Editor's note: This interview was originally done a year ago, and in reading it again today, I thought it was worthy of a revisit, full of nuggets of wisdom, especially given that the site has grown even more since last summer, meaning many of you haven't read it.
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.
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.
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 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?