Review: The "ADWA: An African Victory" Premier in Washington, DC

by Lillu Tesfa

Saturday, November 20, 1999

When I first heard about the movie "Adwa," an electric feeling of excitement immediately coursed through my body. I felt quite fortunate that I lived in a part of the country where most Ethiopian cultural events are usually showcased. I was not planning on attending the premier for various reasons, but as fate would have it, certain circumstances conspired to allow me to be there. I am glad now that I was there Ė but not entirely for the reasons one might assume.

The film was being shown at the historic Lincoln Theatre (where President Lincoln was assassinated), which is located at 13th and U in Northwest Washington DC, a predominantly African-American district. Yet, this night, on that particular block, it was a predominantly Ethiopian zone. Ethiopians, some men and women garbed in national dress, one or two wearing traditionally west African dress, were milling about the entrance to the theatre. Friends and family greeted each other with surprised delight. There were other Africans, women in colorful booboos/dashikis and head wrap, and Rastafarians of Ethiopian, Caribbean and African-American descent added to this eclectic sight.

About an hour before the film were to begin, I heard that tickets were sold out. I felt gratified: no one could say that we donít support our own artists. The lobby of the theater was even more crowded. There was a table selling videos, tee-shirts and CDs, another one selling drinks and a section on the floor above where the hungry could go and feed on tasty Ethiopian food Ė free of charge.

When I entered the theatre itself I realized two things at once: the first was that Lincoln Theater is beautiful with a large floor and a balcony seating which, unfortunately for many, was not ideal seating for the movie screen itself was not very large at all; the second thing I noticed was that the seats were pretty much filled except for a few in the very front row. On stage, a woman was reciting a poem to the soft beat of a West African drum. The audience was not yet settled. In fact, many were still milling about in the lobby, socializing.

Eventually, the lights were dimmed and the audience called into the theatre. On stage, a man conducted a "libation," and then called for a moment of silence. The theatre was fully darkened when, at the tail end of the moment of silence, the stage light picked out a beautiful, elegantly garbed Ethiopian woman who began to sing in acappella this wondrously melancholic melody. The singer was the talented Gigi, the song was the same one many of you may recall from the movie Endurance, and it was more gut wrenching performed live. Iím not ashamed to admit, I cried a little.

Gigiís performance was really the first moment I felt that this was indeed an Ethiopian event. Apart from Sister Jemberís - "Ethiopiaís Mother Theresa" - speech on the crippling poverty gripping a huge portion of Ethiopiaís population, there were no other Ethiopians to make this feel that it was an event recognizing the bravery of our ancestors. If the libation left me scratching my head in confusion, well Gigiís song left my heart swollen with that peculiar dual sensation of pride and melancholy.

As Gigiís voice faded, the movie screen lit up gradually with the mountainous landscape of Ethiopia and thus began Adwa: An African Victory.

Okay, hereís a bit of honesty: I was expecting an action flick, a movie like Mel Gibsonís epic Braveheart. What I got was a docu-drama narrated by Haile Gerima himself. I must admit, it took me a little while to get over the disappointment.

The events surrounding the Adwa battle was presented in the traditional African "oral" history fashion interspersed with folklore and bolstered by some period paintings, photographs and sound effects to create a fascinating and convincing illusion of action. In the question and answer session afterwards, Haile reveals to the audience that many of the photographs and paintings of the battles are no longer on Ethiopian soil. In fact, he had to pay dearly for some of the paintings, adding to the nearly half a million dollars it cost to make the film.

Haile Gerimaís Adwa is quality work, artistically sound, historically relevant and Ė if the frequent applause from the audience were anything to go by - entertaining. In the beginning of the narration, Haile announces that this film is a personal view of the events that transpired immediately prior to the battle of Adwa. He makes no bones about the fact that his knowledge of the event he learned literally sitting on his fatherís knees. To fill in the holes, he interviewed famous Ethiopian historian Ato Gebre-Tsadik Mokria, a few other male azawunts and Ato Indreas Ishete, one of Ethiopiaís first western educated philosophers.

The narration is mostly in Amharic (with the singular exception of the interviews conducted with Ato Indreas Ishete who spoke exclusively in English) with English subtitles that may have been perhaps a tad fast for those trying to read from the balconies as the visibility of the lettering was not always legible. The soundtrack (which is available on CD) was superb with some shilella, the classic "che-bella" and some excellent instrumentals.

As an artistic accomplishment, this film is quite impressive. On the historical perspective, however, one has to remember that it is the film makerís presentation of history as he heard it growing up. It is not a complete anthology of the events at and surrounding Adwa on that historic day. If anything, it is an appetizer of sorts. It should encourage us more Ė those of us who have little to nothing on Ethiopian history Ė to go out there and see what we can find out about our own history, something that is not adulterated by a westernerís biased view of Africaís historical events. As Haile confirmed in the Q and A session after the movie, he did not want to dilute the movie with the "expert" opinions of non-Ethiopians. He wanted to present a wholly Ethiopian view of Adwa - and that he certainly achieves.

Afterwards, I discussed the film with several people, some of whom did not like it because it was, in their opinion, a cursory, almost glib, look at one of the single most important events in Ethiopian history. Others were not enamoured of some of the choices for interview.

Hereís my gripe: Ato Indreas Ishete made a statement I thought was wholly inappropriate for this film given the spirit in which it was made. He said, "Ethiopians, because of their particular historyÖ, donít readily identify with the rest of Africa." Now, Iím sure that this is true to some extent, but as a blanket statement, I felt it did a disservice to the millions of Ethiopians in Ethiopia who donít feel as he does and to the hundreds of thousands in the Diaspora (myself included) who disagree wholeheartedly with his statement. The last I checked, no one had elected Ato Indreas to speak on behalf of the Ethiopian people. Our history is full of moments where Ethiopians show solidarity for the rest of their African brethren. The birth of the OAU is a monumental example of Ethiopia not only identifying with the rest of Africa, but reaching out as well.

My other observation, which was addressed in the Q and A session, was that there were no female azawunts interviewed. Although tegé Taitu was featured prominently in the film, the lack of other female presence was rather blatant. Haile later explained that he had indeed sought out women to interview for his film and had gotten some significant footage, but the material he had gathered was really appropriate only for Part II.

Despite the fact that the film was geared towards Africans as a whole and African-Americans, it was really Ethiopians who comprised a huge percentage of the audience that went to view the film. Because my initial discussions with others who had viewed the film had left me with more negative rather than positive impressions (and because I had initially promised to see it with a dear cousin) I went to view the film a second time so that I could reformulate my own opinion for this review. If anything, I walked away with more admiration for the quality of the film and for the possibilities it represented. Yes, Iím sure we all knew Ethiopia trounced the Fascist Italians at Adwa, but now we can put a face and a name to the heroes and the villains at the battle of Adwa.

Adwa will continue to show in major cities across the US (Atlanta, LA, New York) and will, Iím sure, continue to attract much attention. For those of you who plan to attend a showing, hereís one small advice: turn off your cell phone before the film starts.

I have to confess that I havenít always been a fan of Haile Gerimaís work, but I have been an enduring admirer of his pioneering spirit. He may not always present exactly what we want to see and how we want to see it, but whatever he does, Haile Gerima is and will always remain an inspiration.