective existence. They just think they’re going to conquer the world as individuals. There is no world like that. In cinema it’s always, even in Hollywood, a collective surge. A group of filmmakers enter and take over power. And so individual efforts do exist, which I’ve seen left and right, but they do not understand the collective, the communal, the importance of working together. And when you don’t work together you can’t emerge as a force. It becomes what some call a “lonely struggle” and individual self-destruction.
What I’m seeing is, one comes and establishes a name in Sundance or somewhere, which is not much for me because you have to go into the second tier of the struggle. It’s in the second level something is tested, if it’s consistent stylistically, artistically, ideologically, culturally speaking. In the second film is when it begins to mushroom. This system knows how to cherry pick black people. It’s like affirmative action – once a year, one is recognized. But what has to occur is self-emergence so if they ignore you, you don’t have to disappear. There has to be consistent emergence of two or three films – narratively, stylistically, consistently demonstrating you are here to go on. And on that kind of basis, I’m not seeing much. I’m just waiting to see.
S&A: How can filmmakers achieve the kind of stamina, or staying power, that you mention?
HG: They need to be clearly aware of the way the system works and then too, do not care whether they’re disgraced or praised. They can’t take that seriously. When they’re praised they should know there are many black filmmakers that are not recognized. When my film went to the Venice Film Festival and won the best script writing, the jury [prize], it didn’t go to my head. I know how many black filmmakers that I am operating with whose name will never be mentioned. But I’m part of them in that silent existence. So when the system does not recognize me I’m not devastated. And I’m not sure this is what we’re seeing now. Most young people now are very vulnerable as to what the American film aficionados are going to say. They care too much about a system that has no room for them. It’s really a serious issue for me, because to me it’s, how do I survive beyond a film that was disgraced or praised?
S&A: While you were at UCLA you were part of the influential LA Rebellion film movement. Tell me about the long-term impact that group has had.
HG: It really taught me how to do everything. We taught each other. We worked on each other’s films. More than the school, I would say I learned a lot from that group about filmmaking. People like Charles Burnett and Larry Clark, they had a big impact on my own work. It was also the idea of independence. I think that spirit is very difficult for a lot of people, to take the journey my kind of filmmaking takes. Going away from the mainstream industry and believing in something and then making it a reality over time, that kind of difficult journey – it is that background that I had with my fellow filmmakers at school that has kept me going, that whole idea that we don’t have to wait for somebody to tell our story, we can do it ourselves. We have to tell our own story or we’ll continue to complain about how a movie is done. So that spirit is what has helped me through all these years.
S&A: You’ve made over 10 films since then. Do you still have the same fire for the art and business of filmmaking that you did when you started?
HG: In terms of my own independent film work, I’m more inspired than ever. But the film business is another discussion. I continue to hold the view that I had when I was a student, the choice I made as an independent filmmaker to find money internationally and continue to make my own films – the films of my selection, my choosing – even if it takes me longer. When I did Sankofa, waiting nine years to find the money did affect me. Now I do not know when the money will come, but I continue to work on the script and make documentaries while I wait for feature films that I’ve been planning to produce. So the style, it remains the same.
S&A: What do you make of the current state of black cinema, and/or the black artist today?
HG: Well I think the problem now is the black art is completely undermined by the black bourgeoisie. The black middle class here or in Africa or Brazil or the Caribbean is really nurtured by white supremacy, and their whole cultural taste is of an occupied mentality. Things that undermine the history of black people’s struggle is rampant and unchallenged. Even on the political spectrum, you can get away with exploiting black people and nobody takes you to task. And the black art is affected by that. There is the silent African American art that will surge, but now it’s underneath, it’s covered by the benign art work, the fake hip-hop fashion show that parades. It’s a very loud, colorful charade that has undermined the struggling aspects of black culture, and in terms of translating the daily reality of black people, it’s toothless.
So for me, I think [art] exists in a cave. I am in a cave. I have my own editing place, but I’m not powerful enough to amass the resources to keep doing movies every two or three years. Had there been a black power I would’ve made 10 Sankofas by now. And so it’s a very difficult testing time, but it doesn’t mean it’s not brewing. That’s the deceptive part. There is silent brewing of a black expression that explodes every 15 or 20 years. Inevitably there will be something coming up, because black people are not empowered. Many are unemployed. Especially at a time when there is a black President, they don’t even have a right to complain because it could shift the political situation towards a very hostile power structure. It’s like having a Black God and he can’t do nothing for you. And you’ve always waited for Black God and he finally came to earth, but he doesn’t want to offend the majority power structure. It’s a very strange time.
S&A: Regarding the lack of black presence or power in the film industry, what’s the solution to that, in your view?
HG: I think the solution is the realization of each other’s need, meaning if you’re into film you need to create producers, you need to create distributors. You can’t just be filmmakers. If any young person is going to do better than us old goats, it’s by creating a communal coexistence with the legal part and the business part of black intelligentsia. I want to see black kids now in filmmaking come to me with the survival kit, and go to Hollywood even, anywhere. Don’t go just as a filmmaker, but have your lawyer, have your business, and go enter into any place in the world as a business person without being a token. It’s not new – black people in the 1930s and 1940s had their own theaters, had their own distribution. But I think since integration the idea of one’s own economic infrastructure just dissipated.
What is needed now is to be inclusive, to go and enter into a relationship with anybody nationally or internationally, but as a business with self-preservation, and not to go dissolve and die working for somebody else. To me, entertainment is really the new plantation. It’s the new sugar, the new cotton, that black people work for somebody else to be richer than them. So I’m saying listen, I think you should build your own infrastructure and enter into business with anybody. That would be new to see in black America.
S&A: Thinking about the struggles of black people, it brings to mind your film Bush Mama, which looks at poverty, unemployment, the criminal justice system. What do you make of the fact that a film like that, made almost 40 years ago, is still so relevant in terms of the issues it tackles?
HG: That’s why I say to believe in the story. To this day when I watch Bush Mama, I’m in tears. Not because of my talent, it’s the talent of the community; but those things were real to me when I was a student. I see all my films as a staircase of emotional evolution. They have my dreams, my nightmares, my wishes, my fantasies, my rage, and so they’re never obsolete. I just came back from Africa [screening] my film with an audience, and it’s as current as anything, but I didn’t plan it. I was responding to the time as a black man and how I felt excluded by the system that was prevailing. And many people feel that now. And so to me, it goes back into not doing movies for anybody else. Say this is a story I want to tell before I pass from this earth, and the film becomes relevant, however imperfect technically it is.
S&A: Tell me about what you’re working on now.
HG: For the past 20 years I’ve been filming Ethiopian patriots who fought during the Italian War, when Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935. I have begun to assemble most of the interviews, and look for funding to do more shooting. Although most of the people have passed, there’s documentary footage in Europe and in Russia that I need to get hold of. I need to also go to the battlefield and shoot certain reenactments. So I’m now preparing to go back to Italy to do more fundraising.
And the other one is called The Maroons. It’s a documentary film that I’ve been working on for the past 10 years. It’s about African-Americans who were not part of the Underground Railroad, but who were actually dubbed as Maroons, meaning runaway Africans, from the first day of slavery in South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Louisiana, Florida, all the way to Oklahoma and Mexico. So this is an untold history, because it’s really about black people who ran away on their own, didn’t wait to be freed, which I think is very important to tell because most of the time the history is told that somebody freed black people. And it’s kind of negative, because it paralyzes the capacity of young people of all races to not be told the virtue of all human beings – that is, resisting and fighting back. Nobody just gives in to slavery. So I have over 100 hours of interviews with scholars and descendants who are doing reenactments of their ancestors in Texas and Florida and North Carolina.
S&A: Most audiences know you best for your 1993 film Sankofa, which also deals with African resistance to slavery.
HG: The true story of your question is that black people need to tell their history. Very few films are made by black people about slavery. That itself is a crime because slavery is a very important historical event that has held our people hostage. Forget white people’s role in it. In the end what’s important is black people remain and live with the scars and psychological issues. It’s our task to find whatever budget we have to make movies, because the more we make movies, the more we release our people from the psychologically incarcerating historical legacy. It’s nobody else’s business but to ours to do it. The more we do it, the more we heal ourselves. The more somebody does it for us, the more it becomes as cumbersome as Lincoln freeing a black person. Because if you never did anything for your own freedom, you’re not worth a human being in my view.
So it would be like honoring racist people to go into their agenda when they feel like doing a film on slavery. I just say, you can do anything you want – you have the money, you have the banks, you have everything. You can make a movie about my mother. I have no right to my own mother’s story. But with everything I have, I’m going to make a film and show you who my mother is to me. So I really do not care what the white world is doing. I care about black people building the monument on slavery, so the artist overcomes something deeper and the people, collectively through the artist, overcome.
S&A: It’s a tall order, it seems, what we’re trying to achieve with black indie film. When you think of how to define success as a filmmaker, what does that look like for you?
HG: Success is really when you create a space, a piece of art, and people come in and say, that’s my story – when they claim it, which happens to me a lot. When Sankofa came out it was an imperfect film, but a lot of black people came and hugged me and cried, and some even said that’s my story. In fact, we used to be evicted from theater to theater, and there was this one old lady in Harlem who used to call people and tell them the next place where it was showing. When I first met her in the theater she walked towards me with a cane just sobbing. And she says, “Don’t think you made this with your power. There’s more to the story going through you.” And she just kissed me and I knew what she was saying, that I was a vessel to things that meant a lot to her.
I may not have a claim of how distributed I am all over the world, but what comes to me are all the black people who hugged me after doing Sankofa. That to me was the biggest capital I ever received, and it’s emotional, it’s very visceral. It makes you forget the hardest journey it took to get the film out. So when a film is claimed by people, to me is a success.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Many thanks to Haile Gerima for speaking with Shadow & Act.
Find Teza, and the other films in Gerima’s catalogue here.