Thursday, March 19, 2009

Haile Gerima Returns to the Roots


“As a child, I liked Tarzan movies and John Wayne,” said Haile Gerima, an African filmmaker who's worked primarily in the United States – and who has become accustomed to the ironies inherent in living within two very different worlds.

“But it's like playing cowboys and Indians. You always want to be the cowboy and never the Indian. That's how much the colonizer makes you hate your own culture.”

The need to remember, and review, a dispossessed culture is at the heart of Gerima's latest movie, Sankofa. The film's harsh and vivid depiction of the 19th-century slave trade has garnered international praise, while earning it the dubious distinction of being a movie that no U.S. Distributor wanted to handle. Gerima screens Sankofa at the Drexel Theatre April 21 as a special presentation for the National Black Programming Consortium.

The title Sankofa is a word from the Akan language that means “to return to the past in order to go forward.” That process takes place in the story when an African-American fashion model travels to a shoot in an old fortress in Ghana, only to find herself reliving an earlier life on a Caribbean slave plantation. The experience is a nightmare of beatings, rape and torture. It is also her critical first step toward rediscovering her own heritage.

“Part of the struggle is in reclaiming the past,” Germina explained by phone from his distribution office in New York. “Slavery was about disconnecting black people from their link to Africa. Slavery was a great negation, and the bridges to the past were cut off.”

Gerima's own life reads like a bridge between the two continents. Born in Ethiopia in 1946, Gerima grew up in an intellectual family, which influenced his early interest in theater – his father was a prominent African playwright. Gerima arrived in America in 1967 and began studying at Chicago's Goodman School of Drama. “But one day I stumbled into the wrong building,” he joked, “and saw a screening of student films.” He became fascinated with cinema and made tracks for the film department at UCLA.

He quickly became a favorite on the film festival circuit, with such works as the documentary Harvest: 3000 Years as well as the drama Bush Mama, a realistic look at life in central Los Angeles. For the past 17 years, Gerima has lived in Washington, D.C., where he teaches at Howard University. But film making is his real passion. “Every movie is another step in an imperfect journey toward expressing myself.”

Gerima may view his own work as flawed, but his view of Hollywood is much harsher. He describes it as “a brutal mind-set for black intellectuals.” He's not fond of such Hollywood forms of black film making as Menace II Society.

“Every 10 or 15 years there's a new round of these types of movies,” he explained. “But to take a small section of young people and exploit them with these films is simply a form of racism.”

Given his outlook on Hollywood, Gerima wasn't completely surprised by American movie companies' strong resistance to Sankofa, a response that convinced him to handle the film's distribution himself.

Which is fine with him, if it allows him to control the perspectives on African-American history and experience expressed in his films. For Gerima, the important battleground is the media-created images of one's people.

“African-Americans don't control films, TV, the banks that finance these things or anything else. But African-Americans are trying to take control. You can see that struggle taking place every day.”

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