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Exclusive: Haile Gerima Talks 'Teza,' 'Sankofa,' and His Concern for the Future of Black Indie Cinema

Features
by Jasmin Tiggett
August 17, 2012 11:08 AM
25 Comments
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Haile Gerima

Talking with filmmaker Haile Gerima inevitably brings to mind James Baldwin’s idea that “the price one pays for pursuing any calling is an intimate knowledge of its ugly side.”

To be sure, the renowned Ethiopian-born filmmaker and pioneer of the LA Rebellion film movement has been widely celebrated throughout his four-decade-long career, most notably for his 1993 film Sankofa. But his success has also meant an ever-increasing exposure to the challenges and flaws of the film industry, especially as he’s chosen to consistently work outside the studio system.

Fortunately for us, he was willing to share his insights with S&A, from his past and current projects to his perspective on the current state of black cinema. It was a bubbling conversation filled with “my sister’s” and wise revelations, and perhaps most striking was the passion he continues to carry for telling the stories of black people, and his readiness to offer a guide map to those who wish to do the same.

In his company, you can’t help but be schooled. Find Part 1 of our conversation below.

S&A: Tell me about your journey with your latest film Teza, from creating it to releasing it theatrically, to recently coming to home video in the U.S.

HG: This is a film I started writing when I was a student at UCLA, about an African student going to school and longing for home, and dealing with some uniquely silent racist situations. So it's really about the generation I belonged to and our intellectual displacement - leaving your home for knowledge, but then [being] unable to return or suspended in the air for political and social and cultural reasons.

It’s very difficult to do such a film in America, so I went and proposed it to some German co-producers that I've worked with in the past and we decided to stage the story in Germany. It took at least another eight or nine years to find the actual money to do the film, and we shot it in Germany and Ethiopia. And the film was out in 2008 in Venice. It was received very well and continued to have good reception, and we did the theatrical distribution in 2009, but now we just released the DVD in the U.S.

'Teza'
'Teza'

S&A: What has the response to the film been like as you’ve traveled with it over the past few years?

HG: The press did receive the film very nicely. But distribution is the problem, because when we self-distribute it is very costly. You have to have a very strong cash flow for a film to really stay in theaters. You have to have the advertising capacity to sustain and follow the kind of press coverage we got. So basically after Sankofa, I only just introduce [films] in the theater before I get them out on DVD because it's too costly. It undermines your future plans for other films.

S&A: Tell me more about the financing process. Do you feel there are more funding opportunities for independent filmmakers overseas?

HG: I think once you have films in certain festivals you begin to have name recognition, and there are possibilities. Especially for independent filmmakers, it's always good to try the international market because it doesn't have the same kind of baggage. It's not always expected of filmmakers to do stereotyped stories. But one has to be willing to travel to festivals and hook up with people, engage people intellectually about your passion and the kinds of films that interest you, and sooner or later you find people that have the same affinity that you have.

S&A: How do you maintain your independence as a filmmaker? What’s the model, if there is one?

HG: You have to be very passionate about it and be willing to put everything you've got towards the project. That to me is very important. And it may not be part of the fad, being the clichéd kind of film that’s going to be successful. But there are filmmakers like me in different parts of the world that have a story they want to tell, and it's a story that comes out of a certain historical reality within their own life. Then you get committed all the way and however long it takes, stay very committed. Even now, I'm organizing documentary films, and whenever scriptwriting gets too tedious I go to my editing room and start to edit the documentary, even if I don't have the full funding yet. So you have to keep yourself busy, you have to like the subject matter. If you do it for other causes, other reasons, it doesn't hold you for a long time. There's no other way but struggling, forging ahead to do the film.

S&A: As an independent, do you ever look at the other side and feel any urge to go there? Do you feel the industry has changed at all, to make you consider it?

HG: To me the industry has always said that the lovers and haters and principal characters will always be white in Hollywood, and black people will always be appendages of those kinds of dramas, or they will be comedic outlets. It will never change. And for me it is not only wanting to tell your story, but to also tell it your way that’s part of the struggle. I am not interested only in telling a story, but I want to tell it my way. I don't want my accent, my temperament, my narrative style to be compromised to fit into a mold of the Hollywood type.

"I am not interested only in telling a story, but I want to tell it my way. I don't want my accent, my temperament, my narrative style to be compromised to fit into a mold of the Hollywood type."

I also think not many young people are willing to pay the price of telling their own story. A lot of young black people in America, and even in Africa and Brazil, would say to you that they are telling their story, but most of the films are like application forms with the formulaic ideas of Hollywood. For any movement to emerge, it has to be innovatively independent from the mainstream cinema, and I don't see that much. Most young people make films to be accepted, to be discovered, when in fact that was the last idea with the group I went to film school with. To be discovered was not our intention. Our intention was to tell our story our way, and make our own mistakes and learn from film to film. These days, I don't see a visible independent movement that is by content and form.

S&A: If not a movement, are there any specific filmmakers that you find are doing interesting work?

HG: Well you know, they start and they disappear, and the reason is because they don't enter into joint relationships. Most, especially the young filmmakers, do not see strength in communal or collective existence. They just think they're going to conquer the world as individuals. There is no world like that. In cinema it's always, even in Hollywood, a collective surge.  A group of filmmakers enter and take over power. And so individual efforts do exist, which I've seen left and right, but they do not understand the collective, the communal, the importance of working together. And when you don't work together you can't emerge as a force. It becomes what some call a “lonely struggle” and individual self-destruction.

What I’m seeing is, one comes and establishes a name in Sundance or somewhere, which is not much for me because you have to go into the second tier of the struggle. It’s in the second level something is tested, if it's consistent stylistically, artistically, ideologically, culturally speaking. In the second film is when it begins to mushroom. This system knows how to cherry pick black people. It’s like affirmative action – once a year, one is recognized. But what has to occur is self-emergence so if they ignore you, you don't have to disappear. There has to be consistent emergence of two or three films – narratively, stylistically, consistently demonstrating you are here to go on. And on that kind of basis, I'm not seeing much. I'm just waiting to see.

S&A: How can filmmakers achieve the kind of stamina, or staying power, that you mention?

HG: They need to be clearly aware of the way the system works and then too, do not care whether they're disgraced or praised. They can’t take that seriously. When they're praised they should know there are many black filmmakers that are not recognized. When my film went to the Venice Film Festival and won the best script writing, the jury [prize], it didn't go to my head. I know how many black filmmakers that I am operating with whose name will never be mentioned. But I'm part of them in that silent existence. So when the system does not recognize me I'm not devastated. And I'm not sure this is what we're seeing now. Most young people now are very vulnerable as to what the American film aficionados are going to say. They care too much about a system that has no room for them. It's really a serious issue for me, because to me it's, how do I survive beyond a film that was disgraced or praised?

***

Part 2 of this conversation will come soon.

In the meantime, find Teza and Haile Gerima’s other films HERE.

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25 Comments

  • Nadine | August 24, 2012 10:48 PMReply

    "I also think not many young people are willing to pay the price of telling their own story. A lot of young black people in America, and even in Africa and Brazil, would say to you that they are telling their story, but most of the films are like application forms with the formulaic ideas of Hollywood. For any movement to emerge, it has to be innovatively independent from the mainstream cinema, and I don't see that much. Most young people make films to be accepted, to be discovered, when in fact that was the last idea with the group I went to film school with. To be discovered was not our intention. Our intention was to tell our story our way, and make our own mistakes and learn from film to film. These days, I don't see a visible independent movement that is by content and form." - Wooo chile! Money.

  • justsaying | August 25, 2012 10:41 PM

    @wow, lol maybe you missed my points (not darts) ....Let me clarify because you seem to not understand where I am coming from...My point is to use the resources you have available in a different way...Actually, I think it is a little arrogant to say "whatever ideas you have, I've probably already thought of... and if that marks the end point for you @WOW, well then so be it. But that will not stop me from including my thoughts....Yes, I meant what I said. Reevaluate your audience and really try to identify who is really following the blog...Yes, when I said target identified audiences, I probably should have said tap into audiences that are already labeled with assumed tastes, for example, the "older Black women audience for Tyler Perry" and use those built audiences to build off of so that there will be more variety within the audience following the blog but that would also have to mean more diverse content. Don't try to mix my words around. I said :build from there (followings already set up by others) so that you are the go to for many different audiences/viewers/readers...Meaning once you tap into the tastes of a variety of audiences successfully, your blog will be more of a go to for all these audiences. (Bringing the readers together to follow S&A) Obviously if you have to ask What? then you haven't been following along with the suggestions within the thread and in other posts. And yes great things do take time, but I ask how much because this is a topic of urgency.... It's unfortunate, but you're MISSING my points. I am not trying to attack or command. I have great respect and confidence in S&A's potential. I'm saying regroup and gain more leverage with the resources you have now while the iron is hot. It's all love.

  • WOW | August 25, 2012 10:05 PM

    @ JUSTSAYING, I guess it's my turn to say what Tambay cannot (but he'e thinking)... Get out of my fkin' face with out bullsh*t because your breath stinks and you're talking in circles!!! Seriously maan, didn't you read Tambay's comment? Take a look--> " It's not something that can be done without a lot of help; and it's a challenge to do anything else, when I'm already buried in the day-to-day running of the site. These things take RESOURCES and PLANNING. And I'm open to all your ideas - but NOT to ideas on what S&A COULD/SHOULD be doing, because, as I said, whatever ideas you have, I've probably ALREADY THOUGHT OF". So Justsaying, after reading that, you still decided to come up in here talking in circles. On one hand you said "You have to reevaluate who your audience is, focus on them and grow your audience"... ... And then out of your mouth came this nugget of ambiguity--> "target identified audiences and their tastes, build from there so that you are the go to for MANY DIFFERENT audiences/viewers/readers" WTF? Find your audience but be the go to guy for many different audiences? Damn man, talk about being pimped -- your mind is fu*king with you. I mean, aside from your Commander McBragg wisdom, what the hell is this missmosh-->"All great things take time, but how much?" Excuse me? Time to do WHAT, with WHOM, WHEN and HOW? Surely we've taken waaay to much time following you down your yellow brick road of nondescript nonsense? Please, go back and read Tambay's comment one more time. Hopefully you'll get a better understanding of his goals, resources (PAST & PRESENT) and direction. And then, maybe, just maybe, YOU will come back with a little respect in your voice.

  • justsaying | August 25, 2012 8:46 PM

    A lot of interesting stuff here... glad the convo didn't stop with those first two comments. Also glad Tambay dropped in on the thread... @Tambay, As far as I'm concerned, the curtain has been pulled back a couple of times allowing us a glimpse into "backstage" whether you know it or not. If you follow this website enough... more insight can be gained beyond what you explain below. I know a lot of these ideas cannot come to full fruition in a day or two. All great things take time, but how much? And who's paying and who is getting paid (figuratively) while the clock is running? I find it extremely interesting (and a shame!) that you don't have certain resources. After all, I see so many other "proponents" sharing your articles, fueling the "Tambay is so good to us" machine...And I've read your posts before about how the many writers (I commend them as well) volunteer their time, write, and contribute. Such commitment is beyond measure in this cut-throat industry. But at the end of the day, what will saying these writers volunteer on top of their full time jobs do for this S&A project? How are such statements/efforts really benefiting your project and its **expansion** even though its the truth? I ask these questions, because while it is an incredibly noble effort, you all are putting in way more and the resources to help you push forward are not coming in...You my friend are being pimped. Now whether you receive such support or not, you will still spend incredible amounts of time keeping S&A afloat right? ...And thus maybe your passion and continued drive to operate in a certain manner is stunting your growth. Who does this blog *really* serve? You have to reevaluate who your audience is, focus on them and grow your audience for real if you want to be sustainable and expand further. You are covering a lot and you have to scale it down and target identified audiences and their tastes, build from there so that you are the go to for many different audiences/viewers/readers. Expand your audience and build your community continuously while introducing additional content. When you have a strong base, other things will fall into place. Right now...people will smile in your face. They will thank you for all that you are doing yada yada yada, but what are they really doing to help you expand S&A? The larger general community will be the real evidence/leverage. Continue to focus on facilitating rather than filtering and you will be surprised! @Nadine, I'm with you. A crowd moves together.

  • Nadine | August 25, 2012 11:27 AM

    Yes, my friends and I already, idealistically, started out the same way. Outside of our official capacities and our behind-the-scenes advocacy in this industry, we wanted to "effect change" by putting our resources together. Naively, we thought, "Surely if we bring this resource to the under-served, we will get support from the outlets who claim to champion these groups and their causes"... not only did we NOT get support, but we were accused of trying to steal their audiences and ride on their coattails. Yeah... disgusting, but it was illuminating in that one truly gets to see "poverty pimping" at work. Tambay, hold tight. We will put our money and resources where our mouths are and I'm sure others will join to help support your ambitious, yet sorely needed, plans. An official call for a volunteer production team would get you too many applicants, I have no doubts. I felt the need to nag, though, because what you and your team do, is so important. You all are definitely appreciated. SO WHO IS DOWN?!?!?!? Bump that e-mailing stuff! A crowd moves together. Promise us NOTHING, no exclusive tickets, no name recognition, no nothing! WHO - IS - DOWN?!?!?! (I know you're tired of me...)

  • Tambay | August 25, 2012 10:04 AM

    Alright folks. Normally I wouldn't do this, but this time, I'll let you guys take a peak backstage. To keep it short, first, just to be clear, the site has been on the IndieWire network for just over a year. But it did once exist as an independent entity, for its first 2 years, in fact. The move to IndieWire was mostly a financial decision. There was absolutely NO money before, and with IndieWire there's some money from advertising. But not so much that I can hire a small crew of people to assist in the running of the site. There are MANY ideas I have, and have had for S&A since creating it 3 1/2 years ago. But to implement them requires a certain amount of time, commitment, resources, etc, which I really don't have much of at the moment. Keep in mind that, really, except for me, everyone else that contributes to the site is doing so on a voluntary basis. They don't have to, but they want to, which is obviously great! There aren't many folks who'd want to do this and not get paid something for it. And so I can't place too many demands on them or their time, if I'm not paying them anything; they're already doing what they can, since they (Sergio, Vanessa, Emmanuel, Courtney, Jasmin, et al) all have full-time jobs away from the site! So all the wonderful ideas I have (which includes creating original video content of all kinds, hosting talent workshops, competitions, black cinema conferences, making the site really an international presence, even going into film production/exhibition - which is already being done with the filmmaker challenge - and many other ideas that really expand the brand), will have to be approached very slowly. It's not something that can be done without a lot of help; and it's a challenge to do anything else, when I'm already buried in the day-to-day running of the site. These things take resources and planning. And I'm open to all your ideas - but not to ideas on what S&A could/should be doing, because, as I said, whatever ideas you have, I've probably already thought of; instead, I'm open to ideas on HOW to make these thoughts realities, given the circumstances the site exists in. I've certainly reached out to others (who are in positions that could be beneficial to S&A) for assistance, but, except for 2 or 3 people who've always been very helpful and supportive as much as they are able to be (and they know who they are), as Mr Gerima said, there's a lack of collective/communal action within our community. There's that crabs-in-a-barrel mentality, I'm sorry to say. So one has to find ways to get around that while still remaining sane. But I hear you all. Much of what you say are things that I'm fully aware of, and have been trying to implement without falling apart from burnout. There's a lot more I could add about what I've learned in the 3 1/2 years I've been running this site, but I'll end this with: if anyone reading this wants to help in any way, email me. Put your words into action.

  • Nadine | August 25, 2012 8:09 AM

    "the respect that some seem desperate to get...." FROM THE MAINSTREAM (I meant to add)...

  • Nadine | August 25, 2012 8:06 AM

    Oh, and EVERYTHING Gerima is saying, falls in line with those "African Principles" I'm always going on about. Things just shouldn't be THIS DIFFICULT! If we ONLY keep Communalism in mind, then all of these issues we argue over on this site would be superfluous and we would be able to work towards creating a larger, healthy environment for our future filmmakers. Flimmakers wouldn't use our cultures as fodder for the mainstream and we wouldn't always be "sweating" Hollywood as we would have our own self-sufficient system in place (thriving). If we always just say to ourselves, how does this make this "other person" look; if we are caring to each other mentally, spiritually and physically, there would be no stopping us, and the respect that some seem desperate to get, would have been earned without selling our souls. This is where we were in the late 80s to mid-90s. It is not like it hasn't recently been done by us, as a real community, before.

  • Nadine | August 25, 2012 7:55 AM

    Before I wrote that statement, I "looked up" INDIEWIRE and checked to see if S&A was ever a recognized separate entity. Look, I made a point of getting out of the "kiss people's arses" scene, but I did so by ascending as quickly as I could (I also had some privilege so that helped), while creating my own model for production, etc... I see S&A, Women and Hollywood, and the rest, as "employees" or "departments". Especially when you are of color, as an employee, you have to go above and beyond, as a department, you have to "wow". I just don't see how another vehicle for INDIEWIRE to place their ads or trailers (important) would ever be a "bad" thing for the parent company. It would be beneficial to both entities, truly symbiotic. I could see those videos FLYING through social media, not to mention, opportunities for up and coming filmmakers and writers to get their voices heard, and lastly, another revenue stream via a live audience/Q&A who would happily pay a modest entrance fee just to support S&A (and there would be no shortage of audience members). - "WHAT THEN? What's new? What did we really learn - new? And as Jim Brown said to Richard Pryor, what you gonna do now? " - you, My point in bringing up the new media integration, was to remind S&A (and we do thank you, S&A, for all that you do), to also heed the call from their position of earned privilege. They have already grown an audience and have become a go to site for such information; given their content, video/new media integration is the next logical step. "Heavy is the head..." and S&A has the crown. They only need to pop something powerful up once a month (not too many or else their videos would become "too common" to the masses). I mean, really it wouldn't be an overwhelming task. Also if they wanted to make additional societal strides, while becoming more financially stable, S&A could supplement the once a month videos with a once-a-year conference in NYC (for the first couple of years) and then Chicago (Sergioland), LA, Atlanta, etc... a conference that would essentially pay for itself- a kind of "State of Black Film" (sponsors out of the wazoo). Gerima mentions communalism, self-preservation, self-emergence, and going against the :fall in line/status quo in order to be accepted" norm of those trying to make a name for themselves. S&A posted this interview, they could be one of the first to take that leap! I know I'm doing what I can, and I'm also looking to do more. Believe me, it is painful for me to keep bringing this video thing up to S&A because it is a hybrid of something that I planned to do, but I wanted S&A to have the idea and run with it, if possible, before some other less responsible outlet got hold of the idea, which would be disheartening. It is MUCH easier to make money (if that is important) via video than banner ads. Much more concrete, btw.

  • CareyCarey | August 25, 2012 12:30 AM

    Okay, I have to say this. This article and the corresponding comments reminds me of the boisterous shouts, adulations and AMENS which follows the preachings of a charismatic leader. Be it the eulogy of a fallen hero; hyping the crowd with stories of bravery and hope for the future, or a fiery Sunday sermon on the victories at the other side of the mountain top, when the music stops, the lights turned off and the doors closed, WHAT THEN? What's new? What did we really learn - new? And as Jim Brown said to Richard Pryor, what you gonna do now? Yes, I had to say that because it sounded soooooo good... infectious, in a good way -- BUT! ...NOW @ Nadine, quiet is keep, S & A is not the babies daddy. They cannot do ANYTHING without the consent of THEIR daddy. Seriously, do you believe S & A would do something different about this lousy comment software if they had the power to do so? I believe that answer is yes. I am suggesting that IndieWire has been in existence long before Shadow and Act hit the scene. Consequently, their (IndieWire's) mission and purpose was established long before the black folks came to town. Therefore, I don't know how S&A could convince IndieWire to embrace your suggestion. I will assume that Tambay has signed some sort of contract which could preclude him from venturing too far away from Indie's mission or "programming". Also, since advertising is the real babies daddy and once you go for the jack you can't go back, I don't know if an "independent" Shadow & Act would be financially feasible or something Tambay wants to do, or has the time and energy (let alone resources) to do so -- at this time of the game. I don't know nothing, but your suggestion is, btw, very interesting. Do I believe there's enough interest and support for what you're suggesting? Huuuummm...

  • Nadine | August 24, 2012 11:38 PM

    @JustSaying - I'm scared to death that someone else will beat them to it. I'm so busy, but have actually asked some smaller companies about the general concept/cost etc. with S&A in mind... but S&A... I hope you've separately incorporated and have been utilizing and building your business credit profile. Do that carefully, and you all will be easily able to afford a small, yet efficient in-house ProCo in a matter of months (if starting from scratch). S&A...trailblaze it! Don't wait for it to become the standard.

  • Justsaying | August 24, 2012 11:04 PM

    Keep bringing it up because it is such an important question... This advice goes for independent filmmaking and the platforms that support such cinema. S&A, what are you waiting for?... Hopefully they answer that question before others do it for them.

  • Nadine | August 24, 2012 10:52 PM

    I'm going to keep bringing this up... S&A... do you all not see yourselves transitioning into a hybrid blog/video platform? I mean... this interview...

  • Shae | August 23, 2012 12:50 PMReply

    My favorite professor while at Howard. I truly appreciate his passion and how he stays true to what he believes and the stories he wants to tell.

  • justsaying | August 21, 2012 10:43 AMReply

    Pure gold.

  • Lovesfilmnmusic | August 21, 2012 4:43 AMReply

    I love him. He's inspirational but very honest. I met him while on film school. I'll never forget him telling that "Hollywood is where Black filmmakers go to die."

    Even though many wish it wasn't true, it is.

    Got to do it for ourselves, with and for us.

  • Black magic tim | August 18, 2012 7:37 PMReply

    Haile my mentor of film in the early Howard film school days. Appreciate your wisdom, legacy and words even more now as I have also matured as a film maker. Ironically making a mark in the diaspora now too. Great man! Great motivation! I have to find you an speak te future soon . From the old black magic "bandits" as you called us! You make us proud! Black magic tim !

  • Neziah | August 18, 2012 4:19 PMReply

    Great interview. Gerima is the full embodiment of what we call "Black Cinema".

  • Theo | August 18, 2012 12:00 PMReply

    Dope! I'm thousands of dollars in debt right now paying to hear that man say these same things in person at Howard U, but the words never resonated with me as much as they just did right now for free! Such a real filmmaker and Black man. Big Ups Haile!

  • Joe Doughrity | August 18, 2012 11:29 AMReply

    An amazing interview with a legend. Can't wait for part II.

  • imahrtbrkbeat | August 18, 2012 10:52 AMReply

    Thank you so much for this article, as I, too, am looking forward to the second half of this interview. Everything that he says is true, and I am glad that someone is brave enough to say it. There is a sense of community that is virtually non-existent in my generation, especially with black filmmakers. It's sad and can be demoralizing. I hope that his worlds can send sort of wrinkle of change within the world to those who are truly wanting to succeed in film.

  • Kevin Sorrell | August 17, 2012 8:18 PMReply

    VERY much looking forward to part two! Very inspirational words and thoughts.

  • ralch | August 17, 2012 6:55 PMReply

    Eagerly awaiting the second part. I've yet to see Sankofa, but his 1976 Ethiopian film Harvest: 3000 Years is quite amazing.

  • Masha | August 17, 2012 1:01 PMReply

    I love this interview...still thinking of his words on young people not telling their stories... I thonk Pariah did that though... I pray that I can tell my story well too! It would be cool to have a interview with cross generations of black filmmakers..

  • Jasmin | August 17, 2012 3:04 PM

    Thanks Masha, and it's in the works.

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