from Haile Gerima creator of the video SANKOFA
Transcript of lecture by Haile Gerima, given at Mount Holyoke College on March 30, 1995
I just want to thank my brother for all this Ethiopian propaganda bestowed upon me. It's getting stranger to, I'm sure many Americans, I go to Lansing and an Ethiopian woman introduces me. I got to Tennessee another Ethiopian man comes out of the woodwork and introduces me. Then I come to this place where I have been before, even when I didn't see many black people, it's apparent the Ethiopians are moving again, taking over. I was sitting there saying, "I wished I was lecturing in (amheric). Which is going to happen someday here, I'm sure. When Ethiopians all invade this country and make everybody speak (amherican), think in (amheric) and ingest and digest in (amheric). And make all the movies in (amheric) and make everybody read subtitles if they don't study (amheric). So I'll be waiting for that day. I just want to say that people have always been nice to me and its uncomfortable because I always felt, I'm still growing as a film maker and trying to make each film be responsible to my own transformation equally, besides what it is supposed to be saying out there. I just want to thank all the organizations and the sponsors and the nice words from my brother here. I'm grateful. Usually I like many ___________ Ethiopians I start soft spoken and then as I go into the actual thing that I live for, then you will see the Jeckel and Hyde situation and I hope in that moment in my dual personality that I don't scare you to the point where you shut me down or deny my having been here. But, I just hope it will be a fruitful day for me and for everybody and not a disappointment. That is in the way of an intention. It's meant well but I don't lie, so most people who don't lie get in trouble. They never get invited again. That's why I think it took six years for this area to bring me back again. Seven years, I think.
Basically I just want to talk about the politics of African cinema. I know we are going to go into also African American cinema, because I think it's inseparable in my life, in my practice. I would just like to start with Africa. The documentary film mentioned that I shot in Ethiopia, I wanted you to know that initially when I started going back to Ethiopia since the change, and I'm still doing a lot of pre-production within the context of African reality. I think sometimes the abstraction may not help but I want to speak about my own experience as an African film maker on this planet. And not make it a general rule, but it may sound like that, because that is the actual reality.
But, what's very interesting is that I have an uncle, I've lost my parents, unrecorded, except just some footages of my father. An African film maker looks for accidental time and space. When you see a film done its like a cooked food and especially those of you who don't cut onions and do all the pre-production to cook, but you eat a shipped meal from servants and slaves, but culturally speaking, movies when it comes it's just like a food that you never cooked, but the process is the place of the actual battle ground of human beings trying to say, "I am. This is me. This is my face. This is my mother. This is my grandmother. This is my people. This is how I think. This is what is inside my head." To say that, the absence of right, the illegalness of an African, and African's declaration of wanting to be a film maker becomes the actual battle ground. So the movie really does not represent the background in the making of the movie.
I have this uncle that I wanted to record. He's about 83 years old. He has a lot of information that I want to get transmitted to me. Information when I was actually decadent and abrasive and young and stupid and silly, didn't inherit it when I was supposed to inherit it because inheritance of legacy and culture depends on one's ripeness. When you are not ripe. It's international. It's universal. It's not just African, it's universal. Most generations don't wake up when they are supposed to wake up. Then when they wake up they squinch their brain and they say, "Who was my grandmother?" This is a sad, sad commentary about life. I try to teach my students to just really record their parents first. Film makers should just keep recording their parents, their neighbors, their villages, before they go around thinking about making a film with their notion of film with Cary Grant's clone and Doris Day's clone. You say to them, "Just record now." Make a library of recording of all this passing generations because it's your reference point.
Equipment, when I got a brief freedom in Ethiopia, which is always the case, when I did Harvest 3000 Years, it was a brief window that is very magical. It was Haile Sallasi government being challenged by a new junta, and all insecured and none of them in charge. I just walked in and made a movie and got out. And the empire just collapsed when I hit London airport. People would say, well, they tried to say, you know with this film, that film, but to me that whole period of that window can never come back again. This film couldn't be done again in different circumstances, et cetera, pre or after. I always look for those brief moments.
I went to Ethiopia to quickly record as I was doing pre-production for BBC, the documentary film I did for BBC called Imperfect Journey. And here I was with this Niagara, not a new Niagara recorder and I felt I should record my uncle with good equipment instead of what this brother is trying to record with. I felt it was important archival material.
Here, they refused to give me access to interview my own president. BBC can call him by phone and make him really dance and do all the tap dancing. So I left and another Ethiopian intellectual went and they were disappointed with my film. I reported to the film viewers that this guy didn't want to be interviewed, so you will see that it's an imperfect journey of my own perspective. They felt so disappointed and angry they said, "Haile is no more independent. He's now with the opposition." So, this guy asked (______________), "Why didn't you grant him an interview?" This big official said, "Well, he had all this underground people covered up interviewed." So this Ethiopian asked, "How did you actually see this movie? How did you know he was interviewing these covered up people?"
This is Africa. This is African cinema. And it's not logical. They saw the movie and made up their mind. The reason they didn't get interviews is because I had people who were complaining there's no democracy covered up. Now how did they know there was this covered up Ethiopians? I did it underground. Are they that sophisticated? Do they follow me that close? They went through my hotel room and just checked everything and scared me to death. So, what has this got to do with the politics of African cinema? This is everything that African cinema is all about. In fact, I am just a spoiled African filmmaker because I run to America and hide in the bosom of African Americans in Northeast Washington, DC. But there are some Africans who go to prison, who are in airport prisons in Europe and in Africa, in Latin America there were filmmakers who were shot and killed.
And so, I'm not complaining. I'm just trying to show you the perspective of, I wanting to record my history, my legacy, and the absence of freedom. Not only from the economic perspective but just the logistics, the freedom to film my own history is not accessible to me. And I read a lot of film reviewers and critics and one time an African film critic called me and said to me, "Haile" (he's like me, hiding abroad) "We're really wondering, when are you going to make a film about Ethiopia, man? It's been ten years since you film about Ethiopia." So, I just said to him, "When are you going to pay my ticket to Ethiopia? When are you going to let me through the customs office? When are you going to free the immigration office? And all the obstacles for African filmmakers?"
Sitting in a university and just expecting film from filmmakers that literally make films out of miracle. The situation is just so oppressive. Sometimes you say, "Well, it's like the slaves who cook and the masters who didn't know how long it took to cook. Just complained about the taste." So, African cinema for me is fundamentally a battle ground. Here you are, you have a government, a government that is in cahoots with Western culture to be the diet of a people as an unquestionable diet, a diet that disfigures the sensitivity, the perspective and the thought process of Africans. You have no single African country who has proposed a serious vision on a cultural level about cinema. A cinema policy for African filmmakers.
Most African filmmakers are, what I call, (foolanies) earlier I was talking about it. I call them foolanies jokingly but it's really a serious title. Foolanies are those nomads in Africa. And out of the intellectuals who write books and who do all other kinds of intellectual endeavor, filmmakers are foolanies. They go all over the world begging money, because without Fuji, without Kodak, they can't make movies. They don't descend out of the Kodak family, they don't come out owning Fuji or Agfa, and they don't own no laboratories, they are just baseless, foundationless, filmmakers who are trying to make a movie in a period when they were not supposed to make movies. And that's why I call those movies "miracle movies".
For me African films have to be first praised for their "miracle" existence, for the fact that they do exist. And then, critically be looked at. I'm for film criticism but I think the perspective of what African filmmakers have to go through to produce a movie is a very, very profound problem. The other problem is also the fact that African's have to go for science, technology, for economics outside their country to produce a film about their grandmother.
For a minute suppose you are the Minister of Culture in France. And you do like African films, for many reasons. Now, you are the new producer of African films. What is your selective process?
Now, suppose you are a Japanese, making your movie and your producer is a Japanese, so the producer automatically looks at your story that resembles his grandmother's story and endorses it. Here you are, an alien, a French person trying to extend to get your story to produce the story and says, "This film shouldn't be made. I prefer so-and-so movie. So-and-so as the filmmaker." So now what we have here is the power, the technology and the finance brings automatically makes African filmmakers commit miscarriage of their idea. That is without even the creative process, just the birth of idea is now being hijacked by Europe.
A whole intellectual African filmmakers are sitting around and saying, "Who should I get pregnant for? What movies does she or he like?" So this artificial insemination is now in cultural terms taking place in Africa. I'm sitting as a little kid in the middle of (Dakarh), Agra, Addis Abba, and I said, "Well, this is what France is into now. They don't go no more for this old guard filmmakers who made movies about antique colonialism. What do they now produce? Oh, now they like this thing, they have coined it, called "Bush Cinema"." It's a new concept, it's out of Paris, Bush Cinema, now is the new cinema.
What is Bush Cinema? It's African's going in and out of huts and grass huts demonstrating how they walk into their hut and come out of their hut, how they go to bed and how they wake up, and how they kiss their cattle and how they broom their house. Then, before you even pass that test, the new film is now Calabash Cinema. A new concept now comes out of Paris. A new concept is actually coined in Paris and Calabash Cinema now has to live up to it. Now what is Calabash Cinema? Well, it's people going around with gore, cut gore and claim only African's carry water with gourds, like plastic boards, walking in and out of screens, demonstrating physical movements.
What is happening here? It's hijacking the creative process. African film is being affected because I'm baking bread for Paris. There is no more baking bread for my consumption. I am culturally producing for Europe to eat. So what do I do? I fashion my cultural products to nurture that societies expectation of me, which means I postpone my ideas in my head. I go into my brain and postpone every pregnancy. Waiting for some day that I will do a film about my grandfather and his story, someday when I gain the resources. And so what is happening? A whole intellectual genocide of creative power is taking place as far as
I'm concerned. Because, to me, I think all human beings should express from their cultural point of view a given art work or product and all human beings try to nibble it and try to get to see how other people looked at love, hate, good, evil, all this context have to be put in perspective of our cultural origin. And so African filmmakers now then have another boss. In Africa they have governments. Governments only want African filmmakers to take their pictures going into airports and coming out of the airports. African governments think films are only, those films that come from Europe and America to keep the people passive.
In fact, African filmmakers are dangerous because they reflect society. They speak about governments. Injustices. Social issues. And therefore why finance them? Why make it a priority? In fact, Africans they will say, false politicians, politics being an art of lying, skilled by the whole school of Europe in this lying political culture, they will say, "Well the people need food and shelter, agriculture is more important. Airport is more important. Television is more important." But, whose plane is landing in this airport? And what country are the airports facing? Whose economic interest is shipped out and shipped in to whose advantage?
How come Africans can't commerce with each other, across borders the way they did it before colonialism? How come all of a sudden we regionalistically can't talk? When we had, in fact, language to communicate? Movie houses and television stations too show what? What is produced? Whose production? Paris? U.S.? England? So, we're good at buying television stations but we don't have our image on it. And so we have a whole African continent staring in front of the television not seeing itself, but just looking and saying, I wish I was that person, I wish I was that girl, I wish I was that boy, I wish I was that father, I wish I was that man, I wish I had that hair and those lips, I wish I had those noses. And so the replacement of cultural essence takes place.
Human beings are at gun point of a culture that is body snatching culture. It's not equal exchange of culture, Europe seeing Africa, and Africa seeing Europe. It's just Europe being worshipped as new gods. What has this got to do with the other things? Because I don't think human beings can be good pilots if they are not culturally anchored. I know many Europeans who grow up in Africa and write how the airports don't work. The office don't work. How the television station doesn't work. Yes. Because if you don't have your right head in it how can you be anything? And in this country, how can black people be anything if they are not culturally anchored? If one doesn't have cultural peace with ones self, does not respect one's origin, one's soul, one's spirit, one's physical appearance, how can they succeed in anything?
And so Africa is judged in the context of this whole battle where culturally Africans don't nurture themselves. Children across Africa this very minute are in small theaters, they are called video theaters, no rating, no grading, little kids are watching from Ghana to Ethiopia to South Africa in small theaters, video tapes, from pornographic movies to violent films.
When I was doing BBCs documentary film I went into the Nile Valley, the cradle of human life, and came up, it was night when I got to this hotel, little kids were in this outdoor theater watching the most obscene television at night, in the dark, in an outdoor theater.
And so, you have this African filmmakers in this situation of being born at a time and place ejects ones legitimacy. As a proposal to you, you have governments, for their own interests, European governments and the United States for their interests, and their repositioning of the world, and I don't want to mystify that but I think to me, I have noticed something in my personal life going from Jamaica to Africa I find Third World people being converted into cooks, into tourist crops for the West. I've seen my people, who look like me, in Jamaica waking up at 4:00 expecting American Airlines is going to drop more Americans today. And these are the very people who did plant, did cut the ground, did plant mangos, did have relationship with land, now have a whole national standing position looking towards American skys for airplanes to drop to bring business. Human beings who had a human communications with earth, soil, and planting.
All the way to Africa everybody is prepared and repositioned to be the slave of the summer vacations and the winter vacations of the western and northern planet. Cooks, exotic foods, for Europeans to come. So tourism. I can go to specific dehumanization aspect of it, but it can come in through our discussions. But in the end, what is taking place here is a whole disfiguring of a society, little kids at early age being disfigured into culturally denouncing who they are. And to wish and to dream and to fantasize to be somebody else, to come to grips with this better life they see culturally glorified in front of them.
CONTINUED IN PART 2