Haile Gerima On the Need For African Filmmakers to Reflect on a Continent That ‘Lost Its Mind’

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We speak to the legendary director about the re-release of Sankofa and the trials of producing African cinema.

When Haile Gerima‘s seminal work, Sankofa, first came out in 1993, it spoke to themes of forgotten history and displacement. Now, through a 4K restoration by ARRAY Releasing, the filmmaker’s urgent, uncompromising perspective is being shared once again — this time, with a different kind of resonance, underscored by the current situation in Gerima’s home country, Ethiopia.

For Sankofa‘s original release, Gerima had to self-distribute and self-promote it with his co-producer and wife, Shirikiana Aina. Now, thanks to ARRAY, the company founded by Ava DuVernay, the film will be made more accessible to a broader audience, notably by being accessible on Netflix in various countries around the world complete with an accompanying learning companion guide. It’s a far cry from the grassroots approach Gerima and Aina had to take back in the early-90s when Sankofa struggled to find distribution and they had to, as Gerima says, “foot-walk the film across 30/40 states for weeks.”

“It’s a very powerful way of bringing the film to people that are still searching, still trying to find it. Because we don’t even have a DVD of it,” the LA-based filmmaker tells OkayAfrica. “So for me, it’s something that me and my co-producer, my wife, have never been able to do. Ava just took the responsibility, a very enormous, humongous responsibility, to get this film out like this.”

He sees it as the best thing that could have happened for the film, which DuVernay calls “boundary-pushing and transformative,” and tells the story of a Black American model who goes back in time and experiences slavery on a plantation. A pivotal figure in the LA Rebellion movement — alongside the likes of Julie Dash and Charles Burnett — Gerima pioneered a form of African cinema that acknowledged the untold roots of Black resistance.

The restoration has revived Gerima’s spirits — especially in light of the disappointments and delays that come with being an independent filmmaker. “You make a film, and then you rest for ten years; you’re resting, literally — cinematically speaking. So that itself is a wear and tear of our experience.”

It took Gerima ten years to come up with Sankofa, on the back of his previous film, Ashes and Embers. “The wear and tear is the problem for me because I’m also trying to empower my own cinematic narrative logic, and you get very fizzled in the process to get to practice your art. Because of the nature of cinema, and also the neglect of those films that are not part of the white supremacist kind of cultural industry. So you are facing all these things, and then the economic aspect of it and the technological changes. It’s very hard to keep up.”

In the canon of his work, he sees Sankofa, along with 1982’s Ashes and Embers, as his turning point; collectively they helped him express his cinematic accent. It’s one that he’s still using now, as he works on his current projects, which include a documentary about the Italian occupation of Ethiopia, as a tribute to his father, who fought as a member of the guerrilla movement.

The struggle to survive in oppressive political climates is a common through-line of Gerima’s work. Ashes and Embers explored the disenchantment of returning African-American Vietnam War vets. His debut, Harvest: 3000 Years, dealt with an Ethiopian peasant family struggling to survive under feudalism and was produced in the midst of civil war following the overthrow of Haile Selassie’s imperial rule. His most recent film, 2008’s Teza chronicled 30 years in the life of an Ethiopian man who lives through the country’s social and political crises. “That film is really speaking about how we got to where we are now,” he says. “This ethnic strife in Ethiopia is put in place in that period of the dogmatic generation that knew everything; the left-wing dogmatic generation with good intention but without education, without knowledge, without wisdom. This is where we are now.”

Gerima’s films have always stirred debate, and he’s waiting for the discussion the restored Sankofa will bring, as it did when it first released. He has always been vocal about the strife on his home continent, and Sankofa presents an opportunity to re-focus the spotlight on what he believes should be happening.

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