Film Explores Life Of Exiles Who Return Home

Ethiopian director and screenwriter Haile Gerima has won international recognition for his moving narratives and onscreen identification with the struggle of people of color. In his latest film, Teza, the self-exiled director explores the hard life that comes with displacement. Host Michel Martin talks to the director about his film and the meaning behind his movies.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, gospel sensation Kirk Franklin revolutionized the music scene with his unique blend of gospel and hip hop. Now the newly published author tells us what's playing in his ear.

But first, in the world of independent film, writer, producer and director Haile Gerima is a giant. Born in Ethiopia, educated at the Center of the American Film Industry at UCLA, but based in Washington, D.C. for nearly 30 years. He's defied nearly every convention of the American film industry and still has managed to make and distribute complex, sometimes disturbing films focusing on people of color around the world and addressing issues of displacement and oppression.

You can catch his latest film this month in Detroit, then Minneapolis next month and Santa Monica as well. It's called "Teza" and it might be his most personal film yet. And Haile Gerima is with us now from our Washington, D.C. studios. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. HAILE GERIMA (Filmmaker, "Teza"): Thank you very much for having me.

MARTIN: I understand that this film took quite awhile to make. Do I have that right? More than a decade?

Mr. GERIMA: Yes, yes.

MARTIN: Yes. Tell us how the idea originated with you.

Mr. GERIMA: The seed idea of the story really began when I first left my country when I was 21 coming to Chicago to go to the Goodman School of Drama. And that is the anxiety of leaving home, specifically my family, my friends and then coming to a country that I was kind of a little bit scared to come to, although I was very anxious to come and not through a scholarship. I was just a student who worked his way through school.

MARTIN: I'll just give a little bit of a synopsis of the plot. It's a story about, how does he Anberber?

Mr. GERIMA: Anberber, yes.

MARTIN: Anberber. He's a young educated man who studies in Germany in the '80s and then he later returns home after the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie to help his country grow, but he comes in the middle of political turmoil. The Marxist regime is about to take over, and he has to kind of find his way through this. And the story is told backwards and forward in time.

And tell me about the title. It means...

Mr. GERIMA: Teza means, really, morning dew.

MARTIN: Morning dew.

Mr. GERIMA: And it has a lot to do with memory, where I was a little boy outside the house coming in contact with the morning dew. The whole puzzle of the story is based on this - trying to find that little water droplets of water back when he was a child.

MARTIN: And that sense of hope and optimism.

Mr. GERIMA: Yes.

MARTIN: And the story travels from Ethiopia and home and to Germany where Anberber has studying and trying to make a life. I just want to play a short clip because it talks both about the turmoil at home and what one faces overseas. And it talks about the fact that the journey of the immigrant is not always an easy one, particularly when there's a racial difference or a cultural difference.

And the clip I want to play speaks to that. This is a scene where Anberber and his friends who are both German and Ethiopian, who've gathered together, and one of there's a couple and that they share some important news.

(Soundbite of film, "Teza")

Ms. VERONIKA AVRAHAM (Actor): (As Gabi) We have an announcement to make.

Mr. ABIYE TEDLA (Actor): (As Tesfaye) Everybody, Gabi is pregnant.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. TEDLA: We don't know how our family will take it, but...

Ms. AVRAHAM: We are pregnant.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Woman #1: Excuse me, are you okay with it?

Mr. TEDLA: Who, me? I guess if she's okay with it, it's all right by me. It's her choice.

Ms. AVRAHAM: We want it. We are progressive. The only problem we have is my family. We both want it, we are a family, we are progressive.

Unidentified Woman #1: Don't give me that progressive (beep). Forget about your parents. What about you two? You seem completely unprepared.

Unidentified Woman #2: They know what they are doing.

Unidentified Woman #1: You can't just happily make children, ignoring the racist society the children have to face sooner or later.

Unidentified Man #1: Who asked for your opinion?

Unidentified Man #2: Why are you so emotional about it?

Unidentified Woman #3: Where do you people think you are? This is Germany. Do you know how a black child is going to feel in this white society? Have you ever thought about this once?

MARTIN: Tell me about this.

Mr. GERIMA: May Americans do not know that my generation, a lot of the Ethiopians and Africans in general, I'm sure Latin Americans, were sent abroad by the kind of arrangement of the Kennedy/Eisenhower period and Emperor Haile Selassie and the idea of modernization in the midst of all this social, communist and capitalism struggle.

In that midst intellectuals are sent and then they go into a human relationship. And then this paramount mortgaged idea of going back home makes them somewhat walk over human beings.

And so it's really written to say when we go into relationships, especially in Europe and in America and we dont take it seriously, we leave our children for vulnerable to a kind of racist structure that could defeat them.

MARTIN: There are some who would argue this is old news. It's different now really, with globalization there are people all the world working and having relationships, falling in love.

Mr. GERIMA: I'll tell you, its not necessarily so. Even Obama, as a result of for example, the mission - that the period of his father is really the period we're talking about in this film. But I dont think the African side is ever told. The African intellectual, what he or she is thinking about is never a movie. It's never a story, it's not even in a novel. And that's why I was hungered to tell this story because for me this displacement, everybody looks at foreigners only as just devoted immigrants. The turmoil of your body being here, your brain at home where you grew up has never been in movies. Oftentimes, in fact, Africans, we're just disposable materials in European love stories.

For example, there would be a German nurse and two American male news people, they meet in Africa and the rest of our - we are background. In this film, you see Africans in the forefront telling their story however awkward that story, you know, imperfect that story is. Even my story, I can't claim I told it. I'm just did a strand of it.

MARTIN: I'm interested in this though, how you have maintained the passion for telling that story, for putting, you know, the African experience, the interior world in the forefront. I mentioned in our introduction that youve defied all these conventions. All independent filmmakers struggle and you couldnt distribute or found it was hard to distribute your films so you created a distribution company. And you still kind of do things your own way. You dont even have cell phone, for example, which I find really funny. But I'm just -I'm interested in how you have kept at it.

Mr. GERIMA: Well, a lot of times, you know, I think I have analyzed my historical placement thanks to the, you know, for example, African-American community that actually really created me or encouraged me to be a filmmaker. When I first began I never knew I had the right to tell stories. As an African I thought I was just a spectator. But even that realization and that kind of support base has always made me feel that it can be done, although it takes many years. And the other thing is I do not have to be the cliche of what filmmakers are. There's a major debate in African-American community.

To this day African-Americans do not author really their own story therefore, there's always a fight in the community pro and against, all the schisms that goes on because the idea of coming from birthing the story to the fruition of the story is a luxury for black people in America. So for me, I've been able to just inch along and be satisfied with whatever I achieve. It takes me 14 years to make a film. If that's my historical reality I take it with pleasure and use that placement and historical circumstance to my advantage.

MARTIN: If youre just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm visiting with renowned filmmaker Haile Gerima. He has introduced his latest film "Teza," and we're talking about his work and his latest film. There's some beautiful scenes of Ethiopia. I think they're just delicious and elegant to observe. And there's some beautiful scenes of childhood and children playing and there are childhood games which I think -but I think is it fair to say that in your films youre attracted to the pain side of the ledger of the human experience?

Mr. GERIMA: No. No.

MARTIN: Would that be fair?

Mr. GERIMA: No, it will not be fair. You know why? I'm just not part of those filmmakers and artists who protect the privileged people from stories that happens to people every day. I dont want to be a liar storyteller to make sure I comfort the audience. So for me, my preoccupation is not the audience because if it was the audience I would just do a pornographic film. So for me, the fact that I make this kind of films is I dont want to join this deceptive planet we're creating where a privileged society is created at the expense of everybody that is suffering.

MARTIN: Okay, but nobody's under subpoena to see your films.

Mr. GERIMA: Well, yeah.

MARTIN: I mean they have to choose to go.

Mr. GERIMA: Thank you. And I'm glad. And when they come they will not find a person that tries to go out of his way to entertain them at the expense of stories and themes.

MARTIN: Do you ever think though that your work - I know youve expressed frustration in some of your interviews and previous interviews that I have read where youve expressed some frustration over the fact that youve been so much lauded. I can not name all of the honors that have been accorded you because that would be our whole interview. But youve expressed some frustration that your work has not been more widely seen. And I just wonder do you ever think well, perhaps if I lightened up a bit that perhaps I might have a wider audience?

Mr. GERIMA: No.

MARTIN: No? Never?

Mr. GERIMA: There was a stone I kept during the Vietnam War and the idea at that time was really how do we best tell our story? Not only the story but the aesthetics of the story - how do we frame our story? Should we all join the formula cinema of the act that Hollywood spearheads or continue to experiment and transform our own narrative temperament? They mean a lot to me. So the only frustration I have is the lack access to equal - on equal terms or the lack access, the material access that, for example, for marketing movies is basically if I had in my story, saying the same story but I had principal characters of white people or European descendants I will not have a problem. I would have a distribution that would not be too hostile, too alien to my story, so...

MARTIN: Are you encouraged at all by the success of a film like "Precious" which was released last year? It was a big Hollywood film that, I mean it won a number of awards from the Academy and is also a very challenging subject. Does that encourage you?

Mr. GERIMA: No it doesnt because I dont know. First, I haven't seen this film and second, I dont think one movie, if we go for one movie "Sounder" would've done to also. You can go historically, black people continue to be gullible to one movie but the system in general and the way its organized it does not green light the diversity of black stories. It only amplifies the story it fathoms or that appeases its own imagination. So until you give me black people can in the industry have a variety of stories like white people, dumb, stupid and brilliant movies, there is no movie for black people except whatever white America green lights. It's a very white supremacist industry and nobody challenge that industry.

MARTIN: Well, wait a minute. But "Precious" was based on a novel by an African-American woman, directed by an African-American man, produced by two African-Americans, Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey and...

Mr. GERIMA: Well, I'm not sure...

MARTIN: ...opened, you know, $18 million in one weekend.

Mr. GERIMA: I will tell you, I think it will bring more and I think other black films have brought money also. But what I'm saying is in general in the way the industry is organized you can not give me, by the testimony of most black filmmakers in panel discussion, you can not give me a black green lighter in the industry who green lights black stories without it being compromised to be primarily comedic. It's not accidental that we have "Barbershop 1," "Barbershop 2," "Barbershop 20 and 30 and 40" would go, "Booty Call" will go on, and now and then there will be some escapist film. But in general, when you speak about cultural diet of a people, I think it will be normalized the minute choices start to appear.

We dont discuss normally on movies. We discuss like attorneys pro and against and fight like hell. Even on "Precious," the reason I dont want to join the "Precious" debate is I have seen it since the past 30-40 years, black people will have a piece of meat and they want to kill each other. When in fact, if there were more movies, "Precious" would just be one of the movies. I'm just saying it should be normal to do all kinds of stories. That is not too much to ask in my view.

MARTIN: So what's next for you?

Mr. GERIMA: Oh, another 14 years to find money to do my next movie with pleasure.

MARTIN: It's not going be "Barbershop 23." So what's it going to be?

Mr. GERIMA: Oh it's never going to be that. There's enough of that.

MARTIN: What's it going to be?

Mr. GERIMA: I'm just going to do something else.

MARTIN: All right. Do you know what it's going to be?

Mr. GERIMA: Well, I have one I want to do in Washington, D.C. called "Chicken Bone Express"...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERIMA: ...for example, and that is about black folks who came from the South in the inner cities of Washington, D.C. during Reagan and how that period created so much schism between the grandkids and the value of these folks who came from the South for a better situation.

MARTIN: Well, hopefully it won't take 14 years.

Mr. GERIMA: Well, me too. I would like to but I dont have also. Unless the lotto hits me, you know, I'm where I am.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay. Haile Gerima is a renowned director, screenwriter, producer. His latest film is called "Teza," and he was kind enough to join us from our studios in Washington, D.C. To see a list of the cities where "Teza" is playing, please go to TELL ME MORE's website on the program page at npr.org.

Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. GERIMA: Thank you for having me.

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