On Film...

By: Haile Gerima

My romance with the stage began as a young man in Gonder, Ethiopia. My father, my strongest inspiration, is the great historian Abba Gerima Tafere of Gonder. He is the author of major historical works such as Gondere Begashaw, one of the most authoritative chronicles of anti-fascist uprisings during the Italian occupation of Ethiopia in World War II. His other book, Meyisaw Kasa, Yequaraw Anbessa is, in my view, one the most thoroughly researched book on the ascent to power and reign of Atse Tewodros.

My father must have recognized the effectiveness of theater in popular dissemination of profound historical events. To bring the life and times of Atse Yohannes to the realm of common knowledge, Abba Gerima penned and staged the epic play, Yemekera Dewel. He also wrote and directed Yemaichew Torinet, a play about the local and international struggle to assert Ethiopian sovereignty during the last Italian occupation. I could easily say that by the time I reached adolescence, history and story telling was in my blood.

Making films is but a higher level of storytelling.

Growing up in Gonder, my schools offered me my earliest opportunity to participate in theater as playwright, actor and director. When our family moved to Jimma, I transferred to Miazia 27 High School where I continued to explore the theater. By the time I graduated from Schimelis Habte School in Addis Ababa, I was fully decided on my professional calling-- Theater.

I was admitted to the Kine Tibeb or Creative Arts Center of Haile Selassie I University, studying under the Director of the Center, Ato Tesfaye Gessese. At the Center, I was able to raise my theatrical skills to new heights. I even won some prizes and gained recognition for my performances and finally, a scholarship. With one gigantic stride, I made it to Chicago on a two-year scholarship at the Goodman School of Drama. I graduated there with honors and joined UCLA School of Theater Arts in further pursuit of the vocation I had inherited from my father.

During my years at UCLA, I discovered the power and magic of film craft from the production side. I took to the tools of film making like a child to a toy-heaven: the camera; miles and miles of film strips; the smell of the emulsions and columns of negatives hanging to dry; the science of light, color and shadow; the majesty of music scores and closets full of sound effects, the Steinbecks (editing machines) ... I felt like I had been inducted in the house of sorcerers who command the true source of that magical beam of light that made cannons and guns thundered above sprawling plains; that conjured up horsemen by the thousands from distant lands and distant times to stampede out of the great big screen and into my Ethiopian soul.

I knew then that I was destined to be a filmmaker, to tell my own stories to the world, to my own people.

I always aspired to become my own father's protégé. I had learned a great deal in my father's theater troupe, both as a stagehand and actor. Above all, I learned the importance of storytelling and folklore in the civilization of a people. I still believe that history and storytelling captured on film is the most powerful tool to instill a sense of common destiny in and among any people.

I also see film as the most effective means to bring about a broad understanding of Africa's common issues -- for strengthening solidarity on the continent. Only on the screen can a story come to life, to be reproduced, preserved and disseminated throughout society. People everywhere could see and hear the same magnificent drama and be affected in almost the same way regardless of language or literacy.

I also feel that a nation without its own film industry and film culture is likely to remain stunted in its economic and cultural development. It surrenders its citizens to be perpetual captives of imported heroic icons. This realization weighs heavily on my shoulders as an independent filmmaker.

To secure full control of content and dissemination, my wife, Sherikiana, and I have built a successful film production and distribution enterprise in Washington, D.C. Through our production company, Negodgwad, I was able to create Harvest 3000 Years, Sankofa and now, Adwa. Our distribution company, Mypheduh Films, I am proud to say, may be one of the largest source of African films in North America, with distribution rights to some 44 African feature films. Sankofa Video and Books is also our neighborhood outlet specializing in African and African American Videos.

To familiarize the community, and guide our children on alternative entertainment and educational cinema, we have our non-profit affiliate, Positive Productions. Positive Productions is leading the campaign to get word of Adwa out to the whole world. To make sure that we produce more film making talent in the African and African American community, I teach at the film department of the Howard University School of Communication. My speaking engagements also keep me traveling throughout the US and the world.

Besides the process of creating film itself, I have been gratified by the kind of community support I have enjoyed in the U.S. since I decided to distribute Sankofa independently. When commercial distributors refused to deal with our Sankofa, we rented a theater for one week and reached out to the community to come out and see it. Not only did the community come out, but it started rallying across the United States to make sure that everyone sees it.

This phenomenal distribution strategy is being repeated again with Adwa, whereby the Ethiopian Community, with almost total unity has joined hands with the African, Caribbean and African American communities to put the word out.

The Battle of Adwa, it seems, is repeating itself at the end of this century in a modern day kitet. I could make a movie of the ongoing campaign to publicize Adwa.

Adwa will premiere in Washington DC on November 20.,