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Wednesday, November 24, 1999


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'Sankofa' Director Back With Film of Africa Battle
10:13 a.m. Nov 24, 1999 Eastern

By Mary Gabriel

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With the 1994 picture ``Sankofa,'' Ethiopian director Haile Gerima became something of a legend in the independent film world.

His haunting story of an African American woman's time travel back to the days of slave trading was rejected by Hollywood, which said it did not know how to market it. But Gerima did. He simply let the movie speak for itself.

He and his wife, Shirikiana Aina, rented a theater in Washington to screen the film and raise some money. Word of mouth about the powerful picture was so great that it remained at that location for 11 weeks, then traveled to 32 other U.S. cities, was shown in London for more than four months and was screened throughout Europe and Africa.

By independent film standards ``Sankofa,'' which cost about $1 million to make, was a blockbuster. Now Gerima is back, hoping his latest picture, ``Adwa: An African Victory,'' will speak as loudly and to as many audiences.

``Adwa'' debuted in the United States on Nov. 20 at the Lincoln Theater in Washington. Using oral history, song, poetry -- in the Amharic language with subtitles -- and period prints to enhance footage shot in Ethiopia, Gerima creates a mellifluous chant recounting an 1896 Ethiopian victory over Italian troops that inspired the Pan-African and nationalist movements, and later the American civil rights movement.

His method is not unlike that of an Ethiopian warrior who, returning from battle, sings the report of his fight to the emperor. ``He can't talk about his deeds per se. He raps it,'' Gerima said of the warrior tradition. ``In a poetic form all his own, he composed his deeds and chanted that in front of a king when the war was finally over.''


In ``Sankofa,'' an Akan word that means ``we must go back and reclaim the past so we can move forward,'' Gerima showed audiences the horror of the slave past. In ``Adwa'' he describes a distant triumph when an African nation, largely armed with spears and knives, defeated a well-equipped and organized Italian military bent on colonization.

The ``Adwa'' story is one Gerima, born in Gondor, Ethiopia, in 1946, learned from his father.

``I didn't pay attention to it much, I was too busy studying European and American history, and Adwa got banished into the back of my reality,'' said Gerima, who studied at the University of California at Los Angeles and is now a professor of film at Howard University in Washington.

But in 1996, on its 100th anniversary, Gerima decided to make a movie about the battle, which he remembered, ironically, after reading about it in writings by African Americans.

With the help of a grant from German television and money from his own Negodgwad Productions and Mypheduh Films distribution company, he went to Ethiopia to find the elders who could tell him the story that lived in their memory but had been lost to the history books.

``I call it 'Sankofating' back to 'Adwa.' I'm utilizing that means of expression in my own field of cinema by bringing about things that I have lost or bringing about things that are on the back of the shelf,'' he said.


The battle of Adwa began on March 1, 1896, with more than 50,000 Ethiopian men and women on donkeys and mules facing nearly 20,000 well-armed Italian troops on horseback.

One press account at the time said that by nightfall the Italian army ``no longer existed.'' News of the outcome of the battle at Adwa was transmitted worldwide. There were other resistance movements in Africa but no victory on the continent before Adwa had culminated in independence.

``It was a major disaster for people who felt that Europeans were civilized and that they would triumph all over the world,'' Gerima said, adding that after a brief flurry of press reports news of the battle was suppressed.

``They didn't want most of the colonies to really know this information and it got lost in the process.''

Gerima set out to find it. Not in the history books, which, when they mentioned Adwa at all, gave a European interpretation of the story. And not on historic maps, which had been drawn by Italians. Gerima went to the towns and villages, along the route from Addis Ababa to Adwa that Ethiopian Emperor Menelik took before the battle, to speak with anyone who remembered.

``Anybody could do the film,'' he said. ``I felt I should do it how it was remembered, from the song to the chant to the literal remembrance. What I felt for Adwa, to make the mountains and roads speak, I needed to stop wherever I could and look for old people.''

The film begins with the question, ``Why didn't you come earlier if you wanted to learn history?''

Gerima said that was the question an old man posed when he asked about Adwa. ``He told me he was too old, I should have come earlier,'' Gerima said. Luckily, the filmmaker did find other elders who were not too old to recount the story.

He collected 20 hours of interviews for the 90-minute film -- from elders whose fathers and mothers fought at Adwa to children who still sang the proud songs of an African people who retained their independence while their neighbors succumbed to European armies.

``What we were finding was different folkloric forms of remembrance. It's amazing how precisely it's transmitted with a melody,'' said Gerima, whose film leaves a viewer with that very impression of a song.

Now, back in the United States after debuting ``Adwa'' at the Venice Film Festival, he is left to knock on doors and rent theaters in the hope its sweet strains will reach his audience. ''With a documentary it will be an uphill battle,'' he admitted.

Gerima could try to interest Hollywood again but he said he is not willing to compromise the stories he is committed to doing. ``It's not easy, what I do. It takes me years. But this weekend in Los Angeles I sat down with a (filmmaker) friend who said they cannot do the story they want to do. The stories are always compromised,'' he said.

``In some ways black filmmakers have a great deal of anxiety,'' he added. ``I would have had a heart attack.''

Copyright 1999 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved. Republication and redistribution of Reuters content is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Reuters. Reuters shall not be liable for any errors or delays in the content, or for any actions taken in reliance thereon.Reuters News Service
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