Ethiopian-born Haile Gerima was one of the forces behind the African cinema liberationists of the 1960s. A crucial move to the US in the 1970s led his exploration of colonialism’s legacies to new fields, making him one of the few filmmakers to carry those radical visions into a global future. Talking to UK filmmaker Onye Wambu, he breaks down and out a ‘Black cinema politic’.

Onye Wambu: If the 1960s were the awakening, the 1970s the first steps, the 1980s maturity, how would you characterise African cinema in the 1990s?

Haile Gerima: I think the problem started in the 1980s where the cinema of liberation or independence that was declared in the 1960s/70s got itself derailed. First, over a 30-year period, you would expect the multiplication of the number of filmmakers, not the deterioration. Second, even in context, I don’t think the constitution declaration of national cinema for African independence in the 1970s went beyond what it proposed. Its objective was the decolonisation of the African race, using cinema as a weapon to combat imperialist culture. In the 1980s, African cinema became a surrogate cinema for Europe, in the sense that the financial centre became Europe. The new wave of filmmakers realised their financial sponsors would have to like their movies and so they began making films for the master. The fact that the African intelligentsia never countered that by developing a coherent national cinema policy contributed to that destabilisation.

But wasn’t that post-independence dream caught up with Africa’s post-independence aspirations? In other words, the dreams were basically frustrated by incompetent governments. Filmmakers are as confused as everybody else as to what to do with Africa and in the end perhaps they become more personal rather than looking at cinema in terms of post-independence and national liberation struggles?

Basically, the intelligentsia in all endeavours of life fail to articulate the desires, frustrations and realities of the African people. But, at the same time, I don’t even think film became personal. I think it became responsive to European needs. If Europe needed exotic cinema, we supplied it to the brim. My problem is that cinema in Africa evaded independent cinema aesthetically as well as in content. And in the 1980s innovation was abandoned for imitation.

The 1970s produced a collective film discourse that contributed to a communal as well as individual transformation. In the 1980s, film became an individualistic endeavour where discourse and discussions were a crime which arrested development. We seemed to acquiesce to what is expected of us from the command centres of Europe and America. In content, I don’t know if we are articulating the masses of our people’s struggle. In fact, the masses of our people are continually retreating into fundamentalism, signalling a failure by the intelligentsia to articulate grievances.

Or magic? There is a lot more magic being practised in Nigeria at the moment.

The intelligentsia of all societies are at their best when they articulate the desires, notions, struggles, demands of the people. The intelligentsia articulated the painful struggle of the African people as they ushered in the 19th century. That resulted in the defeat of primitive physical colonialists in Africa. But then in articulating invisible neo-colonialism, which is not physical but mental, the intelligentsia failed. When a mass of people don’t know what has hit them, and then it is not articulated by those they sent to school, they retreat into fundamentalism. Then it becomes an Algerian situation, where they have to shoot we the filmmakers, we the poets, we the writers, we the singers, we the novelists, because we failed to articulate their grievances. It adds to their confusion, because most of us are now more interested in being recognised and awarded a novelty prize by Europe, because Europe has the power to create and destroy you. Africa can’t, because it doesn’t have the infrastructure, but Europe can, in the present arrangement of how movies and books are published.

Sankofa (1993)

So do you think that cinema in the 1980s ran out of steam simply because the Europeans shifted their priorities? 

They shifted their priorities, which affected our surrogate neo-colonial vanguard. We stopped being innovative, experimental and polemically feared. We compromised the people by white-washing our stories to be palatable to and digested by Europe. In the 1980s, Europe didn’t care about history, yet Africa needed to exorcise history. Therefore, who is the filmmaker going to serve? Europe says “No”, Africa says “Yes”, but has no money to back it up financially, due to there being no national policy locally and an uncaring bureaucracy. Africa’s bureaucracy is neo-colonially tied. 

But Sembène made a brave effort in making Camp Thiaroye [1988]. Some filmmakers were trying to engage with history, albeit a colonial history. 

I think Sembène is a transient messenger of that period who unleashed a very powerful tradition for young African filmmakers to begin looking and transforming their own aspect of history.

 In terms of content, you’re saying that filmmakers in the 1980s did not explore areas they could have. Stylistically, do you think that cinema has developed? Do you think that elements of our own traditional storytelling techniques along with other broad stylistic innovations have been incorporated? 

Only by imitating French cinema, as far as I see it! For example, no trained linguists are checking the range of those African techniques. There is the ‘Griot’ cinema, the ‘Calabash’ cinema, the ‘Bush’ cinema. Exotically, they sound fantastic, but concretely, African cinema has not been analysed. We have not been scrutinised categorically by those trained to look at the relationship between form and content, in the context of our cultural or national accents – because we literally discouraged truthful transformative debate in the film landscape.

Look at how even FESPACO is moving away from a film festival of debate, to a clone of the European-type, like Cannes. FESPACO came about to create a triangular relationship between audience, filmmakers and critics; to develop and scrutinise work. I would say in the 1980s, we arrested every debate. It has lost its aesthetic endeavour of finding what is in African cinema. I have not read a single manifesto that could break down ‘African cinema’ into its different national cinema aesthetic principles. By amalgamating those, we arrive at an aesthetic of what African cinema is. 

But how useful is that? There’s one particular tradition in the north, another in the east, which you described at one point as being influenced by your own father’s theatrical tradition.

So how come no research has been done into those particular traditions? For example, why not return to Sembène’s origins, to where he cut his teeth culturally, to try to develop paradigms that correspond to his narrative in film? That’s what is needed.

Do you think that there is a belief that African cinemas have an alternative narrative structure? Don’t you think that most believe that African cinema simply borrows its stylistic devices from Europe?

Well, being a global human planet, I’m sure there is room for borrowing. But the younger filmmakers need a non-aligned, non-mortgaged cultural transaction. We need to leave the clues of our aesthetic gratification. We don’t want to destroy those African Wolof, Hausa or Amharic cultural traditions ones just because Europe failed to understand them. We need to nurture and encourage them so they triumph and become part of the rainbow of visual melody for the planet. But if we all submit to Hollywoodformula cinema, cinema might as well die as a form of national expression and become a weapon of imposition by Europe and America. We may as well let them manufacture our culture and imperialise us. 

Sankofa (1993)

Are there any young filmmakers or developments which you find exciting?

I see filmmakers as being totally confused. During the 1980s, filmmaking comprised buying a book on script-writing from England or Paris which has been written for Hollywood and then simply regurgitated by the entire planet. I met many young people when I was on tour with Sankofa [1993] who were totally unhappy with Hollywood and confused. They thought that they were supposed to memorise the manual, but they didn’t know that the manual was raping their identity.

However, that confusion is good because in the 1980s there was no confusion. There was just a die-hard false confidence with morals and aesthetics. Now this 1990s confusion could begin to create a new debate; challenging filmmakers to reinvent or configurate a movement. I’ve met young people all over the world who have been left hanging in the first generation of African filmmakers. They are not that fascinated by 1980s filmmaking, but realise that these filmmakers know how to get money out of Europe, so they follow the formula. However, all this is a nice confusion. It is better to be confused than not confused.

Within Africa there is a new player – South Africa. There has been much talk about a financed African film market based in South Africa. You are somebody who understands the business of film, you proved that with Sankofa. How do you view this developing film market? Will it be a place where the South Africans or the Americans dump even more cheap material on the continent?

The development of South Africa is positive and negative. Firstly, I’m distributing Sankofa because nobody else wanted to do it and that’s the sad part. I would have been so happy to submit it to a more business trained person than myself. Having said that, I’m personally interested in starting a distribution company in South Africa because I recognise it is the most strategic location for Africa due to the technological development and transportation infrastructure. However, South Africa has the potential to be the launching pad for further neo-colonisation of Africa – movies could be shot and beamed from South Africa all the way to north Africa.

They are already planning that with satellites.

Oh yes. South Africa will be the most profound place for pan-Africanists who believe culture to be a new weapon, but also for the South African imperialist forces. The agenda the United States has to manufacture the cultural diet for the rest of the world is frightening; firstly, because of the type of diet that is being manufactured, and secondly, because no society can be self-reliant or independent if their culture is manufactured and cooked by an alien nation.

Culture was manufactured and produced in order to reflect its own inherent identity and history. We need a culture that propagates, advances and reconstructs our identity. Most African countries’ economic realities and cultural visions do not allow them to see the strategic location of South Africa. The international monetary world bank system does not place African countries as competitors in this endeavour. South Africa is going to be the centre to distribute Euro-American movies into the African heart. I see a great deal of theatre chain owners receiving bank loans to develop highly sophisticated cinemas in Africa geared toward the American garbage culture.

Different nations in Africa have really failed the artist, especially the filmmaker. The absence of coherent national cinema policies makes us look tribal. As filmmakers we should declare new independence; take a historical perspective, declare a platform and fight for space in South Africa to distribute and manufacture movies. Africa makes it easier for Hollywood to come in, make movies and distribute them. When I made a film in Ethiopia, having Europeans on the crew was like possessing a visa. In the future, Hollywood does not have to make Tarzan on the set in Hollywood, they can do it in Africa.

Sankofa (1993)

There is a backlash seen in the rise of the independent video market; for example in Ghana, by predominantly untrained filmmakers. This market does generate a lot of money.

For the past six years I have been personally noticing this all over Africa. It’s part of what I call ‘constructive chaos’. Firstly, us established filmmakers have failed audiences by not creating a cinema of reflection. Individuals who missed their mothers and fathers represented in the movies declared their independence with video. Also, major theatres continually dump American movies onto an African audience. So local exhibitors have developed their own small theatres where they can exhibit their own movies. This idea is romantic too because these theatres end up showing Rambo anyway, where it is displayed without any rating system. These types of developments are also neo-colonial in subjugating Africa, because most of those videos imitate American movies – even if they do put in a little voodoo here and there.

But what I find encouraging is that these films receive a return on the initial investment, and within five to ten years there will exist a trained group of people forming the basis of an industry. For example, very sophisticated and cultural Chinese cinemas grew up around those horrible kung-fu movies. Genre films can provide the economic basis of an industry, which then allows room for other types of films to develop. Genre films are also easily exportable.

This is a constructive element which is much needed. Those who care about the developing cinema in Ghana should embrace the video market, instead of antagonising it. To embrace it and streamline it and help it to find its own identity is a necessary step forward. What is very interesting is that anglophone Africa’s genre aesthetics have been ignored. So far francophone Africa is the beginning and end of African cinema. Maybe anglophone African cinema will emerge out of this chaos.

Finally, onto yourself: you work between the US and Africa. Sankofa actually synthesises the diaspora and the continent’s experiences. What are the advantages and the disadvantages of working that way? Do you think that we are entering a new globalised phase of African cinema, where we talk of the regions of Africa rather than the diasporic differences?

Coming to the US and developing an affinity with the African-American community nurtured me. This is one society that really breast-fed me with emotional and cultural support. I think knowing that there were African-American filmmakers in the 1940s strengthened me. This is my gift.

The advantage I have over an Ethiopian filmmaker who is in Ethiopia, or a Nigerian filmmaker who is in Nigeria, is that I have bridged my relationship with the African community here. It’s normal to be militant among African-Americans. It’s abnormal in Africa to be militant.

Through Sankofa, I now know there are audiences who would embrace our success and criticise our failure constructively. We proved that there is a hungry community. Our distribution struggle took place because we were supported by masses of African-Americans who turned out to theatres. Recently in Los Angeles, we sold out at United Arts Theatres over summer mega movies like Tales from the Hood and Die Hard with a Vengeance on weekdays. Yet the management evicted us because they didn’t like the discussions we were holding. We didn’t want the audience to think only of Sankofa. We want them to know about the many African filmmakers who they have not heard of. We want them to know about the American filmmakers that Hollywood has never allowed to make movies because they refuse to make bizarre films about bizarre Black people.

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