21 April 2012

Haile Gerima on Independent Filmmaking

Haile Gerima was born in the town of Gondar, Ethiopia. His father, a playwright and storyteller, authored dramas about cultural or historical figures and topics, and traveled throughout Ethiopia with a theatre troupe that presented his work. The younger Gerima came to the United States in 1967 to study at Chicago's Goodman School of Drama. He received his M.F.A. in film from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1976, and has been a professor of film at Howard University in Washington DC since 1975. He established an independent distribution company, which has released several of his films, including 'Sankofa' (1993), 'Adwa' (1999) and 'Teza' (2008). In the following interview with Rob Edelman, Gerima speaks about his early films, establishing the distribution company, teaching film at Howard University, and his outlook on independent filmmaking. Rob Edelman also provided the introductory biographical material (slightly updated for this article).

As a filmmaker, Haile Gerima's credits include 'Imperfect Journey' (1994), about the recovery of the Ethiopian people after the military junta of Mengistu Haile Mariam, 'Ashes and Embers' (1982), the chronicle of a troubled Black Vietnam veteran who grows to understand the experience of Vietnam and its similarities to the experience of Black Americans; 'Wilmington 10 - USA 10,000' (1978), a documentary in which interviews with Black men, women, and children detail the historical struggle for survival; 'Bush Mama' (1979), his master's thesis, the portrait of an urban Black woman trying to raise her daughter with her man in jail, who is pushed over the edge after a series of confrontations with institutions; and 'Child of Resistance' (1973), made while still a student, the story of a Black woman who shares her fears, frustrations, and dreams from behind prison bars.

Gerima's main project has been the operation of a collectively owned film production/distribution company, Mypheduh Films. Mypheduh (which means 'sacred shield' in Geze, an earlier form of Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia) was designed to intensify the production, distribution, and exhibition of films from Africa and other Third World areas. In addition to all of Gerima's titles, Mypheduh has distributed Alonzo Crawford's 'Dirt, Ground, Earth and Land' (1978); Charles Burnett's 'Killer of Sheep' (1977); Med Hondo's 'Soleil-O' (1967); Jose Cardoso's 'They Dare Cross Our Border' (AKA 'Abaixo O Apartheid' 1981); Kathleen Collins's 'The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy' (1980) and 'Losing Ground' (1982); and Mozambican filmmaker Camilo De Sousa's films 'The Offensive,' 'Unity in Feast,' 'Mueda: Memorial and Massacre,' and 'These Are the Weapons.'

Rob Edelman: How did you get involved with film? Why did you switch from theater to cinema?

Haile Gerima: I tried becoming actively involved in theater, as a playwright and director, but I became frustrated. I felt that I needed to find a medium I could control more. Then, one day, I stumbled - literally - into the film department at UCLA. For the first time I saw the possibilities of the film medium. By working as a writer and director, behind the camera and in the editing room, I could more successfully communicate my ideas. I quickly transferred into the department.

RE: And what are those ideas? Why do you make the films you make? How do you go about selecting your subjects? Why 'Ashes and Embers'? Why 'Bush Mama'? Why the others?

HG: Mostly, I am obsessed with certain subjects. There are decisive factors and issues in my films that I am trying to articulate. First, I have an obsession with anti-exploitation. Fundamentally, I think that human beings are constantly disrupted by one person exploiting another. It can be between individuals - wives and husbands, parents and children - or between different classes and national groups. This is a constant theme in all or my films. But it has to be taken several steps further. Next, there is the idea of struggle. My characters must struggle, both to define themselves and to overcome their oppression and exploitation. As a result, they are transformed, because any individual is capable of doing something about his or her condition. My characters symbolically represent the large issues that concern me. For instance, in 'Ashes and Embers', I wanted to present a generation in struggle through a character who had an extreme experience - fighting in Vietnam - that left him scarred. He must fight; he must struggle to understand himself and his relationship with those around him so that he can be transformed. The character in Bush Mama, who is also oppressed and victimized, must learn to be assertive. Her consciousness is finally fully awakened when her daughter is assaulted. She an no longer be passive. In 'Child of Resistance', the character, from behind bars, begins to realize that her people are oppressed. Her awareness comes out of her own situation; she is enlightened while in prison. The family in 'Harvest: 3,000 Years' is, literally, struggling for survival, and in 'Wilmington 10' I wanted to define how political prisoners in the USA are related to the past, to those who struggled during the time of slavery. Ultimately, I hope that seeing my films can be therapeutic, can help an individual to participate actively in a struggle rather than to sit back passively or drop out. I hope that my films will make people think, will give them ideas, will get them to actually work for change.

RE: Can this only begin with the individual and work outward? Or must it result from a collective experience?

HG: I would say both. These are inseparable. Without one, there cannot be the other. I define myself - or, I fight to define myself - within the context or the community. And the community is composed of individuals.

RE: The word that comes to mind when I think of your films - and you've just used the word yourself, several times - is 'struggle.' Is there also a struggle for you personally?

HG: It's a fact that most Third World peoples don't have access to self-expression. This is an act of struggle - to gain the right to express myself and, in doing so, advance my language and temperament in cinema. This is also an obsession. It's not just content; it's also wanting to participate in the transformation of the form. And, then, while I may be pushing a view, I'm  also advancing my language in film, developing my sense of sigh and sound. In this way, for me each film is a learning process.

RE: What is your approach to filmmaking? Do you prefer to work from finished scripts? Or improvise with actors during the shoot? Do your actors have input while you're actually making the film?

HG: I'm very much interested in experiencing each phase of a given project. After I have an idea, I work very hard on my scripts. I'm now researching and writing one. As you can see [pointing to his desk], there's a Bible; there's a book on the liberation of Mozambique; there are books on theology, and African theology. This is in preparation for a film about European and African cultures coming in contact. Theology plays a major role here, so it's very important to understand the different interpretations of theology. And this is the foundation; this is where I begin. But I still do not become a possessive landlord about the scripts. At any given stage, I am perfectly capable of turning over the script to my actors. I do require that they understand it and its theory. Once I trust an actor, that actor inherits those characters I've developed. The actor can bring a personal interpretation as an additional asset. At all levels, there's a process that's both individually and collectively oriented.

RE: Do you like to stick to the letter of the script? Or, if you feel the actors understand what you are saying, do you give them flexibility? Can they change dialogue if they feel that what you've written is not really in character?

HG: Oh, yes. I'm not basically a writer. I'm more interested in the believability of the character rather than poetic or literary dialogue. What's important is how the viewer believes in circumstances I've invented. In that moment of struggle when the actor is in front of the camera, I'm not going to be too possessive about the dialogue. I'm more interested in communicating the emotional and intellectual aspect.

RE: Is there a relationship between the form and structure of your films and their content? In other words, the way the film is written and what the words are saying?

HG: You have to be conscious of this. Once you set up your camera, you are choosing a point of view. And once you get into the editing room, you'll splice the world according to your perspective. From then on, a rhythm and structure and pacing are set in motion. Everything has its own inherent, inseparable form and content. Ultimately, though, what's required of the artist, the storyteller, violates this. You can then transform form and content. But there must be a constant search, a constant struggle and battle, to achieve this transformation. The artist's responsibility is to explore, and when you do so you can stumble into an uncertain, unpredictable, uncalculated, almost magical sense of art. If there are no surprises, no magical moments in the editing room, it's boring.

RE: Are there any specific films that have influenced the pacing and texture in your work, that have given you ideas about how to communicate?

HG: Nothing specific. Rather, it's all in my background; it all relates to my father. I strive to understand the way he told his stories, and to translate this into visual terms on the screen. It's very personal. He is the reason why I first wanted to go into theater.

RE: I have a question that we all know the answer to, but, for the record... could you make the films that you've been making in Hollywood?

HG: Well, the studios would not be interested. My films could be made better there - with the availability of bigger budgets and better technology. The primary concern of Hollywood, of course, is profit-making. When you consider profit-making, you don't go into uncertain areas. You have to go into exhausted, certain areas.

RE: Exactly who and what is an independent filmmaker? What does the term 'independent' imply?

HG: First, I'd like to see a more concrete dialogue about independent filmmaking emerge in the USA. Most independent filmmakers are self-deceiving. They seem to be waiting to be accommodated elsewhere, to be admitted through that large studio gate. but instead they should be vigilantly struggling to change society. To me, cinema is part of reality and should be a tool for changing society. Independent filmmaking is a dying phenomenon because people are not consciously aware of the implications of that declaration: wanting to be independent, and meaning to be independent, because you are not satisfied with the existing structures. Those who are truly interested in social change should get off their butts and fight to change the very system that keeps them outside. This has been my concern for quite sometime.

RE: But isn't it true that many filmmakers are independents out of necessity rather than choice? they want to make splashes that will then enable them to go to Hollywood?

HG: You can be independent, but if the New York Times and Washington Post pick you up, you become confused. Your aesthetic is affected. You need stars. You may think you are sitll disassociated from Hollywood, but of course you are not. In fact, big stars should not exist. All human beings should be equal. For me, an independent filmmaker cannot use Hollywood conventions that are oppressive and still say that he or she is independent. That is hypocritical. I'd prefer Scorsese and Coppola. In fact, their films making interesting social commentary. Certain Hollywood filmmakers do struggle to make sensible films, and I respect them. It's not simply by being excluded that you become independent. Ultimately, it's a political stance.

RE: Since you are not working in Hollywood, how do you get your films made?

HG: My first ones were made when I was a student - with money I saved. Also, I have received various grants. Of course, money is necessary, but I find that people are ultimately the decisive factor in filmmaking. The films I've made have come about because people believed in them, and were willing to collaborate with me on each project. I've never had money to attract people; I've always been in situations where I've depended on human beings who believed in me. Also, each film must be accountable: each film should enable me to make the next one. One of the inherently self-destructive elements of independent filmmaking operates when filmmakers are dependent on outside, welfare-type relationships with funding sources. It's not that I won't accept grants, because I have, but my whole objective has been to become independent of those systematic, dangerous, pacifying aspects of grants. 'Ashes and Embers,' for example, was produced by revenues earned from my previous films. Now, all the money it has earned has enabled me to become involved in distribution. I want to be a responsible distributor because in the Black filmmaking scene distribution has been a fundamental problem.

RE: How do you get your films out to the public? Why did you feel that you had to set up your own distribution company?

HG: When you make films intended to effect social change, you really must create your own infrastructures that will play a role in taking your films in their logical direction. I know that most distributors are not that interested in teh Black filmmaking scene in the USA. The needs of the Black community are totally different from those of others. For example, a film on housing may be ripe in a Black community but not elsewhere. So a film on housing would not be considered a good 'business venture.' And even when a distributor takes your film, you may not receive money for a long time. I've learned that when others distribute your films you end up being exploited.

RE: How did you learn this?

HG: My films were first distributed by Tricontinental, before it became Unifilm. When this company went bankrupt, they had my negatives and prints and just left then in their office. The landlord told me that he was going to throw it all out. This is how much they cared! The company went out of business, left my work, and vanished. Third World filmmakers in particular should develop their own collectives to distribute their work. Equally, independent filmmakers of any kind should collectively distribute - and receive larger revenues. I try to return 80 percent of all income to the filmmaker. Even a 50-50 split is not fair when you are dealing with filmmakers who have put their life savings into their work. It's not right for the distributor to make a high profit, with the filmmaker having no control over the revenue. Personally, I would prefer to make films. I'm not a business person, and I hate the idea of the whole hassle of distribution. But if you believe in struggle, you cannot simply make your films and condemn them to the distribution structures that are blind to your vision. You should be instrumental in creating infrastructures that are capable of responding to anyone interested in seeing your films.

RE: That is a problem many artists have. They would much rather paint the painting, write the novel, make the film. Then, somehow, the painting is hung in the gallery, the novel is published, the film is distributed.

HG: You have to struggle on this level. You are naive to think you do not.

RE: Why did you decide to settle in Washington DC? Why not New York or Los Angeles, where there's more of a film community?

HG: For me, it's more than being a film community. Howard University is a very important place for me. Part of my commitment is that, whenever I make a film, I try to multiply Third World filmmakers. I use individuals on my crews who would not otherwise have opportunities to work. Also, here I can teach students who have come from all over the world, from Africa, South and Central America. When I'm not making films I like to teach and encourage Third World filmmakers.

RE: Do you have particular teaching methods?

HG: I try to be dialectical with regard to film structure and storytelling - from the initial idea to the script to the execution. I don't just teach the technical end of filmmaking, and I cannot. I balance this by stressing sensitively toward presenting characters in a nonstereotypical manner. Stereotyping often comes about because of negligence: the writer or director not caring about the characters outside their principal purpose in the story. Such characters are not well conceived. They have no purpose in life. The filmmaker should ask about all the characters: What kind of lives do they lead? What is their direction? Why do they live on this planet? I ask my students, 'Do you want to go to Hollywood, or do you want to create your own identity in film?' I would hope they would, ultimately not want to create works of art without accountability for the contents. Sometime I succeed, sometime not. I'd be lying if I said I succeeded all the time.

RE: What happens to them after they graduate?

HG: Some try to find jobs, while others begin making films. I don't want to mention any names, because I don't want to sound like I'm favoring any one over another.

RE: For now, Washington DC is the place for you to be?

HG: No, not Washington, but Howard University. I'm primarily a resident of Howard University. And I do hope that, someday, I will be able to return home and make films in Ethiopia, in Africa. This is one immigrant who has never settled. You know, it's very hard to make lasting, important films about social change. But I've made my choice. And I won't use the same destructive grammar and conventions that have oppressed people. I'm very stubborn. I cannot compromise.

[This is a slightly edited version of an interview that was originally published in the film and video monthly The Independent, vol. 8, no. 8, pp. 16-19 (October 1985). Clips from some of Haile Gerima's films, as well as additional video interviews, are available here. At the time of this interview, Rob Edelman was the associate editor of Leonard Maltin's TV Movies and selected the films included in the Home Film Festival. He is presently a lecturer in film at the University of Albany.]

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