“I have the fantasy that my passport is a nation, and that when I die, I am buried there,” Film Director and Philosopher Prof Haile Gerima
thiopian born filmmaker and philosopher living and working in the United States Haile Gerima (Prof), is well known particularly, among the African American community for his unapologetically Pan-Africanist perspective rebelling against the predominating Hollywood storytelling and narrative.
Born to an author father, Haile started to write and act since childhood. His love of theater from the very beginning gravitated him into the arts. It was in his early 20s that his career path begun to take form.
Haile at 21 went to the United States of America, a land he had grown up admiring mainly as a result of the influence of American movies, to study cinema. That was the pivotal point in his carrier life.
The choice was a bit weird at the time. “People laugh at you when you apply to study theater. Many used to study political science, agriculture etc,” he once said. That he managed it. “I had to keep quiet and not to socialize around fellow Ethiopian students,”
It was in this way that the then distinguished Howard University professor of film made his first move in the field of cinema studies.
There was another aspect of life he was not able to manage though. There, young Haile encountered a life he never anticipated. He learned that the American culture, which he had come to admire, was not open to embracing him.
Haile recalls that he got his share of confrontation with racism in Chicago back in his early 20s. “Once I got to Chicago, racism began to negate my own humanity not only reflected as an African decent but also in my personal life,” he said.
To him, everything happened at once. “[For the white supremacy] I wasn’t prepared. I suddenly found myself having to swim and leap.”
The 21 years old Haile had no idea how the American social structure of the time worked, nor did he understand white supremacy or what it meant to be black at the time.
‘For a guy like me who went from Ethiopia, it was difficult to accept. I grew up amplified. I did theater. I was even active in the theater department at Haile-Silassie University in Addis Abeba. Here I come to a country that completely omitted my own existence and denied me to be a person even, forget storyteller, and forget drama. I even begun to doubt am I a quality human being?”
It was to escape such an unpleasant experience that Haile left Chicago and went to California. There he joined UCLA, where he dove headfirst into the film industry that would later shaped his life. That was another turning point, particularly from his Pan-Africanist perspective.
Black Power Movement was gaining momentum at the time. Haile became part of it. “I just joined the group to protect myself. In the process, I found friends. Gradually, I happen to fully understand that it is something real and significant for Africa,” he said.
“The more I dive into the Black Power Movement, I started realizing that Ethiopia has a lot to do with Pan-Africanism, that we the then young generation had no idea about. Those other fellow Africans had a much better understanding of this truth, “the now unapologetically Pan-Africanist storyteller said.
“Ethiopia is the soul of Pan-Africanism” he underlines. Such ideas are deeply reflected in his works.
Haile is a Pan-Ethiopianst too. He appears more Ethiopian than the majority of locals. He frequently recounts romantically his early childhood. He also has something unique about his Ethiopian passport, which he acquired almost 50 years ago.
“I never change my Ethiopian passport, regardless of Ethiopia’s changing administrations. It was the one thing I had when I come here. You guys now a days have friends and family members welcoming you as you first arrive at Dallas airport. That wasn’t the case with me,” Haile once told a journalist of Ethiopian decent. “I knew no one. My passport was my only one here in the American land. Sometimes, I have the fantasy that my passport is a nation, and that when I die, I am buried there. My passport remains that meaningful to me.”
Weaving together history and traditional storytelling to create a provocative filmmaking style, Haile is best known for creating a new form of African cinema with blacks as heroes contrary to the slavery narrative. He entertains their resistance than portraying them as mere victims. “Those people were never slaves. They were enslaved people,” Haile contends.
Filmmaking he says ‘isn’t just about getting the camera and shooting. But also shooting the aura of the people.”
“I’m interested in the soul of Ethiopians, amplifying, and transmitting the energy into people who would come sit down to look at their story,”
In addition to feature films, Haile have produced historical documentaries especially on Ethiopians fight and resistance against foreign invasion. His film works include but not limited to; Hour Glass, Child of Resistance, Bushmama, Harvest: 3000 Years, Ashes and Embers, Sankofa, Adwa: An African Victory, Teza, and Yetut Lij.
His works won a number of global awards including; Oscar Michaeaux Award for Best Feature Film, Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, Best Cinematography Award, Pan African Film and Television Festival of O, Buagadougou , as well as First Prize.
‘Imperfect rebellion’, as he calls it, against the Hollywood way of storytelling that dictates ‘how to begin and end’ stories and limits the faculty of imagination remains the other thing storyteller and philosopher Haile is well known for. He argues the approach is imperfect when it comes to creating level of intended impact.
He once said, “For me the form is always the problem. I have always felt why is it so many good people in America would watch a film about an oppressed young girl in the coal mines of Ireland or Scotland. And still go back after the theater or movie, go whine and dine. I have that cultural problem. I cannot imagine them eating after that. Then I say May be the story is passive not aggressively disrupting the way of life of comfortable people. I want my film to haunt my audience all the way to their bed. I never wanted to be an entertainer of oppressive people because I felt I would be part of the situation”