Old Master Challenges Film-makers to Look Within

March 31st, 2009 | by addis portal |

ADDIS ABABA, Mar 25 (IPS) – Haile Gerima’s film “Teza” may only have come to the world’s attention when it won Africa’s highest prize in Ouagadougou on Mar. 7, but it has been a sensation in his native Ethiopia since it premiered in Addis Ababa at the start of the year.

The winner of the 2009 Golden Stallion of Yennenga at the 21st Festival of Cinema and Television of Ouagadougou (better known by its French acronym, FESPACO), the film about the regime of former dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam premiered in the Ethiopian capital on Jan. 3.

“The film, in which Gerima portrays the true picture of rural Ethiopia, should be prized and hailed,” wrote movie columnist Masresha Mammo in, the largest Amharic private weekly, Addis Neger.

Teza, 14 years in the making, tells the story of an Ethiopian whose dreams of serving his country after an education in Germany are dashed by the internecine conflicts that were the order of the day in the 1970s, during the dictatorial regime of Colonel Mengistu. What has captured the attention of the audiences are the settings, costume, language, idioms and dialects, which painstakingly reflect indigenous life in rural Ethiopia.

In a city where movie-going has long been the preserve of the youth, older people have joined the lines outside cinema halls to watch Gerima’s film, which recall almost-forgotten expressions and rhythms of life – as well as the horrors of the old days.

“No one will come, dig out and reveal our rich culture to the world if we don’t,” Selome Gerima, the co-producer of the film told IPS in Addis Ababa. “The movies we see in Addis these days do not have Ethiopian color.”

This is the message her brother Gerima has been trying to send to local filmmakers since he earned Bachelor’s and Master of Fine Arts degrees in film, at the University of California, where 40 years ago.

“The movie perfectly matches with what one sees in rural Ethiopia. This is the kind of film I was looking for for years; a movie that tells me who we are, not what some of us think who we are,” says Masresha Taye, a 24 year old socioeconomist who has watched Teza twice. “But it’s sad that only Gerima is good at doing such movies.

Taye says he will bring all his friends to see Teza, even if it means sitting through the 140 minute film ten times.

Gerima – professor of film, writer, producer, and director – is one of a handful of African filmmakers to earn international notoriety. Gerima arrived in the United States as a youngster of twenty-one with an interest in theatre and enrolled in acting classes at the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago, Illinois. After he studied film, he began to turn a critical eye on the American movies he had devoured as a child. He also began to think Hollywood had misrepresented his culture and that of countless others, including that of African Americans.

His films all involve issues of identity, racism, black history and preserving one’s culture.

Teza appears to have sent a simple and clear message to local film directors and producers: a message that there is a lot to work on domestically without having to copy Hollywood blockbusters.

“I agree that there has to be a change in our mind set,” says Yared Shumete, chairman of Alatinos Film Producers Association and editor of an Amharic movie, Seryet, released two years ago. “But it takes time to adapt.”

Although official statistics are unavailable, observers of the Ethiopian cinema sector estimate the number of films produced in the country as anywhere between 400 and 500, over half of which released in the last five years. However most of the films shown in Ethiopia are imported Hollywood movies. The rising prominence of cable TV has also significantly cut attendance at the cinema in Addis Ababa.

The films and videos that hit the market are often awkward imitations of Hollywood movies and do not have a single local element in them; they neither reflect the cultural fauna and flora of Ethiopia nor represent the reality of urban life. Observers associate this with the rapid popularisation of video technology in the country over the past decade.

Professor Abiyi Ford, who taught film in U.S. universities for 40 years after having obtained his second degree in Film Production from Columbia University in the US is scathing in his assessment of most of this output.

“Anyone who by chance gets hold of video equipment shouldn’t rise up and say I’ll do a film simply because he has the equipment. Ethiopia’s cinema will not grow this way,” Ford told IPS. “And those with the talent should be constructively criticized for the better of all.”

And a large part of the the viewing public seems to agree. “It is high time our producers take a good lesson,” says Taye coming out of jam-packed cinema hall after watching Teza. “Or they will continue nose-diving.”

One lesson to be drawn from the success of Teza is that gaining an audience – and further awards – both inside Ethiopia and beyond is possible if the country’s film-makers start producing movies that reflect true and indigenous ways of life of the people.

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